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  1. 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. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available July 11, 2024
  2. Free, publicly-accessible full text available November 1, 2023
  3. 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. 
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  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.

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  5. Abstract

    Seismic anisotropy measurements show that upper mantle hydration at the Middle America Trench (MAT) is limited to serpentinization and/or water in fault zones, rather than distributed uniformly. Subduction of hydrated oceanic lithosphere recycles water back into the deep mantle, drives arc volcanism, and affects seismicity at subduction zones. Constraining the extent of upper mantle hydration is an important part of understanding many fundamental processes on Earth. Substantially reduced seismic velocities in tomography suggest that outer rise plate‐bending faults provide a pathway for seawater to rehydrate the slab mantle just prior to subduction. Estimates of outer‐rise hydration based on tomograms vary significantly, with some large enough to imply that, globally, subduction has consumed more than two oceans worth of water during the Phanerozoic. We found that, while the mean upper mantle wavespeed is reduced at the MAT outer rise, the amplitude and orientation of inherited anisotropy are preserved at depths >1 km below the Moho. At shallower depths, relict anisotropy is replaced by slowing in the fault‐normal direction. These observations are incompatible with pervasive hydration but consistent with models of wave propagation through serpentinized fault zones that thin to <100‐m in width at depths >1 km below Moho. Confining hydration to fault zones reduces water storage estimates for the MAT upper mantle from ∼3.5 wt% to <0.9 wt% H20. Since the intermediate thermal structure in the ∼24 Myr‐old MAT slab favors serpentinization, limited hydration suggests that fault mechanics are the limiting factor, not temperatures. Subducting mantle may be similarly dry globally.

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  6. 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.

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  7. Abstract

    The complex ecohydrological processes of rangelands can be studied through the framework of ecological sites (ESs) or hillslope‐scale soil–vegetation complexes. High‐quality hydrologic field investigations are needed to quantitatively link ES characteristics to hydrologic function. Geophysical tools are useful in this context because they provide valuable information about the subsurface at appropriate spatial scales. We conducted 20 field experiments in which we deployed time‐lapse electrical resistivity tomography (ERT), variable intensity rainfall simulation, ground‐penetrating radar (GPR), and seismic refraction, on hillslope plots at five different ESs within the Upper Crow Creek Watershed in south‐east Wyoming. Surface runoff was measured using a precalibrated flume. Infiltration data from the rainfall simulations, coupled with site‐specific resistivity–water content relationships and ERT datasets, were used to spatially and temporally track the progression of the wetting front. First‐order constraints on subsurface structure were made at each ES using the geophysical methods. Sites ranged from infiltrating 100% of applied rainfall to infiltrating less than 60%. Analysis of covariance results indicated significant differences in the rate of wetting front progression, ranging from 0.346 m min−1/2for sites with a subsurface dominated by saprolitic material to 0.156 m min−1/2for sites with a well‐developed soil profile. There was broad agreement in subsurface structure between the geophysical methods with GPR typically providing the most detail. Joint interpretation of the geophysics showed that subsurface features such as soil layer thickness and the location of subsurface obstructions such as granite corestones and material boundaries had a large effect on the rate of infiltration and subsurface flow processes. These features identified through the geophysics varied significantly by ES. By linking surface hydrologic information from the rainfall simulations with subsurface information provided by the geophysics, we can characterize the ES‐specific hydrologic response. Both surface and subsurface flow processes differed among sites and are directly linked to measured characteristics.

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