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Published July 2016 | Published
Journal Article Open

Granitic Boulder Erosion Caused by Chaparral Wildfire: Implications for Cosmogenic Radionuclide Dating of Bedrock Surfaces


Rock surface erosion by wildfire is significant and widespread but has not been quantified in southern California or for chaparral ecosystems. Quantifying the surface erosion of bedrock outcrops and boulders is critical for determination of age using cosmogenic radionuclide techniques, as even modest surface erosion removes the accumulation of the cosmogenic radionuclides and causes significant underestimate of age. This study documents the effects on three large granitic boulders following the Esperanza Fire of 2006 in southern California. Spalled rock fragments were quantified by measuring the removed rock volume from each measured boulder. Between 7% and 55% of the total surface area of the boulders spalled in this single fire. The volume of spalled material, when normalized across the entire surface area, represents a mean surface lowering of 0.7–12.3 mm. Spalled material was thicker on the flanks of the boulders, and the height of the fire effects significantly exceeded the height of the vegetation prior to the wildfire. Surface erosion of boulders and bedrock outcrops as a result of wildfire spalling results in fresh surfaces that appear unaffected by chemical weathering. Such surfaces may be preferentially selected by researchers for cosmogenic surface dating because of their fresh appearance, leading to an underestimate of age.

Additional Information

© 2016 by The University of Chicago. Manuscript received June 24, 2015; accepted February 10, 2016; electronically published May 23, 2016. This study benefited from early reviews by D. Ponti and K. Knudsen (USGS) and B. Goforth (California State University, San Bernardino). Thoughtful reviews were also provided by A. Gillespie (University of Washington) and G. Girty (San Diego State University).

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