Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Long-term stability of global erosion rates and weathering during late-Cenozoic cooling


Over geologic timescales, CO2 is emitted from the Earth’s interior and is removed from the atmosphere by silicate rock weathering and organic carbon burial. This balance is thought to have stabilized greenhouse conditions within a range that ensured habitable conditions1. Changes in this balance have been attributed to changes in topographic relief, where varying rates of continental rock weathering and erosion1,2 are superimposed on fluctuations in organic carbon burial3. Geological strata provide an indirect yet imperfectly preserved record of this change through changing rates of sedimentation1,2,4. Widespread observations of a recent (0–5-Myr) fourfold increase in global sedimentation rates require a global mechanism to explain them4,5,6. Accelerated uplift and global cooling have been given as possible causes2,4,6,7, but because of the links between rates of erosion and the correlated rate of weathering8,9, an increase in the drawdown of CO2 that is predicted to follow may be the cause of global climate change instead2. However, globally, rates of uplift cannot increase everywhere in the way that apparent sedimentation rates do4,10. Moreover, proxy records of past atmospheric CO2 provide no evidence for this large reduction in recent CO2 concentrations11,12. Here we question whether this increase in global weathering and erosion actually occurred and whether the apparent increase in the sedimentation rate is due to observational biases in the sedimentary record13. As evidence, we recast the ocean dissolved 10Be/9Be isotope system as a weathering proxy spanning the past 12 Myr (ref. 14). This proxy indicates stable weathering fluxes during the late-Cenozoic era. The sum of these observations shows neither clear evidence for increased erosion nor clear evidence for a pulse in weathered material to the ocean. We conclude that processes different from an increase in denudation caused Cenozoic global cooling, and that global cooling had no profound effect on spatially and temporally averaged weathering rates.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Terrigenous sediment input into the oceans through the late-Cenozoic era and atmospheric CO2.
Figure 2: Sediment accumulation rates and erosion rates as functions of geological time.
Figure 3: Palaeo-ocean dissolved 10 Be/ 9 Be ratios as weathering proxies.


  1. Berner, R. A., Lasaga, A. C. & Garrels, R. M. The carbonate-silicate geochemical cycle and its effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide over the last 100 million years. Am. J. Sci. 205, 641–683 (1983)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  2. Raymo, M. E. & Ruddiman, W. F. Tectonic forcing of late Cenozoic climate. Nature 359, 117–122 (1992)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Derry, L. A. & France-Lanord, C. Neogene growth of the sedimentary organic carbon reservoir. Paleoceanography 11, 267–275 (1996)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  4. Molnar, P. & England, P. Late Cenozoic uplift of mountain ranges and global climate change: chicken or egg? Nature 346, 29–34 (1990)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  5. Hay, W. W., Sloan, J. L. I. & Wold, C. N. The mass/age distribution of sediments on the ocean floor and the global rate of loss of sediment. J. Geophys. Res. 93, 14933–14940 (1988)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Zhang, P., Molnar, P. & Downs, W. R. Increased sedimentation rates and grain sizes 2–4 Myr ago due to the influence of climate change on erosion rates. Nature 410, 891–897 (2001)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  7. Molnar, P. Late Cenozoic increase in accumulation rates of terrestrial sediment: how might climate change have affected erosion rates? Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 32, 67–89 (2004)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Riebe, C. S., Kirchner, J. W. & Finkel, R. C. Erosional and climatic effects in long-term chemical weathering rates in granitic landscapes spanning diverse climate regimes. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 224, 547–562 (2004)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. West, A. J., Galy, A. & Bickle, M. Tectonic and climatic controls on silicate weathering. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 235, 211–228 (2005)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Wilkinson, B. H., McElroy, B. J., Kesler, S. E., Peters, S. E. & Rothman, E. D. Global geologic maps are tectonic speedometers – rates of rock cycling from area-age frequencies. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 121, 760–779 (2009)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  11. Royer, D. L., Berner, R. A., Montañez, I. P., Tabor, N. J. & Beerling, D. J. CO2 as a primary driver of Phanerozoic climate change. GSA Today 14, 4–10 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Pagani, M., Liu, Z., LaRiviere, J. & Ravelo, A. C. High Earth-system climate sensitivity determined from Pliocene carbon dioxide concentrations. Nature Geosci. 3, 27–30 (2010)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Sadler, P. M. The influence of hiatuses on sediment accumulation rates. GeoRes. Forum 5, 15–40 (1999)

