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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Open Access articles citing this article.
Acta Geophysica Open Access 23 January 2020
Scientific Reports Open Access 05 February 2018
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.90 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Riebe, C. S., Kirchner, J. W. & Finkel, R. C. Erosional and climatic effects on long-term chemical weathering rates in granitic landscapes spanning diverse climate regimes. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 224, 547–562 (2004)
Dixon, J. L., Hartshorn, A. S., Heimsath, A. M., DiBiase, R. A. & Whipple, K. X. Chemical weathering response to tectonic forcing: a soils perspective from the San Gabriel Mountains, California. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 323–324, 40–49 (2012)
Wallmann, K. Controls on the Cretaceous and Cenozoic evolution of seawater composition, atmospheric CO2 and climate. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 65, 3005–3025 (2001)
Gaillardet, J., Dupré, B., Louvat, P. & Allegre, C. Global silicate weathering and CO2 consumption rates deduced from the chemistry of large rivers. Chem. Geol. 159, 3–30 (1999)
Roe, G. H., Montgomery, D. R. & Hallet, B. Effects of orographic precipitation variations on the concavity of steady-state river profiles. Geology 30, 143–146 (2002)
Ferrier, K. L., Huppert, K. L. & Perron, J. T. Climatic control of bedrock river incision. Nature 496, 206–209 (2013)
Koons, P. O. The topographic evolution of collisional mountain belts: a numerical look at the Southern Alps, New Zealand. Am. J. Sci. 289, 1041–1069 (1989)
Beaumont, C., Fullsack, P. & Hamilton, J. in Thrust Tectonics (ed. McClay, K. R. ) 1–18 (Chapman and Hall, 1992)
Willett, S. D. Orogeny and orography: the effects of erosion on the structure of mountain belts. J. Geophys. Res. 104, 28957–28981 (1999)
Reiners, P. W., Ehlers, T. A., Mitchell, S. G. & Montgomery, D. R. Coupled spatial variations in precipitation and long-term erosion rates along the Washington Cascades. Nature 426, 645–647 (2003)
Moon, S. et al. Climatic control of denudation in the deglaciated landscape of the Washington Cascades. Nature Geosci . 4, 469–473 (2011)
Thiede, R. C., Bookhagen, B., Arrowsmith, J. R., Sobel, E. R. & Strecker, M. R. Climatic control on rapid exhumation along the Southern Himalayan Front. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 222, 791–806 (2004)
Burbank, D. W. et al. Decoupling of erosion and precipitation in the Himalayas. Nature 426, 652–655 (2003)
Whipple, K. X. The influence of climate on the tectonic evolution of mountain belts. Nature Geosci . 2, 97–104 (2009)
Howard, A. D., Dietrich, W. E. & Seidl, M. A. Modeling fluvial erosion on regional to continental scales. J. Geophys. Res. 99, 13971–13986 (1994)
Whipple, K. X., Hancock, G. S. & Anderson, R. S. River incision into bedrock: mechanics and relative efficacy of plucking, abrasion, and cavitation. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 112, 490–503 (2000)
Galewsky, J. Rain shadow development during the growth of mountain ranges: an atmospheric dynamics perspective. J. Geophys. Res. 114, F01018 (2009)
Han, J., Gasparini, N. M., Johnson, J. P. L. & Murphy, B. P. Modeling the influence of rainfall gradients on discharge, bedrock erodibility, and river profile evolution, with application to the Big Island, Hawai’i. J. Geophys. Res. 119, 1418–1440 (2014)
Moon, V. & Jayawardane, J. Geomechanical and geochemical changes during early stages of weathering of Karamu Basalt, New Zealand. Eng. Geol. 74, 57–72 (2004)
Sklar, L. S. & Dietrich, W. E. Sediment and rock strength controls on river incision into bedrock. Geology 29, 1087–1090 (2001)
Chadwick, O. A. et al. The impact of climate on the biogeochemical functioning of volcanic soils. Chem. Geol. 202, 195–223 (2003)
Montgomery, D. R. Observations on the role of lithology in strath terrace formation and bedrock channel width. Am. J. Sci. 304, 454–476 (2004)
Small, E. E., Blom, T., Hancock, G. S., Hynek, B. M. & Wobus, C. W. Variability of rock erodibility in bedrock-floored stream channels based on abrasion mill experiments. J. Geophys. Res. Earth Surf . 120, 1455–1469 (2015)
Wolfe, E. W. & Morris, J. Geologic Map of the Island of Hawaii. Map I–2524-A (US Geological Survey, 1996)
Menking, J. A., Han, J., Gasparini, N. M. & Johnson, J. P. L. The effects of precipitation gradients on river profile evolution on the Big Island of Hawai’i. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 125, 594–608 (2013)
Giambelluca, T. W. et al. Online Rainfall Atlas of Hawai‘i. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 94, 313–316 (2013)
Porder, S., Hilley, G. E. & Chadwick, O. A. Chemical weathering, mass loss, and dust inputs across a climate by time matrix in the Hawaiian Islands. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 258, 414–427 (2007)
