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Cenozoic climate change as a possible cause for the rise of the Andes


Causal links between the rise of a large mountain range and climate have often been considered to work in one direction, with significant uplift provoking climate change. Here we propose a mechanism by which Cenozoic climate change could have caused the rise of the Andes. Based on considerations of the force balance in the South American lithosphere, we suggest that the height of, and tectonics in, the Andes are strongly controlled both by shear stresses along the plate interface in the subduction zone and by buoyancy stress contrasts between the trench and highlands, and shear stresses in the subduction zone depend on the amount of subducted sediments. We propose that the dynamics of subduction and mountain-building in this region are controlled by the processes of erosion and sediment deposition, and ultimately climate. In central South America, climate-controlled sediment starvation would then cause high shear stress, focusing the plate boundary stresses that support the high Andes.

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Figure 1: Tectonic map of the Andean plate margin along the western side of South America between 0 and 50° S.
Figure 2: Plots showing latitudinal variations along the length of the Peru–Chile trench between 3° to 46° S (ref. 1).
Figure 3: Two cartoons illustrating how the presence or absence of significant trench fill could affect the process of subduction.
Figure 4: The Peru–Chile current system42 and the associated wind-induced oceanic upwelling can be clearly seen in the sea surface temperatures (interpolated satellite and in situ measurements from NOAA website: for July 2002—a tongue of water nearly 8 °C colder than that at equivalent latitudes farther west extends up the west coast of South America.
Figure 5: Major global climatic trends, and Andean tectonic evolution at 20° S, compiled from various sources.


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This work was supported by grants from the European Union, Natural Environment Research Council, and Royal Society (S.H.L.) and a visiting Leverhulme professorship (P.D.).

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Correspondence to Simon Lamb.

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Lamb, S., Davis, P. Cenozoic climate change as a possible cause for the rise of the Andes. Nature 425, 792–797 (2003).

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