In situ fragmentation and rock particle sorting on arid hills



[1] Transport processes are often proposed to explain the sorting of rock particles on arid hillslopes, where mean rock particle size often decreases in the downslope direction. Here we show that in situ fragmentation of rock particles can also produce similar patterns. A total of 93,414 rock particles were digitized from 880 photographs of the surface of three mesa hills in the Great Sandy Desert, Australia. Rock particles were characterized by the projected Feret's diameter and circularity. Distance from the duricrust cap was found to be a more robust explanatory variable for diameter than the local hillslope gradient. Mean diameter decreased exponentially downslope, while the fractional area covered by rock particles decreased linearly. Rock particle diameters were distributed lognormally, with both the location and scale parameters decreasing approximately linearly downslope. Rock particle circularity distributions showed little change; only a slight shift in the mode to more circular particles was noted to occur downslope. A dynamic fragmentation model was used to assess whether in situ weathering alone could reproduce the observed downslope fining of diameters. Modeled and observed size distributions agreed well and both displayed a preferential loss of relatively large rock particles and an apparent approach to a terminal size distribution of the rocks downslope. We show this is consistent with a size effect in material strength, where large rocks are more susceptible to fatigue failure under stress than smaller rocks. In situ fragmentation therefore produces qualitatively similar patterns to those that would be expected to arise from selective transport.