Regolith formation and chemical weathering are important Critical Zone processes and are responsible for soil development. Despite their fundamental importance, we still lack effective tools to quantify these processes. U-series isotopes offer a powerful geochronometer to quantify regolith production rates and weathering duration. This is largely due to improvements in analytical methods and mathematical approaches made over the last decade in measuring Useries isotopes and interpreting their fractionation during chemical weathering. Here, we present a systematic study of U-series isotopes (238U, 234U and 230Th) in shale-derived soils from five small watersheds in the eastern USA to understand the rates of regolith formation as a function of climate. The selected watersheds in Pennsylvania, Virginia,
Tennessee, Alabama, and Puerto Rico are part of the shale transect established as part of the Susquehanna Shale Hills Critical Zone Observatory.
We first measured U-series isotopes in six regolith profiles from two planar hill-slopes (north vs. south) within the Shale Hills CZO in central PA to evaluate the role of aspect on regolith formation in the small watershed. All regolith samples display significant U-series disequilibrium. These U-series disequilibrium values are explained by two processes acting on U-series isotopes during weathering: a loss of 234U, 238U, and 230Th during water-rock interactions and a gain from circulating soil water and/or downslope particle transport. Regolith production rates and weathering durations were calculated with a U-series isotope mass balance model. On the southern (shaded) slope, regolith production rates decrease systematically with increasing soil thickness and distance from the ridge: from ~44.5 m/Myr at the ridge top to ~15.0 m/Myr at the valley floor. Durations of chemical weathering within these profiles range from 6.7 kyr to 44.7 kyr, increasing from the ridge to the valley floor. The regolith profiles on the northern (sunfacing)
slope are characterized by faster regolith production rates (~40-52 m/Myr) and shorter durations of chemical weathering in the regolith zone (~12-16 kyr). These results reveal the important control of hill-slope aspect on the rate of regolith formation at Shale Hills: we hypothesize that aspect creates microclimates that in turn affect slope stability and erosion, and set different regolith residence times. The difference in microclimate is inferred to have been important before and during the periglacial period that occurred at Shale Hills ~15 ka.
Our ongoing investigation of the four additional gray shale watersheds in VA, TN, AL, and PR provides information on shale weathering along a climosequence at a much larger continental scale. Only ridge top sites were selected to limit the aspect effect. This systematic study will enable us to quantitatively model regolith formation and landscape development on gray shales and to consider the effects of ongoing climate change.
Ma, L., Chabaux, F.J., Dere, A.L., White, T., Jin, L., Brantley, S.L. (2012): Using U-series isotopes to quantify regolith formation and chemical weathering rates along a climosequence associated with the Susquehanna Shale Hills Critical Zone Observatory (Invited). AGU Annual Fall Conference Proceedings.
This Paper/Book acknowledges NSF CZO grant support.