Letter | Published:

Sandstone landforms shaped by negative feedback between stress and erosion

Nature Geoscience volume 7, pages 597601 (2014) | Download Citation


Weathering and erosion of sandstone produces unique landforms1,2 such as arches, alcoves, pedestal rocks and pillars. Gravity-induced stresses have been assumed to not play a role in landform preservation3 and to instead increase weathering rates4,5. Here we show that increased stress within a landform as a result of vertical loading reduces weathering and erosion rates, using laboratory experiments and numerical modelling. We find that when a cube of locked sand exposed to weathering and erosion processes is experimentally subjected to a sufficiently low vertical stress, the vertical sides of the cube progressively disintegrate into individual grains. As the cross-sectional area under the loading decreases, the vertical stress increases until a critical value is reached. At this threshold, fabric interlocking of sand grains causes the granular sediment to behave like a strong, rock-like material, and the remaining load-bearing pillar or pedestal landform is resistant to further erosion. Our experiments are able to reproduce other natural shapes including arches, alcoves and multiple pillars when planar discontinuities, such as bedding planes or fractures, are present. Numerical modelling demonstrates that the stress field is modified by discontinuities to make a variety of shapes stable under fabric interlocking, owing to the negative feedback between stress and erosion. We conclude that the stress field is the primary control of the shape evolution of sandstone landforms.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from $8.99

All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    , & Sandstone Landforms (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009).

  2. 2.

    & Sandstone weathering: A century of research and innovation. Geomorphology 67, 229–253 (2005).

  3. 3.

    Scale issues in weathering studies. Geomorphology 41, 63–72 (2001).

  4. 4.

    & Erosional and stress-induced landforms features on steep slopes. Z. Geomorph. Suppl. 8, 38–49 (1973).

  5. 5.

    & Stress-induced weathering of rock masses. Eclogae Geol. Helv. 62, 401–415 (1969).

  6. 6.

    & Weathering of sandstone by the combined action of frost and salt. Earth Surf. Process. Landf. 6, 1–9 (1981).

  7. 7.

    & Sapping processes and the development of theater-headed valley networks on the Colorado Plateau. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 96, 203–217 (1985).

  8. 8.

    , & Variable weathering response in sandstone: Factors controlling decay sequences. Earth Surf. Process. Landf. 31, 715–735 (2006).

  9. 9.

    Biogenic origin of coastal honeycomb weathering. Earth Surf. Process. Landf. 35, 424–434 (2010).

  10. 10.

    & Role of fracture location in arch formation, Arches National Park, Utah. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 106, 879–891 (1994).

  11. 11.

    & Case hardening of sandstone. Geology 10, 520–523 (1982).

  12. 12.

    & Capillary moisture flow and the origin of cavernous weathering in dolerites of Bull Pass, Antarctica. Geology 15, 151–154 (1987).

  13. 13.

    & Origin of honeycombs and related weathering forms in Oligocene Macigno Sandstone, Tuscan coast near Livorno, Italy. Earth Surf. Process. Landf. 29, 713–735 (2004).

  14. 14.

    , & How does sodium sulfate crystallize? Implications for the decay and testing of building materials. Cem. Concr. Res. 30, 1527–1534 (2000).

  15. 15.

    , , & Salt-weathering simulations under hot desert conditions: Agents of enlightenment or perpetuators of preconceptions? Geomorphology 67, 211–227 (2005).

  16. 16.

    & Salt crystallisation in porous sandstone. Environ. Geol. 52, 225–249 (2007).

  17. 17.

    Technical note 2. The behaviour of two- and three-dimensional model rock slopes. Q. J. Eng. Geol. 8, 67–72 (1974).

  18. 18.

    Stability of single openings in horizontally bedded rock. Eng. Geol. 5, 5–71 (1971).

  19. 19.

    Mechanical disintegration of the Navajo sandstone in Zion Canyon, Utah. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 81, 2799–2806 (1970).

  20. 20.

