One interesting question the research raises is whether soil production rates do not have an upper limit, or whether the upper limit is just far higher than previously thought.

The team is also interested in pinpointing the mechanisms that explain their observations – how the landscape manages to keep up its rate of soil production with such rapid erosion rates. One hypothesis is that the biology of the landscape – the flora and fauna that are responsible for and dependent on much of the soil produced in mountainous regions – are working harder to maintain soil production rates to keep pace with erosion. Heimsath said that finding the answers to these questions will be the researchers’ next endeavor.

“The presence of soil sustains our ecosystems,” said Heimsath. “It sustains vegetation, and all the life that exists in mountainous regions. Understanding what sets the upper limit of soil cover is really important to understanding what can sustain life in some of these landscapes.”

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation with a grant to Whipple and Heimsath.