Evolution of hillslope soils: The geomorphic theater and the geochemical play

Kyungsoo Yoo, Beth Weinman, Simon Marius Mudd, Martin Hurst, Mikael Attal, Kate Maher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


How and how fast do hillslope soils form as the landscape's morphology changes over time? Here results are shown from an ongoing study that simultaneously examines the morphologic and geochemical evolution of soil mantled hillslopes that have been exposed to distinctively different denudation history. In Northern Sierra Nevada, California, the authors are investigating a tributary basin to the Middle Fork Feather River. A major incision signal from the river is well marked in a knickpoint within the tributary basin which stretches from its mouth to the Feather River at an elevation of ~700. m to the plateau at an elevation of ~1500. m. Hillslopes are significantly steeper below the knickpoint. The area's total denudation rates are currently being constrained using cosmogenic radio nuclides, but a previous study suggested an order of magnitude difference in total denudation rates below and above the knickpoint. When compared with topographic attributes calculated from LIDAR data, physical erosion rates can be modeled as a linear function of ridge top curvature. Surprisingly, over the wide range of total denudation rates, soil thicknesses do not vary significantly until a threshold point where soil mantled landscapes abruptly shift to bedrock dominated landscapes. Bioturbation by tree falls appear to buffer soil thickness over the wide range of physical soil erosion rates. From three hillslopes with different physical erosion rates, the concentrations of Zr, which were considered conserved during dissolution and leaching, were determined and used as a proxy for the degree of mass losses via chemical denudation. There is a general trend that colluvial soils along the hillslopes with lower physical erosion rates are enriched in fine size fractions, Zr, and pedogenic crystalline Fe oxides. Likewise, the saprolites show greater degrees of chemical denudation at the sites above the knickpoint, presumably because of the saprolites' longer turnover time in the slowly eroding landscapes. In the two steep hillslopes below the knickpoint, no significant or systematic topgraphic trends were found for soil geochemistry. However, soils show increasing Zr enrichment in the downslope direction in the hillslope above the knickpoint, which suggests a critical denudation rate beyond which soils' turnover time is too short to develop a geochemical catena. As detailed CRN-based soil production rates and catchment scale denudation rates are acquired, the data will be combined with a mass balance model to calculate the rates of chemical denudation and weathering in soils and saprolites along the denudation gradient.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)S149-S153
JournalApplied Geochemistry
Issue numberSUPPL.
StatePublished - Jun 2011


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