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In the mountainous Rio Icacos watershed in northeastern Puerto Rico, quartz diorite bedrock weathers spheroidally, producing a 0.2–2 m thick zone of partially weathered rock layers (∼2.5 cm thickness each) called rindlets, which form concentric layers around corestones. Spheroidal fracturing has been modeled to occur when a weathering reaction with a positive ΔV of reaction builds up elastic strain energy. The rates of spheroidal fracturing and saprolite formation are therefore controlled by the rate of the weathering reaction.
Chemical, petrographic, and spectroscopic evidence demonstrates that biotite oxidation is the most likely fracture-inducing reaction. This reaction occurs with an expansion in d (0 0 1) from 10.0 to 10.5 Å, forming “altered biotite”. Progressive biotite oxidation across the rindlet zone was inferred from thin sections and gradients in K and Fe(II). Using the gradient in Fe(II) and constraints based on cosmogenic age dates, we calculated a biotite oxidation reaction rate of 8.2 × 10−14 mol biotite m−2 s−1. Biotite oxidation was documented within the bedrock corestone by synchrotron X-ray microprobe fluorescence imaging and XANES. X-ray microprobe images of Fe(II) and Fe(III) at 2 μm resolution revealed that oxidized zones within individual biotite crystals are the first evidence of alteration of the otherwise unaltered corestone.
Fluids entering along fractures lead to the dissolution of plagioclase within the rindlet zone. Within 7 cm surrounding the rindlet–saprolite interface, hornblende dissolves to completion at a rate of 6.3 × 10−13 mol hornblende m−2 s−1: the fastest reported rate of hornblende weathering in the field. This rate is consistent with laboratory-derived hornblende dissolution rates. By revealing the coupling of these mineral weathering reactions to fracturing and porosity formation we are able to describe the process by which the quartz diorite bedrock disaggregates and forms saprolite. In the corestone, biotite oxidation induces spheroidal fracturing, facilitating the influx of fluids that react with other minerals, dissolving plagioclase and chlorite, creating additional porosity, and eventually dissolving hornblende and precipitating secondary minerals. The thickness of the resultant saprolite is maintained at steady state by a positive feedback between the denudation rate and the weathering advance rate driven by the concentration of pore water O2 at the bedrock–saprolite interface.