Letter | Published:

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

Nature volume 532, pages 223227 (14 April 2016) | Download Citation

Abstract

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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Acknowledgements

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.

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Affiliations

  1. Department of Geological Sciences, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas 78712, USA

    • Brendan P. Murphy
    •  & Joel P. L. Johnson
  2. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana 70118, USA

    • Nicole M. Gasparini
  3. Department of Earth and Climate Sciences, San Francisco State University, San Francisco, California 94132, USA

    • Leonard S. Sklar

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Contributions

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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Brendan P. Murphy.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature17449

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