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Glaciation as a destructive and constructive control on mountain building



Theoretical analysis predicts that enhanced erosion related to late Cenozoic global cooling can act as a first-order influence on the internal dynamics of mountain building, leading to a reduction in orogen width and height1,2,3. The strongest response is predicted in orogens dominated by highly efficient alpine glacial erosion, producing a characteristic pattern of enhanced erosion on the windward flank of the orogen and maximum elevation controlled by glacier equilibrium line altitude3,4, where long-term glacier mass gain equals mass loss. However, acquiring definitive field evidence of an active tectonic response to global climate cooling has been elusive5. Here we present an extensive new low-temperature thermochronologic data set from the Patagonian Andes, a high-latitude active orogen with a well-documented late Cenozoic tectonic, climatic and glacial history. Data from 38° S to 49° S record a marked acceleration in erosion 7 to 5 Myr ago coeval with the onset of major Patagonian glaciation6 and retreat of deformation from the easternmost thrust front7. The highest rates and magnitudes of erosion are restricted to the glacial equilibrium line altitude on the windward western flank of the orogen, as predicted in models of glaciated critical taper orogens where erosion rate is a function of ice sliding velocity3,8. In contrast, towards higher latitudes (49° S to 56° S) a transition to older bedrock cooling ages signifies much reduced late Cenozoic erosion despite dominantly glacial conditions here since the latest Miocene6. The increased height of the orogenic divide at these latitudes (well above the equilibrium line altitude) leads us to conclude that the southernmost Patagonian Andes represent the first recognized example of regional glacial protection of an active orogen from erosion, leading to constructive growth in orogen height and width.

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Figure 1: Topographic and tectonic map of southernmost South America showing sample locations.
Figure 2: Age–elevation relationships from two high-relief transects.
Figure 3: Four east–west transects across the Patagonian Andes at different latitudes.
Figure 4: Latitudinal swath profiles showing apatite (U–Th)/He and AFT ages.


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This work was supported by the NSF Geomorphology and Land Use Dynamics and Tectonics Award EAR0447140. S. Nicolescu assisted with (U–Th)/He analysis. S.N.T. thanks F. Hervé for numerous invitations to take part in boat expeditions in the Chilean fjords made possible through Chilean Fondecyt awards 1010412, 1050431, 7010412 and 7060240. Captains C. Alvarez Senior and Junior, V. Alvarez, D. Lleufo and C. Porter expertly guided us through the Chilean fjords on the boats Mama Dina, Penguin, Foam, 21 de Mayo and R/V Gondwana. We thank R. Fuenzalida and C. Mpodozis at ENAP/Sipetrol for allowing us to publish the apatite fission track data from the SP samples. H. Echtler and J. Glodny at the GFZ Potsdam, and F. Hervé at the Universidad de Chile provided additional apatite sample separates. This work benefited from discussions with G. Roe and M. Kaplan.

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Writing and interpretation was done by S.N.T. with contributions from M.T.B., J.H.T. and P.W.R. Fieldwork was performed by S.N.T., M.T.B., J.H.T., P.W.R. and C.V. Apatite fission track analysis was done by S.N.T. (U–Th)/He dating was carried out by S.N.T., N.J.W. and C.V.

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Correspondence to Stuart N. Thomson.

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Thomson, S., Brandon, M., Tomkin, J. et al. Glaciation as a destructive and constructive control on mountain building. Nature 467, 313–317 (2010).

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