Field-based description of rhyolite lava flows of the Calico Hills Formation, Nevada National Security Site, Nevada

Scientific Investigations Report 2015-5022
Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office, Office of Environmental Management under Interagency Agreement, DE-NA0001654/004
By:  and 



Contaminants introduced into the subsurface of Pahute Mesa, Nevada National Security Site, by underground nuclear testing are of concern to the U.S. Department of Energy and regulators responsible for protecting human health and safety. The potential for contaminant movement away from the underground test areas at Pahute Mesa and into the accessible environment is greatest by groundwater transport through fractured volcanic rocks. The 12.9 Ma (mega-annums, million years) Calico Hills Formation, which consists of a mixture of rhyolite lava flows and intercalated nonwelded and bedded tuff and pyroclastic flow deposits, occurs in two areas of the Nevada National Security Site. One area is north of the Rainier Mesa caldera, buried beneath Pahute Mesa, and serves as a heterogeneous volcanic-rock aquifer but is only available to study through drilling and is not described in this report. A second accumulation of the formation is south of the Rainier Mesa caldera and is exposed in outcrop along the western boundary of the Nevada National Security Site at the Calico Hills near Yucca Mountain. These outcrops expose in three dimensions an interlayered sequence of tuff and lava flows similar to those intercepted in the subsurface beneath Pahute Mesa. Field description and geologic mapping of these exposures described lithostratigraphic variations within lava flows and assisted in, or at least corroborated, conceptualization of the rhyolite lava-bearing parts of the formation.

In the area south of the Rainier Mesa caldera, surface exposures and nearby subsurface equivalents were studied through compilation of geologic maps, new field mapping, subsurface information from boreholes, and data extracted from three-dimensional geologic framework models. Rhyolite lava flows within the Calico Hills Formation are described in terms of lithostratigraphic variations established for rhyolite lava flows in other volcanic fields. In general, the flows consist of a core of crystallized, flow-banded rhyolite lava, surrounded by a carapace of obsidian, commonly mantled by blocky, pumiceous rhyolite lava and flow breccia. Rhyolite lava flows were correlated and mapped on the basis of distinctive appearance in outcrop, stratigraphic sequence, and the presence of stratigraphic markers. Pyroclastic deposits that are spatially, temporally, and genetically related to the rhyolite lava flows consist of a series of intercalated pyroclastic flows, bedded ash-fall, and reworked tuff that have varying amounts of pumice and volcanic rock clasts.

In the area south of the Rainier Mesa caldera, surface and subsurface geologic data are combined to interpret the overall thickness of the Calico Hills Formation and the proportion of lava flow lithology across the study area. The formation is at least 500 meters (m) thick and contains the greatest proportion of rhyolite lava flow to the northeast of Yucca Mountain in the lower part of Fortymile Canyon. The formation thins to the south and southwest where it is between 50 and 200 m thick beneath Yucca Mountain and contains no rhyolite lavas. Geologic mapping and field-based correlation of individual lava flows allow for the interpretation of the thickness and extent of specific flows and the location of their source areas. The most extensive flows have widths from 2 to 3 kilometers (km) and lengths of at least 5–6 km. Lava flow thickness varies from 150 to 250 m above interpreted source vents to between 30 and 80 m in more distal locations. Rhyolite lavas have length-to-height ratios of 10:1 or greater and, in one instance, a length-to-width ratio of 2:1 or greater, implying a tongue-shaped geometry instead of circular domes or tabular bodies. Although geologic mapping did not identify any physical feature that could be positively identified as a vent, lava flow thickness and the size of clasts in subjacent pyroclastic deposits suggest that primary vent areas for at least some of the flows in the study area are on the east side of Fortymile Canyon, to the northeast of Yucca Mountain.

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Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Field-based description of rhyolite lava flows of the Calico Hills Formation, Nevada National Security Site, Nevada
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2015-5022
DOI 10.3133/sir20155022
Year Published 2015
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center
Description Report: v, 36 p.; Appendix
Country United States
State Nevada
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) Y
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