Vance, L. K. Geographically Isolated Wetlands and Intermittent/Ephemeral Streams in Montana: Extent, Distribution, and Function http://dx.doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.51000 (Montana Natural Heritage Program, Helena, Montana, 2009)
Caruso, B. S. GIS-based stream classification in a mountain watershed for jurisdictional evaluation. J. Am. Water Resour. Assoc. 50, 1304–1324 (2014)
Whipple, K. X. & Tucker, G. E. Dynamics of the stream-power river incision model: implications for height limits of mountain ranges, landscape response timescales, and research needs. J. Geophys. Res. 104, 17661–17674 (1999)
Basu, A., Ghosh, N. & Das, M. Categorizing weathering grades of quartzitic materials and assessing Brazilian tensile strength with reference to assigned grades. Int. J. Rock Mech. Min. Sci. 49, 148–155 (2012)
Riebe, C. S., Sklar, L. S., Lukens, C. E. & Shuster, D. L. Climate and topography control the size and flux of sediment produced on steep mountain slopes. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 15574–15579 (2015)
Spengler, S. R. & Garcia, M. O. Geochemistry of the Hawi lavas, Kohala Volcano, Hawaii. Contrib. Mineral. Petrol. 99, 90–104 (1988)
McDougall, I. & Swanson, D. A. Potassium-argon ages of lavas from the Hawi and Pololu volcanic series, Kohala Volcano, Hawaii. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 83, 3731–3738 (1972)
Schopka, H. H. & Derry, L. A. Chemical weathering fluxes from volcanic islands and the importance of groundwater: the Hawaiian example. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 339–340, 67–78 (2012)
Oki, D. S. Geohydrology and Numerical Simulation of the Ground-Water Flow System of Molokai, Hawaii. Water-Resources Investigations Report 97–4176 (US Geological Survey, 1997)
Lamb, M. P., Howard, D., Dietrich, W. E. & Perron, J. T. Formation of amphitheater-headed valleys by waterfall erosion after large-scale slumping on Hawai’i. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 119, 805–822 (2007)
Seidl, M., Dietrich, W. & Kirchner, J. Longitudinal profile development into bedrock: an analysis of Hawaiian channels. J. Geol. 102, 457–474 (1994)
Mackey, B. H., Scheingross, J. S., Lamb, M. P. & Farley, K. A. Knickpoint formation, rapid propagation, and landscape response following coastal cliff retreat at the last interglacial sea-level highstand: Kaua‘i, Hawai‘i. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 126, 925–942 (2014)
Aydin, A. & Basu, A. The Schmidt hammer in rock material characterization. Eng. Geol. 81, 1–14 (2005)
Niedzielski, T., Migoń, P. & Placek, A. A minimum sample size required from Schmidt hammer measurements. Earth Surf. Process. Landf. 34, 1713–1725 (2009)
Day, M. J. & Goudie, A. S. Field assessment of rock hardness using the Schmidt test hammer. Br. Geomorphol. Res. Group Tech. Bull. 18, 19–29 (1980)
International Society for Rock Mechanics, Commission on Standardization of laboratory and Field Tests. Suggested methods for determining tensile strength of rock materials. Int. J. Rock Mech. Min. Sci. Geomech. Abstr. 15, 99–103 (1978)
Rocco, C., Guinea, G. V., Planas, J. & Elices, M. Mechanisms of rupture in splitting tests. ACI Mater. J. 96, 52–60 (1999)
Rowe, H., Hughes, N. & Robinson, K. The quantification and application of handheld energy-dispersive x-ray fluorescence (ED-XRF) in mudrock chemostratigraphy and geochemistry. Chem. Geol. 324–325, 122–131 (2012)
Stewart, B. W., Capo, R. C. & Chadwick, O. A. Effects of rainfall on weathering rate, base cation provenance, and Sr isotope composition of Hawaiian soils. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 65, 1087–1099 (2001)
Kurtz, A. C., Derry, L. A., Chadwick, O. A. & Alfano, M. J. Refractory element mobility in volcanic soils. Geology 28, 683–686 (2000)
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.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
Extended data figures and tables
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.
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.
About this article
Cite this article
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). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature17449
This article is cited by
Using lithium isotopes to quantitatively decode continental weathering signal: A case study in the Changjiang (Yangtze River) Estuary
Science China Earth Sciences (2021)
The role of earthquake-induced landslides in erosion and weathering from active mountain ranges: Progress and perspectives
Science China Earth Sciences (2021)
Changes in dissolved inorganic carbon in river water due to urbanization revealed by hydrochemistry and carbon isotope in the Pearl River Delta, China
Environmental Science and Pollution Research (2020)
Acta Geophysica (2020)
Bulletin of Volcanology (2019)