skip to main content

This content will become publicly available on July 11, 2024

Title: Mapping bedrock topography: a seismic refraction survey and landscape analysis in the Laramie Range, Wyoming
Physical, chemical, and biological processes create and maintain the critical zone (CZ). In weathered and crystalline rocks, these processes occur over 10–100 s of meters and transform bedrock into soil. The CZ provides pore space and flow paths for groundwater, supplies nutrients for ecosystems, and provides the foundation for life. Vegetation in the aboveground CZ depends on these components and actively mediates Earth system processes like evapotranspiration, nutrient and water cycling, and hill slope erosion. Therefore, the vertical and lateral extent of the CZ can provide insight into the important chemical and physical processes that link life on the surface with geology 10–100 s meters below. In this study, we present 3.9 km of seismic refraction data in a weathered and crystalline granite in the Laramie Range, Wyoming. The refraction data were collected to investigate two ridges with clear contrasts in vegetation and slope. Given the large contrasts in slope, aspect, and vegetation cover, we expected large differences in CZ structure. However, our results suggest no significant differences in large-scale (>10 s of m) CZ structure as a function of slope or aspect. Our data appears to suggest a relationship between LiDAR-derived canopy height and depth to fractured bedrock where the tallest trees are located over regions with the shallowest depth to fractured bedrock. After separating our data by the presence or lack of vegetation, higher P-wave velocities under vegetation is likely a result of higher saturation.  more » « less
Award ID(s):
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ;
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Frontiers in Water
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract

    The structure of the critical zone (CZ) is a product of feedbacks among hydrologic, climatic, biotic, and chemical processes. Past research within snow‐dominated systems has shown that aspect‐dependent solar radiation inputs can produce striking differences in vegetation composition, topography, and soil depth between opposing hillslopes. However, far fewer studies have evaluated the role of microclimates on CZ development within rain‐dominated systems, especially below the soil and into weathered bedrock. To address this need, we characterized the CZ of a north‐facing and south‐facing slope within a first‐order headwater catchment located in central coast California. We combined terrain analysis of vegetation distribution and topography with soil pit characterization, geophysical surveys and hydrologic measurements between slope‐aspects. We documented denser vegetation and higher shallow soil moisture on north facing slopes, which matched previously documented observations in snow‐dominated sites. However, average topographic gradients were 24° and saprolite thickness was approximately 6 m across both hillslopes, which did not match common observations from the literature that showed widespread asymmetry in snow‐dominated systems. These results suggest that dominant processes for CZ evolution are not necessarily transferable across regions. Thus, there is a continued need to expand CZ research, especially in rain‐dominated and water‐limited systems. Here, we present two non‐exclusive mechanistic hypotheses that may explain these unexpected similarities in slope and saprolite thickness between hillslopes with opposing aspects.

    more » « less
  2. Fractures in Earth's critical zone influence groundwater flow and storage and promote chemical weathering. Fractured materials are difficult to characterize on large spatial scales because they contain fractures that span a range of sizes, have complex spatial distributions, and are often inaccessible. Therefore, geophysical characterizations of the critical zone depend on the scale of measurements and on the response of the medium to impulses at that scale. Using P-wave velocities collected at two scales, we show that seismic velocities in the fractured bedrock layer of the critical zone are scale-dependent. The smaller-scale velocities, derived from sonic logs with a dominant wavelength of ~0.3 m, show substantial vertical and lateral heterogeneity in the fractured rock, with sonic velocities varying by 2,000 m/s over short lateral distances (~20 m), indicating strong spatial variations in fracture density. In contrast, the larger-scale velocities, derived from seismic refraction surveys with a dominant wavelength of ~50 m, are notably slower than the sonic velocities (a difference of ~3,000 m/s) and lack lateral heterogeneity. We show that this discrepancy is a consequence of contrasting measurement scales between the two methods; in other words, the contrast is not an artifact but rather information—the signature of a fractured medium (weathered/fractured bedrock) when probed at vastly different scales. We explore the sample volumes of each measurement and show that surface refraction velocities provide reliable estimates of critical zone thickness but are relatively insensitive to lateral changes in fracture density at scales of a few tens of meters. At depth, converging refraction and sonic velocities likely indicate the top of unweathered bedrock, indicative of material with similar fracture density across scales. 
    more » « less
  3. Abstract

