Chemical weathering as a mechanism for the climatic control of bedrock river incision


Feedbacks between climate, erosion and tectonics influence the rates of chemical weathering reactions1,2, which can consume atmospheric CO2 and modulate global climate3,4. However, quantitative predictions for the coupling of these feedbacks are limited because the specific mechanisms by which climate controls erosion are poorly understood. Here we show that climate-dependent chemical weathering controls the erodibility of bedrock-floored rivers across a rainfall gradient on the Big Island of Hawai‘i. Field data demonstrate that the physical strength of bedrock in streambeds varies with the degree of chemical weathering, which increases systematically with local rainfall rate. We find that incorporating the quantified relationships between local rainfall and erodibility into a commonly used river incision model is necessary to predict the rates and patterns of downcutting of these rivers. In contrast to using only precipitation-dependent river discharge to explain the climatic control of bedrock river incision5,6, the mechanism of chemical weathering can explain strong coupling between local climate and river incision.

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Figure 1: Field area, measurement locations and study channels.
Figure 2: Bedrock chemistry as a function of local MAP.
Figure 3: Characterization of controls on rock strength.


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This work was supported by NSF grant EAR-1024982 to J.P.L.J., NSF grant EAR-1025055 and a Tulane Research Enhancement grant to N.M.G., and an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to B.P.M. Airborne LiDAR was acquired by NCALM through a Seed grant to B.P.M. We thank J. Pipan for his work, H. Rowe for his XRF equipment, and landowners (Kohala Institute at ‘Iole, Ponoholo Ranch, and Parker Ranch) for access, support and assistance. We also thank D. Mohrig and D. Breecker for reviews, and L. Olinde, J. Han, G. Fischer, J. Adams, I. Yokelson, and K. Kirchner for assistance in the field.

Author information




J.P.L.J. and N.M.G. conceived the project. B.P.M. conducted the fieldwork, laboratory work, and data analysis. L.S.S. contributed to the analysis and incorporation of rock strength data. B.P.M. wrote the manuscript with interpretations and contributions from all authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Brendan P. Murphy.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Evaluation of temperature effects on Kohala weathering rates.

a, Fresh basalt weathering rates derived from measurements of modern soil weathering rates across the Kohala Peninsula46 (filled black circles) and a best-fit power law regression to the data as a function of MAP (blue line; R2 = 0.96). b, Variation of mean annual temperature, MAT (red dashed line), and MAP (blue dashed line) with elevation across the leeward side of the Kohala Peninsula21. Using the reported MAT from the coast and highest elevations of Kohala, we calculate an environmental lapse rate of 5.3 °C km−1. c, Using the MAP and MAT relations in b, the measured weathering rates (filled black circles) and the best-fit relation (blue line) are replotted as a function of MAT. Using the best-fit estimate at 24 °C as a reference rate, the effect of temperature on the weathering rate was then estimated using the Arrhenius equation (red line). A threefold decrease in weathering rate is expected based on temperature alone, however measured weathering rates increase over three orders of magnitude (blue line). The measured weathering rates (filled black circles) should integrate any possible temperature effects, yet the trends are discordant, demonstrating that temperature is not a first-order control on chemical weathering rates in Kohala.

Extended Data Figure 2 Variation of average dry bulk density with local MAP.

Filled black circles represent data from sites of Hawi basalt, and open black triangles represent data from sites of Pololu basalt, with error bars showing standard error. The plotted regression is for sites in Hawi basalt (R2 = 0.82, p < 0.001), in which bulk density decreases 20% with a 2-m increase in local MAP.

Extended Data Table 1 Average fractional mass loss, τ and MAP
Extended Data Table 2 Dry bulk density, MAP and incision rate
Extended Data Table 3 Rock mechanical properties, MAP and incision rate
Extended Data Table 4 Time-averaged incision rates across the 12 field sites
Extended Data Table 5 Multiple linear regressions of stream longitudinal profiles

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Murphy, B., Johnson, J., Gasparini, N. et al. Chemical weathering as a mechanism for the climatic control of bedrock river incision. Nature 532, 223–227 (2016).

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