Soil distribution in high mountains reflects the impact of several soil-forming factors. Soil geomorphologists use key pedological properties to estimate ages of Quaternary deposits of various depositional environments, estimate long-term stability and instability of landscapes, and make inferences on past climatic change. Once the influence of the soil-forming factors is known, soils can be used to help interpret some aspects of landscape evolution that otherwise might go undetected.
The Front Range of Colorado rises from the plains of the Colorado Piedmont at about 1700 m past a widespread, dissected Tertiary erosion surface between 2300 and 2800 m up to an alpine Continental Divide at 3600 to over 4000 m. Pleistocene valley glaciers reached the western edge of the erosion surface. Parent rocks are broadly uniform (granitic and gneissic). Climate varies from 46 cm mean annual precipitation (MAP) and 11 °C mean annual temperature (MAT) in the plains to 102 cm and 4 °C, respectively, near the range crest. Vegetation follows climate with grassland in the plains, forest in the mountains, and tundra above 3450 m. Soils reflect the bioclimatic transect from plains to divide: A/Bw or Bt/Bk or K (grassland) to A/E/Bw or Bt/C (forest) to A/Bw/C (tundra). Corresponding soil pH values decrease from 8 to less than 5 with increasing elevation. The pedogenic clay minerals dominant in each major vegetation zone are: smectite (grassland), vermiculite (forest), and 1.0â€“1.8 nm mixed-layer clays (tundra). Within the lower forested zone, the topographic factor (aspect) results in more leached, colder soils, with relatively thin O horizons, well-expressed E horizons and Bt horizons (Alfisols) on N-facing slopes, whereas soils with thicker A horizons, less developed or no E horizons, and Bw or Bt horizons (Mollisols) are more common on S-facing slopes. The topographic factor in the tundra results in soil patterns as a consequence of wind-redistributed snow and the amount of time it lingers on the landscape. An important parent material factor is airborne dust, which results in fine-grained surface horizons and, if infiltrated, contributes to clay accumulation in some Bt horizons. The time factor is evaluated by soil chronosequence studies of Quaternary deposits in tundra, upper forest, and plains grassland. Few soils in the study area are >10,000 years old in the tundra, >100,000 years old in the forest, and >2 million years old in the grassland. Stages of granite weathering vary with distance from the Continental Divide and the best developed is grus near the sedimentary/granitic rock contact just west of the mountain front. Grus takes a minimum of 100,000 years to form.
Some of the relations indicated by the soil map patterns are: (1) parts of the erosion surface have been stable for 100,000 years or more; (2) development of grus near the mountain front could be due in part to pre-Pennsylvanian weathering; (3) a few soil properties reflect Quaternary paleoclimate; and (4) a correlation between soil development in the canyons and stream incision rates.
Birkeland, PW, Shroba, RR, Burns SF, Price AB, Tonkin PJ (2003): Soils and geomorphology in mountains-- an example from the Front Range of Colorado soils and geomorphology in mountains-- an example from the Front Range of Colorado. Geomorphology 55: 329-344. DOI: 10.1016/S0169-555X(03)00148-X