    Understanding how soil thickness and bedrock weathering vary across ridge and valley topography is needed to constrain the flowpaths of water and sediment production within a landscape. Here, we investigate saprolite and weathered bedrock properties across a ridge‐valley system in the Northern California Coast Ranges, USA, where topography varies with slope aspect such that north‐facing slopes have thicker soils and are more densely vegetated than south‐facing slopes. We use active source seismic refraction surveys to extend observations made in boreholes to the hillslope scale. Seismic velocity models across several ridges capture a high velocity gradient zone (from 1,000 to 2,500 m/s) located ∼4–13 m below ridgetops that coincides with transitions in material strength and chemical depletion observed in boreholes. Comparing this transition depth across multiple north‐ and south‐facing slopes, we find that the thickness of saprolite does not vary with slope aspects. Additionally, seismic survey lines perpendicular and parallel to bedding planes reveal weathering profiles that thicken upslope and taper downslope to channels. Using a rock physics model incorporating seismic velocity, we estimate the total porosity of the saprolite and find that inherited fractures contribute a substantial amount of pore space in the upper 6 m, and the lateral porosity structure varies strongly with hillslope position. The aspect‐independent weathering structure suggests that the contemporary critical zone structure at Rancho Venada is a legacy of past climate and vegetation conditions.

    more » « less
  4. Abstract

    As bedrock weathers to regolith – defined here as weathered rock, saprolite, and soil – porosity grows, guides fluid flow, and liberates nutrients from minerals. Though vital to terrestrial life, the processes that transform bedrock into soil are poorly understood, especially in deep regolith, where direct observations are difficult. A 65-m-deep borehole in the Calhoun Critical Zone Observatory, South Carolina, provides unusual access to a complete weathering profile in an Appalachian granitoid. Co-located geophysical and geochemical datasets in the borehole show a remarkably consistent picture of linked chemical and physical weathering processes, acting over a 38-m-thick regolith divided into three layers: soil; porous, highly weathered saprolite; and weathered, fractured bedrock. The data document that major minerals (plagioclase and biotite) commence to weather at 38 m depth, 20 m below the base of saprolite, in deep, weathered rock where physical, chemical and optical properties abruptly change. The transition from saprolite to weathered bedrock is more gradational, over a depth range of 11–18 m. Chemical weathering increases steadily upward in the weathered bedrock, with intervals of more intense weathering along fractures, documenting the combined influence of time, reactive fluid transport, and the opening of fractures as rock is exhumed and transformed near Earth’s surface.

    more » « less
  5. Abstract

    The porous near‐surface layer of the Earth's crust – the critical zone – constitutes a vital reservoir of water for ecosystems, provides baseflow to streams, guides recharge to deep aquifers, filters contaminants from groundwater, and regulates the long‐term evolution of landscapes. Recent work suggests that the controls on regolith thickness include climate, tectonics, lithology, and vegetation. However, the relative paucity of observations of regolith structure and properties at landscape scales means that theoretical models of critical zone structure are incompletely tested. Here we present seismic refraction and electrical resistivity surveys that thoroughly characterize subsurface structure in a small catchment in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Arizona, USA, where slope‐aspect effects on regolith structure are expected based on differences in vegetation. Our results show a stark contrast in physical properties and inferred regolith thickness on opposing slopes, but in the opposite sense of that expected from environmental models and observed vegetation patterns. Although vegetation (as expressed by normalized difference vegetation index [NDVI]) is denser on the north‐facing slope, regolith on the south‐facing slope is four times thicker (as indicated by lower seismic velocities and resistivities). This contrast cannot be explained by variations in topographic stress or conventional hillslope morphology models. Instead, regolith thickness appears to be controlled by metamorphic foliation: regolith is thicker where foliation dips into the topography, and thinner where foliation is nearly parallel to the surface. We hypothesize that, in this catchment, hydraulic conductivity and infiltration capacity control weathering: infiltration is hindered and regolith is thin where foliation is parallel to the surface topography, whereas water infiltrates deeper and regolith is thicker where foliation intersects topography at a substantial angle. These results suggest that bedrock foliation, and perhaps by extension sedimentary layering, can control regolith thickness and must be accounted for in models of critical zone development. © 2020 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

    more » « less