How the capacity of bedrock to collect dust and produce soil affects phosphorus bioavailability in the northern Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania

Virginia Marcon, Beth Hoagland, Xin Gu, Wenjing Liu, Jason Kaye, Roman A. DiBiase, Susan L. Brantley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


More above-ground biomass (kg m−2) grows in the northern Appalachian Mountains (USA) in forests on shale than on sandstone at all landscape positions other than ridgetops. This has been tentatively attributed to physical (rather than chemical) attributes of the substrates, such as elevation, particle size, and water capacity. However, shales have generally similar phosphorus (P) concentrations to sandstones and, in the Valley and Ridge province, they erode more quickly. This led us to hypothesize that faster replenishment of the lithogenic nutrient P in shale soils through erosion + soil production could instead control the differences in biomass. To test this, soils and foliage from 10 sites on shales and sandstones in the northern Appalachians from roughly the same elevation and aspect were analysed. We discovered that, when controlling for location, concentrations of bioavailable P in soils and P in foliage were higher and P resorbed from senescing red oak leaves was lower on slower-eroding sandstone than on faster-eroding shale. Lower resorption generally can be attributed to lower P limitation for trees. Further investigation of weathering and erosion on one of the sandstone–shale pairs within a larger, paired watershed study revealed that the differences in P concentrations in biomass and foliage between lithologies likely developed because sandstones act as ‘collectors’ that trap nutrients from residual and exogenous sources, while shales erode quickly and thus promote production of soil from bedrock that releases P to ecosystems. We concluded that the combined effects of differential rates of dust collection and erosion results in roughly equal biomass growing on sandstone and shale ridgetops. This work emphasizes the balance between a landscape's capacity to collect dust versus produce soil in controlling bioavailability of nutrients.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2807-2823
Number of pages17
JournalEarth Surface Processes and Landforms
Issue number14
StatePublished - Nov 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

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


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