Abstract

Bedrock fracture is a key element of rock erosion and subsequent surface processes. Here, we test the hypothesis that rock’s susceptibility to subcritical cracking, a specific type of fracturing, significantly drives and limits rock erosion. We measured 10Be-derived erosion rates, compressive strength, and crack characteristics on 20 outcrops of different rock units (quartzite, granite, and two metasandstones) in the northern Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia (USA). We also measured the subcritical cracking index (n), Charles’s law velocity constant (A), and fracture toughness (KIC) of samples from four of the same outcrops, representative of each rock type. Erosion rates range from 1.16 ± 0.67 to 32.3 ± 7.8 m/m.y. We find strong correlations—across the four rock units—between average erosion rates and the three subcritical cracking parameters (R2 > 0.85, p < 0.05), but not compressive strength (R2 = 0.6; p > 0.1). We also find a correlative relationship between n and outcrop fracture length (R2 = 0.91; p < 0.05). The latter correlation is consistent with that of published model predictions, further indicating a mechanistic link between subcritical cracking and rock erosion. We infer that subcritical cracking parameters closely tie to erosion rates, because subcritical cracking is the dominant process of mechanical weathering, leading to positive feedbacks relating subcritical cracking rates, crack length, porosity, and water accessibility. These data are the first that directly test and support the hypothesis that subcritical cracking can set the pace of long-term rock erosion.

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