Silicate weathering – initiated by major mineralogical transformations at the base of ten meters of clay-rich saprolite – generates the exceptionally low weathering flux found in streams draining the crystalline rocks of the mountainous and humid tropical Highlands of Sri Lanka. This conclusion is reached from a thorough investigation of the mineralogical, chemical, and Sr isotope compositions of samples within a regolith profile extending >10m from surface soil through the weathering front in charnockite bedrock (a high-grade metamorphic rock), corestones formed at the weathering front, as well as from the chemical composition of the dissolved loads in nearby streams. Weatherable minerals and soluble elements are fully depleted at the top of the profile, showing that the system is supply-limited, such that weathering fluxes are controlled directly by the supply of fresh minerals. We determine the weathering rates using two independent means: (1) in situ-produced cosmogenic nuclides in surface soil and creek sediments in the close vicinity of the regolith combined with immobile element mass balance across the regolith and (2) river dissolved loads. Silicate weathering rates determined from both approaches range from 16 to 36tkm−2y−1, corresponding to a weathering front advance rate of 6–14mmky−1. These rates agree across the 101 to 104ytime scales over which our rate metrics integrate, suggesting that the weathering system operates at steady state. Within error these rates are furthermore compatible with those obtained by modeling the advance rate of the weathering front from chemical gradients and mineral dissolution rates. The silicate weathering flux out of the weathering profile, measured on small creeks, amounts to 84% of the profile’s export flux; the remaining 16% is contributed by non-silicate, atmospheric-derived input. The silicate weathering flux, as measured by dissolved loads in large catchments, amounts to ca. 50% of the total dissolved flux; the remainder being contributed by dust, rain, and weathering of local marble bands. Spheroidal weathering is the key processes of converting the fresh bedrock into saprolite at the weathering front. The mineralogical composition of weathering rinds shows that the sequence of mineral decomposition is: pyroxene; plagioclase; biotite; K-feldspar. Observable biotite alteration does not appear to initiate spheroidal weathering within corestones; therefore, we infer that other processes than biotite oxidation, like pyroxene oxidation, clay formation from pyroxene and plagioclase decomposition, the development of secondary porosity by plagioclase dissolution, or even microbiologic processes at depth enable the coupling between slow advance of the weathering front and slow erosion at the surface. The comparison to tectonically more active tropical landscapes lets us conclude that the combination of hard rock with tightly interlocked mineral grains and slow erosion in the absence of tectonically-induced landscape rejuvenation lead to these exceptionally low weathering rates.
Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta – Elsevier
Published: Oct 1, 2013
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