Local topography and erosion rate control regolith thickness along a ridgeline in the Sierra Nevada, California
The ridgelines of mountain ranges are a source of geomorphic information unadulterated by the arrival of sediment from upslope. Studies along ridgecrests, therefore, can help identify and isolate the controls on important regolith properties such as thickness and texture. A 1.5 km section of ridgeline in the Sierra Nevada (CA) with a tenfold decrease in erosion rate (inferred from ridgetop convexity) provided an opportunity to conduct a high-resolution survey of regolith properties and investigate their controls. We found that regolith along the most quickly eroding section of the ridge was the rockiest and had the lowest clay concentrations. Furthermore, a general increase in regolith thickness with a slowing of erosion rate was accompanied by an increase in biomass, changes in vegetation community, broader ridgeline profiles, and an apparent increase in total available moisture. The greatest source of variation in regolith thickness at the 10-100 m scale, however, was the local topography along the ridgeline, with the deepest regolith in the saddles and the thinnest on the knobs. Because regolith in the saddles had higher surface soil moisture than the knobs, we conclude that the hydrological conditions primarily driven by local topography (i.e. rapid vs. slow drainage and water-storage potential) provide the fundamental controls on regolith thickness through feedbacks incorporating physical weathering by the biota and chemical weathering. Moreover, because the ridgeline saddles are the uppermost extensions of first-order valleys, we propose that the fluvial network affects regolith properties in the furthest reaches of the watershed.
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