Chemical weathering in a tropical watershed, Luquillo Mountains, Puerto Rico: II. Rate and mechanism of biotite weathering

Sheila F. Murphy, Susan L. Brantley, Alex E. Blum, Art F. White, Hailiang Dong

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132 Scopus citations


Samples of soil, saprolite, bedrock, and porewater from a lower montane wet forest, the Luquillo Experimental Forest (LEF) in Puerto Rico, were studied to investigate the rates and mechanisms of biotite weathering. The soil profile, at the top of a ridge in the Rio Icacos watershed, consists of a 50-100-cm thick layer of unstructured soil above a 600-800 cm thick saprolite developed on quartz diorite. The only minerals present in significant concentration within the soil and saprolite are biotite, quartz, kaolinite, and iron oxides. Biotite is the only primary silicate releasing significant K and Mg to porewaters. Although biotite in samples of the quartz diorite bedrock is extensively chloritized, chlorite is almost entirely absent in the saprolite phyllosilicates. Phyllosilicate grains are present as 200-1000 μm wide books below about 50 cm depth. X-ray diffraction (XRD) and electron microprobe analyses indicate that the phyllosilicate grains contain a core of biotite surrounded by variable amounts of kaolinite. Lattice fringe images under transmission electron microscope (TEM) show single layers of biotite altering to two layers of kaolinite, suggesting dissolution of biotite and precipitation of kaolinite at discrete boundaries. Some single 14-Å layers are also observed in the biotite under TEM. The degree of kaolinitization of individual phyllosilicate grains as observed by TEM decreases with depth in the saprolite. This TEM work is the first such microstructural evidence of epitaxial growth of kaolinite onto biotite during alteration in low-temperature environments. The rate of release of Mg in the profile, calculated as a flux through the soil normalized per watershed land area, is approximately 500 mol hectare-1 yr-1 (1.6 × 10-9 molMg m-2soil s-1). This rate is similar to the flux estimated from Mg discharge out the Rio Icacos (1000 mol hectare-1 yr-1, or 3.5 × 10-9 molMg m-2soil s-1), indicating that scaling up from the soil to the watershed is possible for Mg release. The rate of Mg release from biotite, normalized to Brunauer-Emmett-Teller (BET) surface area, is calculated using a mass balance equation which includes the density and volume of phyllosilicate grains, porewater chemistry and flux, and soil porosity. The mean rates of biotite weathering calculated from K and Mg release rates are approximately 6 and 11 × 10-16 molbiotite m-2biotite s-1 respectively, significantly slower than laboratory rates (10-12 to 10-11 molbiotite m-2biotite s-1). The discrepancy in scaling down from the soil to the laboratory is probably explained by (1) differences in weathering mechanism between the two environments, (2) higher solute concentrations in soil porewaters, (3) loss of reactive surface area of biotite in the saprolite due to kaolinite and iron oxide coatings, and/or (4) unaccounted-for heterogeneities in flow path through the soil.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)227-243
Number of pages17
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 1998

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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