Estimating Base Cation Weathering Rates in the USA: Challenges of Uncertain Soil Mineralogy and Specific Surface Area with Applications of the PROFILE Model

  • Colin J. Whitfield
  • Jennifer N. Phelan
  • John Buckley
  • Christopher M. Clark
  • Scott Guthrie
  • Jason A. Lynch


The weathering release rate of base cations (BCw) from soil minerals is fundamentally important for terrestrial ecosystem growth, function, and sensitivity to acid deposition. Understanding BCw is necessary to reduce or prevent damage to acid-sensitive natural systems, in that this information is needed to both evaluate the effectiveness of existing policies, and guide establishment of further policies in the event they are required. Yet BCw is challenging to estimate. In this study, major sources of uncertainty associated with a process-based model (PROFILE) commonly used to estimate weathering rates were quantified in the context of efforts to quantify BCw for upland forest sites across the continental USA. These include uncertainty associated with parameterization of mineral content where horizon data are not available, stoichiometry of individual minerals, and specific surface area of soil and individual soil minerals. Mineral stoichiometry was not an important influence on BCw estimates (uncertainty < 1%). Characterizing B horizon mineralogy by averaging A and C horizons was found to be a minor (< 5%) contributor to uncertainty in some areas, but where mineralogy is known to vary with depth the uncertainty can be large. Estimating mineral-specific surface areas had a strong influence on estimated BCw, with rates increasing by as much as 250%. The greatest uncertainty in BCw estimates, however, was attributed to the particle size class-based method used to estimate the total specific surface area upon which weathering reactions can take place. The resulting uncertainty in BCw spanned multiple orders of magnitude at individual sites, highlighting this as the greatest challenge to ongoing efforts to produce robust BCw estimates across large spatial scales in the USA. Recommendations for improving estimates of BCw to support robust decision making for protection against terrestrial acidification are provided.


Acid deposition Base cations Mineral weathering Mineralogy Specific surface area Uncertainty Upland forest 



The authors wish to thank Dani Kurz for helpful discussions during this work, Julian Aherne for provision of soil data, and Jamie Cajka and Marion Deerhake for their support.

Funding Information

This work was funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) National Center for Environmental Assessment (NCEA) under contract EP-W-11-029. The views expressed in this manuscript are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views or policies of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Supplementary material

11270_2018_3691_MOESM1_ESM.docx (170 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 170 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Colin J. Whitfield
    • 1
  • Jennifer N. Phelan
    • 2
  • John Buckley
    • 2
  • Christopher M. Clark
    • 3
  • Scott Guthrie
    • 2
  • Jason A. Lynch
    • 4
  1. 1.School of Environment and Sustainability and Global Institute for Water Security University of SaskatchewanSaskatoonCanada
  2. 2.Research Triangle Institute InternationalResearch Triangle ParkUSA
  3. 3.National Center for Environmental Assessment, US Environmental Protection AgencyArlingtonUSA
  4. 4.Office of Air and Radiation, Office of Atmospheric Programs, Clean Air Markets DivisionUS Environmental Protection AgencyWashington, DCUSA

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