Hydrologic Regulation of Chemical Weathering and the Geologic Carbon Cycle

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Science  28 Mar 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6178, pp. 1502-1504
DOI: 10.1126/science.1250770

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Hydrologic Thermostat

When the silicate-rich rocks and minerals in Earth's interior are uplifted and exposed to Earth's surface, they dissolve. On a geologic time scale, this chemical weathering process ultimately creates a sink for CO2, thereby influencing global temperatures. Maher and Chamberlain (p. 1502, published online 13 March) developed a theoretical framework for understanding the fundamental relationship between weathering, tectonics, and the geological carbon cycle. The analysis suggests that temperature plays less of a role in regulating chemical weathering—which is dependent on the balance of tectonic uplift and erosion—than runoff on continents and the time that silicate minerals are exposed to fluids. Plateaus in weathering fluxes with increasing runoff or temperature allows for the stabilization of atmospheric CO2 despite high rates of uplift or erosion.


Earth’s temperature is thought to be regulated by a negative feedback between atmospheric CO2 levels and chemical weathering of silicate rocks that operates over million-year time scales. To explain variations in the strength of the weathering feedback, we present a model for silicate weathering that regulates climatic and tectonic forcing through hydrologic processes and imposes a thermodynamic limit on weathering fluxes, based on the physical and chemical properties of river basins. Climate regulation by silicate weathering is thus strongest when global topography is elevated, similar to the situation today, and lowest when global topography is more subdued, allowing planetary temperatures to vary depending on the global distribution of topography and mountain belts, even in the absence of appreciable changes in CO2 degassing rates.

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