Geophysical imaging reveals topographic stress control of bedrock weathering

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Science  30 Oct 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6260, pp. 534-538
DOI: 10.1126/science.aab2210

Bedrock weathering runs to the hills

Fractures in bedrock drive the breakdown of rock into soil. Soil makes observations of bedrock processes challenging. St. Clair et al. combined a three-dimensional stress model with geophysical measurements to show that bedrock erosion rates mirror changes in topography (see the Perspective by Anderson). Seismic reflection and electromagnetic profiles allowed mapping of the bedrock fracture density. The profiles mirror changes in surface elevation and thus provide a way to study the critical zone between rock and soil.

Science, this issue p. 534; see also p. 506


Bedrock fracture systems facilitate weathering, allowing fresh mineral surfaces to interact with corrosive waters and biota from Earth’s surface, while simultaneously promoting drainage of chemically equilibrated fluids. We show that topographic perturbations to regional stress fields explain bedrock fracture distributions, as revealed by seismic velocity and electrical resistivity surveys from three landscapes. The base of the fracture-rich zone mirrors surface topography where the ratio of horizontal compressive tectonic stresses to near-surface gravitational stresses is relatively large, and it parallels the surface topography where the ratio is relatively small. Three-dimensional stress calculations predict these results, suggesting that tectonic stresses interact with topography to influence bedrock disaggregation, groundwater flow, chemical weathering, and the depth of the “critical zone” in which many biogeochemical processes occur.

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