Correlating weathered, microphenocryst-rich, intermediate tephra: An approach combining bulk and single shard analyses from the Lepué Tephra, Chile and Argentina

Nick Pearce, Brent V. Alloway, Craig Wickham

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Chemical correlation of intermediate tephra deposits using microanalytical data is problematic because (i) the phenocryst content of their component glass shards affects major and trace element analyses (ii) bulk chemistry can be affected by variations in mineral/lithic components across the fall-out, and (iii) weathering readily alters their composition. All of these problems affect the Lepué Tephra, a prominent marker horizon extensively distributed across the Los Lagos Region of Chile and the Chile-Argentina frontier in north-western Patagonia, which was erupted from Volcán Michinmahuida at c. 11000 cal a BP. Weathering of terrestrial cover-bed deposits in this hyper-humid depositional environment leaves only a few occurrences of the tephra which contain fresh glass shards for microbeam analysis, but their highly phenocrystic nature makes data interpretation difficult. Equally, leaching of mobile elements during weathering causes considerable compositional changes across the fall-out region and is evident in bulk sample analyses. Elements such as the REE and Y, generally regarded as immobile, show marked mobility. Within the REE, the development of “M-type” tetrad effects and positive Ce-anomalies result from a combination of dissolution/leaching of the REE from the bulk sample and retention by co-precipitation of Ce4+ on Fe-oxyhydroxides in this high-rainfall, hyper-humid, oxic environment. Chemical correlation of the Lepué Tephra is thus not straightforward. However, by careful consideration of the data for a limited range of elements, chemical correlation can be achieved using elements which (i) are incompatible in magmatic systems (and thus their ratios are unaffected by the presence of phenocrysts in single glass shard microbeam analysis) and (ii) are not mobilised in these weathering conditions. These elements are Zr, Hf, Nb, Ta and Th. Their ratios (i) allow for the comparison of single grain and bulk sample analyses, extending the geographic range over which data can be compared for the Lepué Tephra, (ii) provide a robust chemical correlation of this weathered, intermediate tephra deposit, enabling correlation even where elements traditionally considered immobile (REE, Y, and U) have been significantly mobilised, and (iii) allow the Lepué Tephra to be distinguished from other local tephra deposits. This combined analytical approach enables tephras that have been variably weathered to become useful marker beds over much wider geographical areas than previously feasible, thereby enhancing their tephrochronological application in Quaternary research
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)71-82
Number of pages12
JournalQuaternary International
Early online date19 Jan 2019
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2019


  • Immobile elements
  • Incompatible elements
  • Lepué Tephra
  • REE geochemistry
  • REE tetrad effect
  • Tephra correlation
  • Tephrochronology


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