Weathering of rock to regolith: The activity of deep roots in bedrock fractures

Elizabeth A. Hasenmueller, Xin Gu, Julie N. Weitzman, Thomas S. Adams, Gary E. Stinchcomb, David M. Eissenstat, Patrick J. Drohan, Susan L. Brantley, Jason P. Kaye

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

89 Scopus citations


Many areas in the world are characterized by shallow soils underlain by weathered bedrock, but root-rock interactions and their implications for regolith weathering are poorly understood. To test the role of tree roots in weathering bedrock, we excavated four pits along a catena in a shale-dominated catchment at the Susquehanna Shale Hills Critical Zone Observatory (SSHCZO) in central Pennsylvania. We measured a variety of biological, physical, and chemical properties including: 1) root density, distribution, and respiration, 2) soil gas, and 3) elemental compositions, mineralogy, and morphology of soil, rock, and rock fracture fill at ridge top, mid-slope, toe-slope, and valley floor sites. As expected, root density declined rapidly with depth; nevertheless, fine roots were present in rock fractures even in the deepest, least weathered shale sampled (~ 180 cm below the land surface). Root densities in shale fractures were comparable between the ridge top and mid-slope pits. However, they were significantly lower in the toe-slope, despite increasing rock fracture densities, which is likely due to a shallower water table depth at the downslope site. Average root respiration (per mass of dry root tissue) in rock fractures was comparable to rates in the soil. Thus, the total flux of CO2 from root respiration tracked root densities, decreasing with depth. Potential microbial respiration, estimated as the laboratory C mineralization potential, was about an order of magnitude lower than measured root respiration in both the soil and shale fractures. Roots were only observed in large aperture (> 50 μm) shale fractures that were filled with particulate material. The fill in these fractures was mineralogically and geochemically similar to the lowest soil horizons with respect to clay composition, element mobility, extractable dissolved organic C (DOC), inorganic N-species, and potentially mineralizable C and N, while total C and total N values for the fracture fill were similar to the shale bedrock. In the bulk soil, depletion profiles (Al, Fe, K, Mg, and Si) relative to unweathered shale reflected characteristic weathering of illite and vermiculized chlorite to kaolinite and are similar between soils and fracture fill. Such similarities indicate that the fracture coatings are likely the result of pedogenic processes that occur at depth in the fractures rather than translocation of soil particles downward into the fractures. Overall, our data suggest that roots and fill in shale fractures down to ~ 180 cm are qualitatively similar to those in surface soil horizons. Thus, the deepest manifestation of the chemical depletion profiles observed in the pits consists of the rock fracture fill, and this fill is present at low concentrations with similarly low concentrations of fine roots.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)11-31
Number of pages21
StatePublished - Aug 15 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Soil Science


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