The rate of chemical weathering has been observed to increase with the rate of physical erosion in published comparisons of many catchments, but the mechanisms that couple these processes are not well understood. We investigated this question by examining the chemical weathering and porosity profiles from catchments developed on marine shale located in Pennsylvania, USA (Susquehanna Shale Hills Critical Zone Observatory, SSHCZO); California, USA (Eel River Critical Zone Observatory, ERCZO); and Taiwan (Fushan Experimental Forest). The protolith compositions, protolith porosities, and the depths of regolith at these sites are roughly similar while the catchments are characterized by large differences in erosion rate (1–3 mm yr−1 in Fushan ≫ 0.2–0.4 mm yr−1 in ERCZO ≫ 0.01–0.025 mm yr−1 in SSHCZO). The natural experiment did not totally isolate erosion as a variable: mean annual precipitation varied along the erosion gradient (4.2 m yr−1 in Fushan > 1.9 m yr−1 in ERCZO > 1.1 m yr−1 in SSHCZO), so the fastest eroding site experiences nearly twice the mean annual temperature of the other two. Even though erosion rates varied by about 100×, the depth of pyrite and carbonate depletion (defined here as regolith thickness) is roughly the same, consistent with chemical weathering of those minerals keeping up with erosion at the three sites. These minerals were always observed to be the deepest to react, and they reacted until 100% depletion. In two of three of the catchments where borehole observations were available for ridges, these minerals weathered across narrow reaction fronts. On the other hand, for the rock-forming clay mineral chlorite, the depth interval of weathering was wide and the extent of depletion observed at the land surface decreased with increasing erosion/precipitation. Thus, chemical weathering of the clay did not keep pace with erosion rate. But perhaps the biggest difference among the shales is that in the fast-eroding sites, microfractures account for 30–60% of the total porosity while in the slow-eroding shale, dissolution could be directly related to secondary porosity. We argue that the microfractures increase the influx of oxygen at depth and decrease the size of diffusion-limited internal domains of matrix, accelerating weathering of pyrite and carbonate under high erosion-rate conditions. Thus, microfracturing is a process that can couple physical erosion and chemical weathering in shales.
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