The critical role of climate and saprolite weathering in landscape evolution

Jean L. Dixon, Arjun Heimsath, Ronald Amundson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

215 Scopus citations


Landscapes evolve in response to external forces, such as tectonics and climate, that influence surface processes of erosion and weathering. Internal feedbacks between erosion and weathering also play an integral role in regulating the landscapes response. Our understanding of these internal and external feedbacks is limited to a handful of field-based studies, only a few of which have explicitly examined saprolite weathering. Here, we report rates of erosion and weathering in saprolite and soil to quantify how climate influences denudation, by focusing on an elevation transect in the western Sierra Nevada Mountains, California. We use an adapted mass balance approach and couple soil-production rates from the cosmogenic radionuclide (CRN) 10Be with zirconium concentrations in rock, saprolite and soil. Our approach includes deep saprolite weathering and suggests that previous studies may have underestimated denudation rates across similar landscapes. Along the studied climate gradient, chemical weathering rates peak at middle elevations (1200-2000 m), averaging 112·3 ± 9·7 t km-2 y-1 compared to high and low elevation sites (46·8 ± 5·2 t km-2 y-1). Measured weathering rates follow similar patterns with climate as those of predicted silica fluxes, modeled using an Arrhenius temperature relationship and a linear relationship between flux and precipitation. Furthermore, chemical weathering and erosion are tightly correlated across our sites, and physical erosion rates increase with both saprolite weathering rates and intensity. Unexpectedly, saprolite and soil weathering intensities are inversely related, such that more weathered saprolites are overlain by weakly weathered soils. These data quantify exciting links between climate, weathering and erosion, and together suggest that climate controls chemical weathering via temperature and moisture control on chemical reaction rates. Our results also suggest that saprolite weathering reduces bedrock coherence, leading to faster rates of soil transport that, in turn, decrease material residence times in the soil column and limit soil weathering.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1507-1521
Number of pages15
JournalEarth Surface Processes and Landforms
Issue number11
StatePublished - Sep 15 2009


  • Chemical weathering
  • Climate
  • Cosmogenic radionuclides
  • Erosion
  • Saprolite

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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