Decoupling the impacts of climate and tectonics on hillslope erosion rates is a challenging problem. Hillslope erosion rates are well known to respond to changes in hillslope boundary conditions (e.g. channel incision rates) through their dependence on soil thickness, and precipitation is an important control on soil formation. Surprisingly though, compilations of hillslope denudation rates suggest little precipitation sensitivity. To isolate the effects of precipitation and boundary condition, we measured rates of soil production from bedrock and described soils on hillslopes along a semi-arid to hyperarid precipitation gradient in northern Chile. In each climate zone, hillslopes with contrasting boundary conditions (actively incising channels versus non-eroding landforms) were studied.
Channel incision rates, which ultimately drive hillslope erosion, varied with precipitation rather than tectonic setting throughout the study area. These precipitation-dependent incision rates are mirrored on the hillslopes, where erosion shifts from relatively fast and biologically-driven to extremely slow and salt-driven as precipitation decreases. Contrary to studies in humid regions, bedrock erosion rates increase with precipitation following a power law, from ∼1 m Ma−1 in the hyperarid region to ∼40 m Ma−1 in the semi-arid region. The effect of boundary condition on soil thickness was observed in all climate zones (thicker soils on hillslopes with stable boundaries compared to hillslopes bounded by active channels), but the difference in bedrock erosion rates between the hillslopes within a climate region (slower erosion rates on hillslopes with stable boundaries) decreased as precipitation decreased. The biotic-abiotic threshold also marks the precipitation rate below which bedrock erosion rates are no longer a function of soil thickness. Our work shows that hillslope processes become sensitive to precipitation as life disappears and the ability of the landscape to respond to tectonics decreases. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.