Although regolith, the mantle of physically, chemically, and biologically altered material overlying bedrock, covers much of Earth's continents, the rates and mechanisms of regolith formation are not well quantified. Without this knowledge, predictions of the availability of soil to sustain Earth's growing population are problematic. To quantify the influence of climate on regolith formation, a transect of study sites has been established on the same lithology - Silurian shale - along a climatic gradient in the northern hemisphere as part of the Susquehanna Shale Hills Critical Zone Observatory, Pennsylvania, USA. The climate gradient is bounded by a cold/wet end member in Wales and a warm/wet end member in Puerto Rico; in between, mean annual temperature (MAT) and mean annual precipitation (MAP) increase to the south through New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee and Alabama. The site in Puerto Rico does not lie on the same shale formation as the Appalachian sites but is similar in composition. Soils and rocks were sampled at geomorphologically similar ridgetop sites to compare and model shale weathering along the transect. Focusing on the low-concentration, non-nutrient element Na, we observe that the extent and depth of Na depletion is greater where mean annual temperature (MAT) and precipitation (MAP) are higher. Na depletion, a proxy for feldspar weathering, is the deepest reaction documented in the augerable soil profiles. This may therefore be the reaction that initiates the transformation of high bulk-density bedrock to regolith of low bulk density. Based on the shale chemistry along the transect, the time-integrated Na release rate (QNa) increases exponentially as a function of MAT and linearly with MAP. NY, the only site with shale-till parent material, is characterized by a QNa that is 18 times faster than PA, an observation which is attributed to the increased surface area of minerals due to grinding of the glacier and kinetically limited weathering in the north. A calculated apparent Arrhenius-type temperature dependence across the transect (excluding NY) for the dissolution of feldspar (Na depletion) is 99±15kJmol-1, a value similar to field-measured values of the activation energy (14-109kJmol-1) or laboratory-measured values of the enthalpy of the albite reaction (79.8kJmol-1). Observations from this transect document that weathering losses of Na from Silurian shale can be understood with models of regolith formation based on chemical and physical factors such that weathering progresses from kinetically limited sites (Wales to AL) to the transport-limited site in Puerto Rico. Significant advances in our ability to predict regolith formation will be made as we apply more quantitative models to such transect studies on shales and other rocks types.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Geochemistry and Petrology