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Chemical weathering in active mountain belts controlled by stochastic bedrock landsliding


A link between chemical weathering and physical erosion exists at the catchment scale over a wide range of erosion rates1,2. However, in mountain environments, where erosion rates are highest, weathering may be kinetically limited3,4,5 and therefore decoupled from erosion. In active mountain belts, erosion is driven by bedrock landsliding6 at rates that depend strongly on the occurrence of extreme rainfall or seismicity7. Although landslides affect only a small proportion of the landscape, bedrock landsliding can promote the collection and slow percolation of surface runoff in highly fragmented rock debris and create favourable conditions for weathering. Here we show from analysis of surface water chemistry in the Southern Alps of New Zealand that weathering in bedrock landslides controls the variability in solute load of these mountain rivers. We find that systematic patterns in surface water chemistry are strongly associated with landslide occurrence at scales from a single hillslope to an entire mountain belt, and that landslides boost weathering rates and river solute loads over decades. We conclude that landslides couple erosion and weathering in fast-eroding uplands and, thus, mountain weathering is a stochastic process that is sensitive to climatic and tectonic controls on mass wasting processes.

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Figure 1: Study area in the western Southern Alps, with catchment outlines and sampling locations for rivers, landslides and hot springs.
Figure 2: TDS values for major rivers (River), runoff from catchments unaffected by landsliding (Runoff), landslide springs (S) and their local stream water (L) for A, Haremare Creek; B, Gaunt Creek; C, Jackson Bay.
Figure 3: Total dissolved solids concentrations measured in rivers in February 2014 plotted against the normalized landslide volumes in their catchment for the landslide interval 1980–2014.


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We thank the New Zealand Department of Conservation for permission to sample the field sites (Authority number 38154-RES), A. Golly for assistance in the field, and R. Hilton, A. J. West and C. France-Lanord for discussion. Sample analysis was carried out in the GFZ HELGES lab with assistance from J. Schuessler and C. Zorn. A. Heimsath provided advice which greatly improved the manuscript.

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R.E., N.H. and A.G. conceived the study and collected the samples. R.E. carried out lab analysis and data processing of chemical samples. O.M. completed the landslide data and calculated volumes. R.E. wrote the paper with significant input from all other authors.

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Correspondence to Robert Emberson.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Emberson, R., Hovius, N., Galy, A. et al. Chemical weathering in active mountain belts controlled by stochastic bedrock landsliding. Nature Geosci 9, 42–45 (2016).

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