    Gravity and orientated pressure as factors controlling ‘honeycomb weathering’ of the Cretaceous castellated sandstones (Northern Bohemia, Czech Republic). Bull. Czech Geol. Surv. 76, 217–226 (2001).

  21. 21.

    Itacolumites: The flexible sandstones. Q. J. Eng. Geol. 13, 119–128 (1980).

  22. 22.

    , , , & What keeps sandcastles standing? Nature 387, 765 (1997).

  23. 23.

    & Locked sands. Q. J. Eng. Geol. 12, 117–131 (1979).

  24. 24.

    & Geotechnical properties of weak sandstones. Geotechnique 36, 79–94 (1986).

  25. 25.

    , , & Wetting weakening of tertiary sandstones-microscopic mechanism. Environ. Geol. 48, 265–275 (2005).

  26. 26.

    , & Characterization of locked sand from Northeastern Alberta. Geotech. Test. J. 31, 480–489 (2008).

  27. 27.

    & Geotechnical properties of cemented sands in steep slopes. J. Geotech. Geoenviron. Eng. 135, 1359–1366 (2009).

  28. 28.

    & Triaxial tests on an unbonded locked sand. Geotechnique 54, 107–115 (2004).

  29. 29.

    et al. Fast evolving conduits in clay-bonded sandstone: Characterization, erosion processes and significance for origin of sandstone landforms. Geomorphology 177–178, 178–193 (2012).

  30. 30.

    Brinkgreve, R. B. J. et al. (eds) PLAXIS Finite Element Code for Soil and Rock Analyses PLAXIS-2D Version 8, Reference Manual (DUT, 2004)

Download references


We acknowledge the help of G.T. Carlig and D. Tingey for assistance with sampling and measurements in the USA and J. Valek and J. Bohac for UCS and triaxial measurements. We also thank M. Audy, M. Sluka, V. Cilek and J. Adamovic for providing photographs and V. Erban, L. Palatinus, A.N. Palmer, K. Zak, J. Mls and T. Fischer for valuable comments on this manuscript. The rain simulator was provided by VUMOP, Prague. This research was funded by the Grant Agency of Charles University (GAUK No. 380511), Czech Science Foundation (GA CR No. 13-28040S), the research plan No. RVO 67985831 and MEYS grant LK21303. The research was also supported in part by the Hintze Fund at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA.

Author information


  1. Faculty of Science, Charles University in Prague, Albertov 6, 128 43 Prague 2, Czech Republic

    • Jiri Bruthans
    • , Jan Soukup
    • , Jana Vaculikova
    • , David Masin
    • , Gunther Kletetschka
    •  & Jaroslav Rihosek
  2. Institute of Geology, AS CR, v. v. i., Rozvojova 269, 165 00 Prague 6, Czech Republic

    • Michal Filippi
    •  & Gunther Kletetschka
  3. Institute of Rock Structure and Mechanics, AS CR, v. v. i., V Holesovickach 41, 182 09 Prague 8, Czech Republic

    • Jana Schweigstillova
  4. Brigham Young University, Department of Geosciences, Provo, Utah 84602, USA

    • Alan L. Mayo


  1. Search for Jiri Bruthans in:

  2. Search for Jan Soukup in:

  3. Search for Jana Vaculikova in:

  4. Search for Michal Filippi in:

  5. Search for Jana Schweigstillova in:

  6. Search for Alan L. Mayo in:

  7. Search for David Masin in:

  8. Search for Gunther Kletetschka in:

  9. Search for Jaroslav Rihosek in:


J.B. proposed the negative feedback mechanism idea, managed all activities and wrote most of the manuscript. J. Soukup and J.V. performed most of the field and laboratory effort. M.F. carried out part of the physical modelling and contributed to the preparation and writing of the manuscript. J. Schweigstillova performed the frost weathering experiments, studied microstructure and contributed to manuscript preparation. D.M. introduced the soil mechanics perspective, developed the material model and contributed to manuscript writing. A.L.M. and G.K. contributed to manuscript preparation and writing. J.R. carried out the triaxial tests and numerical modelling.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jiri Bruthans.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Information

About this article

Publication history