Capturing the complexity of soil evolution: Heterogeneities in rock cover and chemical weathering in Montana's Rocky Mountains

Sarah S. Benjaram, Jean L. Dixon, Andrew C. Wilcox

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


We investigate the relationship between chemical weathering, persistence of soil cover, and topography in two neighboring mountain ranges in the northern Rockies of western Montana, USA. We augment existing tools for measuring chemical weathering with adjustments for both local and landscape-scale contributions from unweathered rock fragments, boulders, and bedrock exposure. Adjusted weathering intensities recognize that quantifying weathering in mountainous systems should account for rock exposure, rather than focusing solely on fine-grained soil mantles. Our study systems' distinct morphologies are shaped by their unique climate histories. The previously glaciated Bitterroot Mountains consist of steep hillslopes with abundant rock cover, while the neighboring unglaciated Sapphire Mountains display convex, soil-mantled hillslopes. Over 380 soil thickness measurements, 118 analyses of soil and rock geochemistry, and digital terrain analysis reveal that patchy soils in the bedrock-rich system are roughly half as thick as those in the continuously-soil-mantled landscape, and ~45% less weathered, despite wetter conditions that would be expected to enhance weathering. These disparities increase when accounting for coarse rock fragments in soils and bedrock cover across the study catchments. The near continuously soil-mantled Sapphire system experiences ~1.5 times greater weathering intensity at a catchment scale compared to the bedrock-rich Bitterroot system. Rock exposure across the mountainous study system increases with increasing slope gradient. However, we find no clear threshold at which soils decrease in abundance or weathering intensity, and soils are surprisingly resilient even at the steepest hillslopes (comprising ~60% of the landscape area at slopes >30°). Our new data quantify soil abundance and chemical weathering intensity at both local and landscape scales. This work highlights how measurements of soil and rock cover need to be incorporated into studies quantifying chemical weathering, as traditional approaches may significantly overestimate and mischaracterize weathering regimes in mountain environments.

Original languageEnglish
Article number108186
StatePublished - May 1 2022


  • Chemical weathering
  • Critical zone
  • Hillslopes
  • Rock-cover
  • Soil
  • Soil thickness


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