    Google Scholar 

  14. von Blanckenburg, F. & O’Nions, R. K. Response of beryllium and radiogenic isotope ratios in Northern Atlantic Deep Water to the onset of northern hemisphere glaciation. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 167, 175–182 (1999)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Pagani, M., Caldeira, K., Berner, R. & Beerling, D. The role of terrestrial plants in limiting CO2 decline for 24 million years. Nature 460, 85–88 (2009)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Gabet, E. J. & Mudd, S. M. A theoretical model coupling chemical weathering rates with denudation rates. Geology 37, 151–154 (2009)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  17. Galy, V. et al. Efficient organic carbon burial in the Bengal fan sustained by the Himalayan erosional system. Nature 405, 407–410 (2007)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  18. Gilluly, J. Distribution of mountain building in geologic time. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 60, 561–590 (1949)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  19. Kuhlemann, J., Frisch, W., Székely, B., Dunkl, I. & Kázmér, M. Post-collisional sediment budget history of the Alps: tectonic versus climatic control. Int. J. Earth Sci. 91, 818–837 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Métivier, F., Gaudemer, Y., Tapponier, P. & Klein, M. Mass accumulation rates in Asia during the Cenozoic. Geophys. J. Int. 137, 280–318 (1999)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  21. Ronov, A. B. Phanerozoic transgressions and regressions on the continents: a quantitative approach based on areas flooded by the sea and areas of marine and continental deposition. Am. J. Sci. 294, 802–860 (1994)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Wilkinson, B. H. & McElroy, B. J. The impact of humans on continental erosion and sedimentation. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 119, 140–156 (2007)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  23. Wittmann, H., von Blanckenburg, F., Kruesmann, T., Norton, K. P. & Kubik, P. W. The relation between rock uplift and denudation from cosmogenic nuclides in river sediment in the Central Alps of Switzerland. J. Geophys. Res. 112, F04010 (2007)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  24. Kleman, J. & Hattestrand, C. Frozen-bed Fennoscandian and Laurentide ice sheets during the Last Glacial Maximum. Nature 402, 62–64 (1999)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  25. Marshall, S. J. & Clark, P. U. Basal temperature evolution of North American ice sheets and implications for the 100-kyr cycle. Geophys. Res. Lett. 29, 2214–2218 (2002)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  26. Roy, M., Clark, P. U., Raisbeck, G. M. & Yiou, F. Geochemical constraints on the regolith hypothesis for the middle Pleistocene transition. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 227, 281–296 (2004)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  27. Brown, E. T. et al. Continental inputs of beryllium to the oceans. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 114, 101–111 (1992)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  28. von Blanckenburg, F., O’Nions, R. K., Belshaw, N. S., Gibb, A. & Hein, J. R. Global distribution of beryllium isotopes in deep ocean water as derived from Fe-Mn crusts. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 141, 213–226 (1996)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  29. Frank, M. et al. The beryllium isotope composition of the Arctic Ocean. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 73, 6114–6133 (2009)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. Igel, H. & von Blanckenburg, F. Lateral mixing and advection of reactive isotope tracers in ocean basins: numerical modeling. Geochem. Geophys. Geosys. 1, 1–19 (1999)

    Google Scholar 

Download references


J.K.W. gratefully acknowledges an Alexander von Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



J.K.W. and F.v.B. contributed equally to every aspect of the study.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Jane K. Willenbring or Friedhelm von Blanckenburg.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

J.K.W. is at the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences, University of Pennsylvania, from July 2010.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Data, which includes a schematic diagram, References, Supplementary Figures A1-A5 with legends and Supplementary Tables A1-A2. (PDF 1424 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Willenbring, J., von Blanckenburg, F. Long-term stability of global erosion rates and weathering during late-Cenozoic cooling. Nature 465, 211–214 (2010).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing