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Soil production limits and the transition to bedrock-dominated landscapes


The extent and persistence of the Earth’s soil cover depends on the long-term balance between soil production and erosion. Higher soil production rates under thinner soils provide a critical stabilizing feedback mechanism1,2,3, and climate- and lithology-controlled soil production is thought to set the upper limit for steady-state hillslope erosion4. In this framework, erosion rates exceeding the maximum soil production rate can be due only to bedrock mass wasting5. However, observation of pervasive, if patchy, soil cover in areas of rugged topography and rapid erosion indicates additional stabilizing mechanisms. Here we present 10Be-derived estimates of soil-production and detrital erosion rates that show that soil production rates increase with increasing catchment-averaged erosion rates, a feedback that enhances soil-cover persistence. We show that a process transition to landslide-dominated erosion in steeper, more rapidly eroding catchments results in thinner, patchier soils and rockier topography, but find that there is no sudden transition to bedrock landscapes. Instead, using our global data compilation, we suggest that soil production may increase in frequency and magnitude to keep up with increasing erosion rates. We therefore conclude that existing models6,7,8 greatly exaggerate changes in critical-zone processes in response to tectonic uplift.

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Figure 1: San Gabriel Mountains, California.
Figure 2: Landslide model and REI versus erosion rate.
Figure 3: SGM soil-production functions.
Figure 4: Soil production versus erosion rates.


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W.E. Dietrich helped A.M.H. collect the first SGM samples and sowed the concept of ‘bionic gophers’. Numerous graduate students assisted in sample collection and stimulating discussions on this work. NSF Geomorphology and Land Use Dynamics financially supported it. Laser altimetry was acquired and processed by NCALM with support from ASU and Caltech. A thoughtful review by G. Tucker improved the manuscript.

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All authors conducted field work, contributed to the experimental design and writing of this manuscript. A.M.H. carried out CRN chemical analyses; A.M.H. and R.A.D. analysed the CRN data.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Arjun M. Heimsath or Roman A. DiBiase.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Heimsath, A., DiBiase, R. & Whipple, K. Soil production limits and the transition to bedrock-dominated landscapes. Nature Geosci 5, 210–214 (2012).

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