A numerical model for duricrust formation by water table fluctuations
Abstract. Duricrusts are hard elemental layers forming in climatically contrasted environments. Ferricretes (or iron duricrusts) are a type of duricrust, made of indurated iron layers. They form in tropical to semi-arid environments, but can be currently observed all around the world, in areas such as Africa, South America, India, and Australia. In most cases, they cap hills and appear to protect softer layers beneath. Two hypotheses have been proposed for the formation of duricrusts, i.e., the hydrological or horizontal model where the enrichment in the hardening element (iron for ferricretes) is the product of leaching and precipitation through the beating of the water table during contrasted seasonal cycles, and the laterisation or vertical model, where the formation of iron duricrusts is the final stage of laterisation.
In this article, we present the first numerical model for the formation of iron duricrusts based on the hydrological hypothesis. The model is an extension to an existing regolith formation model where the position of the water table is used to predict the formation of a hardened layer at a rate set by a characteristic time scale τ and over a depth set by the beating range of the water table, λ. Hardening causes a decrease in surface erodibility, which we introduce in the model as a dimensionless factor κ that multiplies the surface transport coefficient of the model.
Using the model we show under which circumstances duricrusts form by introducing two dimensionless numbers that combine the model parameters (λ and τ) as well as parameters representing external forcing like precipitation rate and uplift rate. We demonstrate that by using model parameter values obtained by independent constraints from field observations, hydrology and geochronology, the model predictions reproduce the observed conditions for duricrust formation. We also show that there exists a strong feedback from duricrust formation on the shape of the regolith and the position of the water table. Finally we demonstrate that the commonly accepted view that, because they are commonly found at the top of hills, duricrusts protect elements of the landscape is most likely an over-interpretation and that caution must be taken before using duricrusts as markers of uplift and/or base level falls.
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