Weathering and erosion

Weathering processes

Rock that is close to the land surface is subject to physical and chemical modification by a number of different weathering processes. These processes generally start with water percolating down into joints formed by stress release as the rock comes close to the surface, and are most intense at the surface and in the soil profile. Weathering is the breakdown and alteration of bedrock by mechanical and chemical processes that create a regolith (layer of loose material), which is then available for transport away from the site.

Physical weathering


These are processes that break the solid rock into pieces and may separate the different minerals without involving any chemical reactions. The most important agents in this process are as follows.

Freeze-thaw action

Water entering cracks in rock expands upon freezing, forcing the cracks to widen; this process is also known as frost shattering and it is extremely effective in
areas that regularly fluctuate around 0 degree Celsius, such as high mountains in temperate climates and in polar regions.

Salt growth

Seawater or other water containing dissolved salts may also penetrate into cracks, especially in coastal areas. Upon evaporation of the water, salt crystals form and their growth generates localised, but significant, forces that can further open cracks in the rock.

Temperature changes

Changes in temperature probably play a role in the physical breakdown of rock. Rapid changes in temperature occur in some desert areas where the temperature can fluctuate by several tens of degrees Celsius between day and night; if different minerals expand and contract at differentrates, the internal forces created could cause the rock to split. This process is referred to as exfoliation, as thin layers break off the surface of the rock.

Chemical weathering


These processes involve changes to the minerals that make up a rock. The reactions that can take place are as follows.

Solution

Most rock-forming silicate minerals have very low solubility in pure water at the temperatures at the
Earth’s surface and so most rock types are not susceptible to rapid solution. It is only under conditions of strongly alkaline waters that silica becomes moderately soluble. Carbonate minerals are moderately soluble, especially if the groundwater (water passing through bedrock close to the surface) is acidic. Most soluble are evaporite minerals such as halite (sodium chloride) and gypsum, which locally can form an important component of sedimentary bedrock.

Hydrolysis

Hydrolysis reactions depend upon the dissociation of H2O into H+ and OH ions that occurs when there is an acidifying agent present. Natural acids that are important in promoting hydrolysis include carbonic acid (formed by the solution of carbon dioxide in water) and humic acids, a range of acids formed by the bacterial breakdown of organic matter in soils. Many silicates undergo hydrolysis reactions, for example the formation of kaolinite (a clay mineral) from orthoclase (a feldspar) by reaction with water.

Oxidation

The most widespread evidence of oxidation is the formation of iron oxides and hydroxides from minerals containing iron. The distinctive red-orange rust colour of ferric iron oxides may be seen in many rocks exposed at the surface, even though the amount of iron present may be very small.

The products of weathering

Material produced by weathering and erosion of material exposed on continental landmasses is referred to as terrigenous (meaning derived from land). Weathered material on the surface is an important component of the regolith that occurs on top of the bedrock in most places. Terrigenous clastic detritus comprises minerals weathered out of bedrock, lithic fragments and new minerals formed by weathering processes. Rock-forming minerals can be categorised in terms of their stability in the surface environment. Stable minerals such as quartz are relatively unaffected by chemical weathering processes and physical weathering simply separates the quartz crystals from each other and from other minerals in the rock. Micas and orthoclase feldspars are relatively resistant to these processes, whereas plagioclase feldspars, amphiboles, pyroxenes and olivines all react very readily under surface conditions and are only rarely carried away from the site of weathering in an unaltered state. The most important products of the chemical weathering of silicates are clay minerals. A wide range of clay minerals form as a result of the breakdown of different bedrock minerals under different chemical conditions; the most common are kaolinite, illite, chlorite and montmorillonite. Oxides of aluminium (bauxite) and iron (mainly haematite) also form under conditions of extreme chemical weathering.
In places where chemical weathering is subdued, lithic fragments may form an important component of the detritus generated by physical processes. The nature of these fragments will directly reflect the bedrock type and can include any lithology found at the Earth’s surface. Some lithologies do not last very long as fragments: rocks made of evaporite minerals are readily dissolved and other lithologies are very fragile making them susceptible to break-up. Detritus composed of basaltic lithic fragments can form around volcanoes and broken up limestone can make up an important clastic component of some shallow marine environments.

Soil development

Soil formation is an important stage in the transformation of bedrock and regolith into detritus available for transport and deposition. In situ (in place) physical and chemical weathering of bedrock creates a soil that may be further modified by biogenic processes. The roots of plants penetrating into bedrock can enhance break-up of the underlying rock and the accumulation of vegetation (humus) leads to a change in the chemistry of the surface waters as humic acids form. Soil profiles become thicker through time as bedrock is broken up and organic matter accumulates, but a soil is also subject to erosion. Movement under gravity and by the action of flowing water may remove part or all of a soil profile. These erosion processes may be acute on slopes and important on flatter-lying ground where gullying may occur. The soil becomes disaggregated and contributes detritus to rivers. In temperate and humid tropical environments most of the sediment carried in rivers is likely to have been part of a soil profile at some stage. Continental depositional environments are also sites of soil formation, especially the floodplains of rivers. These soils may become buried by overlying layers of sediment and are preserved in the stratigraphic record as fossil soils.

Erosion and transport

Weathering is the in situ breakdown of bedrock and erosion is the removal of regolith material. Loose material on the land surface may be transported downslope under gravity, it may be washed by water, blown away by wind, scoured by ice or moved by a combination of these processes. Falls, slides and slumps are responsible for moving vast quantities of material downslope in mountain areas but they do not move detritus very far, only down to the floor of the valleys. The transport of detritus over greater distances normally involves water, although ice and wind also play an important role in some environments.

