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.
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
- NSF-PAR ID:
- Publisher / Repository:
- Wiley Blackwell (John Wiley & Sons)
- Date Published:
- Journal Name:
- Earth Surface Processes and Landforms
- Page Range / eLocation ID:
- p. 2998-3010
- Medium: X
- Sponsoring Org:
- National Science Foundation
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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.
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