Regolith production and transport in the Susquehanna Shale Hills Critical Zone Observatory, Part 1: Insights from U-series isotopes

Lin Ma, Francois Chabaux, Nikki West, Eric Kirby, Lixin Jin, Susan Brantley

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66 Scopus citations


To investigate the timescales of regolith formation on hillslopes with contrasting topographic aspect, we measured U-series isotopes in regolith profiles from two hillslopes (north facing versus south facing) within the east-west trending Shale Hills catchment in Pennsylvania. This catchment is developed entirely on the Fe-rich, Silurian Rose Hill gray shale. Hillslopes exhibit a topographic asymmetry: The north-facing hillslope has an average slope gradient of ~20°, slightly steeper than the south-facing hillslope (~15°). The regolith samples display significant U-series disequilibrium resulting from shale weathering. Based on the U-series data, the rates of regolith production on the two ridgetops are indistinguishable (40 ± 22 versus 45 ± 12 m/Ma). However, when downslope positions are compared, the regolith profiles on the south-facing hillslope are characterized by faster regolith production rates (50 ± 15 to 52 ± 15 m/Ma) and shorter durations of chemical weathering (12 ± 3 to 16 ± 5 ka) than those on the north-facing hillslope (17 ± 14 to 18 ± 13 m/Ma and 39 ± 20 to 43 ± 20 ka). The south-facing hillslope is also characterized by faster chemical weathering rates inferred from major element chemistry, despite lower extents of chemical depletion. These results are consistent with the influence of aspect on regolith formation at Shale Hills; we hypothesize that aspect affects such variables as temperature, moisture content, and evapotranspiration in the regolith zone, causing faster chemical weathering and regolith formation rates on the south-facing side of the catchment. The difference in microclimate between these two hillslopes is inferred to have been especially significant during the periglacial period that occurred at Shale Hills at least ~15 ka before present. At that time, the erosion rates may also have been different from those observed today, perhaps denuding the south-facing hillslope of regolith but not quite stripping the north-facing hillslope. An analysis of hillslope evolution and response timescales with a linear mass transport model shows that the current landscape at Shale Hills is not in geomorphologic steady state (i.e., so-called dynamic equilibrium) but rather is likely still responding to the climate shift from the Holocene periglacial to the modern, temperate conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)722-740
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Geophysics


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