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Coupled spatial variations in precipitation and long-term erosion rates across the Washington Cascades


Past studies of tectonically active mountain ranges have suggested strong coupling and feedbacks between climate, tectonics and topography1,2,3,4,5. For example, rock uplift generates topographic relief, thereby enhancing precipitation, which focuses erosion and in turn influences rates and spatial patterns of further rock uplift. Although theoretical links between climate, erosion and uplift have received much attention2,6,7,8,9,10, few studies have shown convincing correlations between observable indices of these processes on mountain-range scales11,12. Here we show that strongly varying long-term (>106–107 yr) erosion rates inferred from apatite (U–Th)/He cooling ages across the Cascades mountains of Washington state closely track modern mean annual precipitation rates. Erosion and precipitation rates vary over an order of magnitude across the range with maxima of 0.33 mm yr-1 and 3.5 m yr-1, respectively, with both maxima located 50 km west (windward) of the topographic crest of the range. These data demonstrate a strong coupling between precipitation and long-term erosion rates on the mountain-range scale. If the range is currently in topographic steady state, rock uplift on the west flank is three to ten times faster than elsewhere in the range, possibly in response to climatically focused erosion.

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Figure 1: Map of the Washington Cascades and regional features, showing locations of samples and swath for climatic and topographic comparisons.
Figure 2: Apatite (U–Th)/He ages and topographic profiles (mean, maximum and minimum elevations) in swath across the Washington Cascades shown in Fig. 1.
Figure 3: Comparison of topographic profiles, calculated model erosion rates, and mean annual precipitation rates.


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We acknowledge comments by P. Molnar. We also thank S. Willett and M. Brandon for discussions, and S. Nicolescu for analytical assistance. This work was supported by the US National Science Foundation.

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Reiners, P., Ehlers, T., Mitchell, S. et al. Coupled spatial variations in precipitation and long-term erosion rates across the Washington Cascades. Nature 426, 645–647 (2003).

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