Deepening roots can enhance carbonate weathering by amplifying CO2-rich recharge

Hang Wen, Pamela L. Sullivan, Gwendolyn L. MacPherson, Sharon A. Billings, Li Li

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


Carbonate weathering is essential in regulating atmospheric CO2 and carbon cycle at the century timescale. Plant roots accelerate weathering by elevating soil CO2 via respiration. It however remains poorly understood how and how much rooting characteristics (e.g., depth and density distribution) modify flow paths and weathering.We address this knowledge gap using field data from and reactive transport numerical experiments at the Konza Prairie Biological Station (Konza), Kansas (USA), a site where woody encroachment into grasslands is surmised to deepen roots. Results indicate that deepening roots can enhance weathering in two ways. First, deepening roots can control thermodynamic limits of carbonate dissolution by regulating how much CO2 transports vertical downward to the deeper carbonate-rich zone. The base-case data and model from Konza reveal that concentrations of Ca and dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) are regulated by soil pCO2 driven by the seasonal soil respiration. This relationship can be encapsulated in equations derived in this work describing the dependence of Ca and DIC on temperature and soil CO2. The relationship can explain spring water Ca and DIC concentrations from multiple carbonate-dominated catchments. Second, numerical experiments show that roots control weathering rates by regulating recharge (or vertical water fluxes) into the deeper carbonate zone and export reaction products at dissolution equilibrium. The numerical experiments explored the potential effects of partitioning 40% of infiltrated water to depth in woodlands compared to 5% in grasslands. Soil CO2 data suggest relatively similar soil CO2 distribution over depth, which in woodlands and grasslands leads only to 1% to ∼12% difference in weathering rates if flow partitioning was kept the same between the two land covers. In contrast, deepening roots can enhance weathering by ∼17% to 200% as infiltration rates increased from 3.7×10-2 to 3.7 m/a. Weathering rates in these cases however are more than an order of magnitude higher than a case without roots at all, underscoring the essential role of roots in general. Numerical experiments also indicate that weathering fronts in woodlands propagated >2 times deeper compared to grasslands after 300 years at an infiltration rate of 0.37 m/a. These differences in weathering fronts are ultimately caused by the differences in the contact times of CO2-charged water with carbonate in the deep subsurface. Within the limitation of modeling exercises, these data and numerical experiments prompt the hypothesis that (1) deepening roots in woodlands can enhance carbonate weathering by promoting recharge and CO2-carbonate contact in the deep subsurface and (2) the hydrological impacts of rooting characteristics can be more influential than those of soil CO2 distribution in modulating weathering rates. We call for colocated characterizations of roots, subsurface structure, and soil CO2 levels, as well as their linkage to water and water chemistry. These measurements will be essential to illuminate feedback mechanisms of land cover changes, chemical weathering, global carbon cycle, and climate.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)55-75
Number of pages21
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 5 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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