Regolith production rates calculated with uranium-series isotopes at Susquehanna/Shale Hills Critical Zone Observatory

Lin Ma, Francois Chabaux, Eric Pelt, Estelle Blaes, Lixin Jin, Susan Brantley

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125 Scopus citations


In the Critical Zone where rocks and life interact, bedrock equilibrates to Earth surface conditions, transforming to regolith. The factors that control the rates and mechanisms of formation of regolith, defined here as material that can be augered, are still not fully understood. To quantify regolith formation rates on shale lithology, we measured uranium-series (U-series) isotopes (238U, 234U, and 230Th) in three weathering profiles along a planar hillslope at the Susquehanna/Shale Hills Observatory (SSHO) in central Pennsylvania. All regolith samples show significant U-series disequilibrium: (234U/238U) and (230Th/238U) activity ratios range from 0.934 to 1.072 and from 0.903 to 1.096, respectively. These values display depth trends that are consistent with fractionation of U-series isotopes during chemical weathering and element transport, i.e., the relative mobility decreases in the order 234U>238U>230Th. The activity ratios observed in the regolith samples are explained by i) loss of U-series isotopes during water-rock interactions and ii) re-deposition of U-series isotopes downslope. Loss of U and Th initiates in the meter-thick zone of "bedrock" that cannot be augered but that nonetheless consists of up to 40% clay/silt/sand inferred to have lost K, Mg, Al, and Fe. Apparent equivalent regolith production rates calculated with these isotopes for these profiles decrease exponentially from 45m/Myr to 17m/Myr, with increasing regolith thickness from the ridge top to the valley floor. With increasing distance from the ridge top toward the valley, apparent equivalent regolith residence times increase from 7kyr to 40kyr. Given that the SSHO experienced peri-glacial climate ~15kyr ago and has a catchment-wide averaged erosion rate of ~15m/Myr as inferred from cosmogenic 10Be, we conclude that the hillslope retains regolith formed before the peri-glacial period and is not at geomorphologic steady state. Both chemical weathering reactions of clay minerals and translocation of fine particles/colloids are shown to contribute to mass loss of U and Th from the regolith, consistent with major element data at SSHO. This research documents a case study where U-series isotopes are used to constrain the time scales of chemical weathering and regolith production rates. Regolith production rates at the SSHO should be useful as a reference value for future work at other weathering localities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)211-225
Number of pages15
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Aug 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Geophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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