Erosion and transport under gravity


On steep slopes in mountainous areas and along cliffs movements downslope under gravity are commonly the first stages in the erosion and transport of weathered material.

Downslope movement

There is a spectrum of processes of movement of material downslope. A landslide is a coherent mass of bedrock that has moved downslope without significantly breaking up in the process. Many thousands of cubic metres of rock can be translated downhill retaining the internal structure and stratigraphy of the unit. If the rock breaks up during its movement it is a rock fall, which accumulates as a chaotic mass of material at the base of the slope. These movements of material under gravity alone may be triggered by an earthquake, by undercutting at the base of the slope, or by other mechanisms, such as water logging of a potentially unstable slope by a heavy rainfall. Movement downslope may also occur when the regolith is lubricated by water and there is soil creep. This is a much slower process than falls and slides and may not be perceptible unless a hillside is monitored over a number of years. A process that may be considered to be intermediate between creep movement and slides is slumping. Slumps are instantaneous events like slides but the material is plastic due to saturation by water and it deforms during movement downslope. With sufficient water a slump may break up into a debris flow.

Scree and talus cones

In mountain areas weathered detritus falls as grains, pebbles and boulders down mountainsides to accumulate near the bottom of the slope. These accumulations ofscree are often reworked by water, ice and wind but sometimes remain preserved as talus cones, i.e. concentrations of debris at the base of gullies. These deposits are characteristically made up of angular to very angular clasts because transport distances are very short, typically only a few hundred metres, so there is little opportunity for the edges of the clasts to become abraded. A small amount of sorting and stratification may result from percolating water flushing smaller particles down through the pile of sediment, but generally scree deposits are poorly sorted and crudely stratified. Bedding is therefore difficult to see in talus deposits but where it can be seen the layers are close to the angle of rest of loose aggregate material. Talus deposits are distinct from alluvial fans because water does not play a role in the transport and deposition.

Erosion and transport by water


Erosion by water on hillsides is initially as a sheet wash, i.e. unconfined surface run-off down a slope following rain. This overground flow may pick up loose debris from the surface and erode the regolith. The quantity of water involved and its carrying capacity depends not only on the amount of rainfall but also the characteristics of the surface: water runs faster down a steep slope, vegetation tends to reduce flow and trap debris and a porous substrate results in infiltration of the surface water. Surface run-off is therefore most effective at carrying detritus during flash-flood events on steep, impermeable slopes in sparsely vegetated arid regions. Vegetation cover and thicker, permeable soils in temperate and tropical climates tend to reduce the transport capacity of surface run-off. Sheet wash becomes concentrated into rills and gullies that confine the flow and as these gullies coalesce into channels the headwaters of streams and rivers are established. Rivers erode into regolith and bedrock as the turbulent flow scours at the floor and margins of the channel, weakening them until pieces fall off into the stream. Flow over soluble bedrock such as limestone also gradually removes material in solution. Eroded material may be carried away in the stream flow as bedload, in suspension, or in solution; the confluence of streams forms larger rivers, which may feed alluvial fans, fluvial environments of deposition, lakes or seas.

Erosion and transport by wind


Winds are the result of atmospheric pressure differences that are partly due to global temperature distributions, and also local variations in pressure due to the temperature of water masses that move with ocean currents, heat absorbed by land masses and cold air over high glaciated mountain regions. A complex and shifting pattern of regions of high pressure (anticyclones) and low pressure (depressions) regions generates winds all over the surface of the Earth. Winds experienced at the present day range up to storm force winds of 100 km to hurricanes that are twice that velocity. Winds are capable of picking up loose clay, silt and sand-sized debris from the land surface. Wind erosion is most effective where the land surface is not bound by plants and hence it is prevalent where vegetation is sparse, in cold regions, such as near the poles and in high mountains, and dry deserts. Dry floodplains of rivers, sandy beaches and exposed sand banks in rivers in any climate setting may also be susceptible to wind erosion. Eroded fine material (up to sand grade) can be carried over distances of hundreds or thousands of kilometres by the wind. The size of material carried is related to the strength (velocity) of the air current.

Erosion and transport by ice


Glaciers in temperate mountain regions make a very significant contribution to the erosion and transport of bedrock and regolith. The rate of erosion is between two and ten times greater in glaciated mountain areas than in comparable unglaciated regions. In contrast, glaciers and ice sheets in polar regions tend to inhibit the erosion of material because the ice is frozen to the bedrock: movement of the ice in these polar ‘cold-based’ glaciers is mainly by shearing within the ice body. In temperate (warm based) glaciers, erosion of the bedrock by ice occurs by two processes, abrasion and plucking. Glacial abrasion occurs by the frictional action of blocks of material embedded in the ice (‘tools’) on the bedrock. These tools cut grooves, glacial striae, in the bedrock a few millimetres deep and elongate parallel to the direction of ice movement: striae can hence be used to determine the pathways of ice flow long after the ice has melted. The scouring process creates rock flour, clay and silt-sized debris that is incorporated into the ice. Glacial plucking is most common where a glacier flows over an obstacle. On the up-flow side of the obstacle abrasion occurs but on the down-flow side the ice dislodges blocks that range from centimetres to metres across. The blocks plucked by the ice and subsequently incorporated into the glacier are often loosened by subglacial freeze-thaw action. The landforms created by this combination of glacial abrasion and plucking are called roche moutone'e, apparently because they resemble sheep from a (very) great distance.

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