Mechanical weathering in cold regions with special emphasis on the Antarctic environment and the freeze-thaw mechanism in particular.
Consideration of almost any geomorphology textbook will show the fundamental argument that in cold environments mechanical weathering processes, usually freeze-thaw, will predominate and that chemical weathering will be temperature-limited, often to the point of non occurrence. These basic concepts have underpinned geomorphology for over a century and are the basis for the development of many landforms in periglacial regions. With the introduction of data loggers so field data became more readily available but, sadly, those data were not of a quality to other than justify the existent assumptions and thus did little more than reinforce, rather than test, the nature of our understanding of cold region weathering. Factors such as rock properties were dealt with to a limited extent but rock moisture was all but ignored, despite its centrality to most weathering processes. Here the results of field studies into weathering in cold regions, coupled with laboratory experiments based on the field data, are presented. An attempt is made to overcome the shortcomings of earlier studies. Temperature, moisture and rock properties have all been considered. Processes were not assumed but rather the data were used to evaluate what processes were operative. The results, both in terms of weathering process understanding per se and of its application to landform development, significantly challenge our longheld perceptions. Information is presented that shows that it is not temperature, but rather water, that is the limiting factor in cold region weathering. Indeed, in the absence of water, many cold environments have attributes akin to a hot desert. The relevance of this is that weathering processes other than freeze-thaw may play a significant role and that in the presence of water chemical weathering can play a far greater role than hitherto thought. Overall, the whole concept of zonality with respect to weathering is questioned. Finally, the attributes of weathering are put within the context of landform development and questions raised regarding the origin of some forms and of their palaeoenvironmental significance. Attributes of periglacial, glacial and zoogeomorphic processes and landforms in present and past cold environments are also presented.