Uranium-series (U-series) isotopes in river material can be used to determine quantitative time constraints on the transfer of erosion products from source to sink. In this study, we investigate the U-series isotope composition of river-borne material in small catchments of Puerto Rico and southeastern Australia in order to improve our understanding of (i) the controls on the U-series isotope composition of river-borne material and (ii) how erosion products acquire their geochemical characteristics. In both regions, thorium isotopes track the origin of sediment and dissolved loads. Stream solutes are mainly derived from the deepest part of the weathering profile, whereas stream sediments originate from much shallower horizons, even in landslide-dominated Puerto Rican catchments. This suggests that in environments where thick weathering profiles have developed, solutes and sediments have distinct origins.
The U-series isotope composition of stream sediments was modelled to infer a weathering age, i.e. the average time elapsed since the sediment’s minerals have started weathering. In southeastern Australia, the weathering age of stream sediments ranges between 346 ± 12 kyr and 1.78 ± 0.16 Myr, similar to values inferred from weathering profiles in the same catchment. Old weathering ages likely reflect the shallow origin of sediments mobilised via near-surface soil transport, the main mechanism of erosion in this catchment. Contrastingly, in Puerto Rico weathering ages are much younger, ranging from 5.1 ± 0.1 to 19.4 ± 0.4 kyr, reflecting that sediments are derived from less weathered, deeper saprolite, mobilised by landslides. Weathering ages of stream sediments are used to infer catchment-wide, mineral-specific weathering rates that are one to two orders of magnitude faster for Puerto Rico than for southeastern Australia. Thus, the type of erosion (near-surface soil transport vs. landslide) also affects the weathering rate of river sediments, because their weathering ages determine the potential for further weathering during sediment transport and storage in alluvial plains.