Letter | Published:

Worldwide acceleration of mountain erosion under a cooling climate

Nature volume 504, pages 423426 (19 December 2013) | Download Citation

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Abstract

Climate influences the erosion processes acting at the Earth’s surface. However, the effect of cooling during the Late Cenozoic era, including the onset of Pliocene–Pleistocene Northern Hemisphere glaciation (about two to three million years ago), on global erosion rates remains unclear1,2,3,4. The uncertainty arises mainly from a lack of consensus on the use of the sedimentary record as a proxy for erosion3,4 and the difficulty of isolating the respective contributions of tectonics and climate to erosion5,6,7. Here we compile 18,000 bedrock thermochronometric ages from around the world and use a formal inversion procedure8 to estimate temporal and spatial variations in erosion rates. This allows for the quantification of erosion for the source areas that ultimately produce the sediment record on a timescale of millions of years. We find that mountain erosion rates have increased since about six million years ago and most rapidly since two million years ago. The increase of erosion rates is observed at all latitudes, but is most pronounced in glaciated mountain ranges, indicating that glacial processes played an important part. Because mountains represent a considerable fraction of the global production of sediments9, our results imply an increase in sediment flux at a global scale that coincides closely with enhanced cooling during the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs10,11.

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Acknowledgements

We thank J.-D. Champagnac and M. Brandon for discussions throughout the study. We also thank S. Jaccard and P. Molnar for their feedback on the manuscript and K. Huntington for her constructive review. The computations presented here were performed on the Brutus facility at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. F.H. was funded by SNF grant PP00P2_138956.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Institute of Earth Sciences, University of Lausanne, CH-1015 Lausanne, Switzerland

    • Frédéric Herman
    •  & Pierre G. Valla
  2. Department of Earth Sciences, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Sonneggstrasse 6, CH-8092 Zürich, Switzerland

    • Frédéric Herman
    • , Pierre G. Valla
    •  & Sean D. Willett
  3. School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, Victoria University, PO Box 600, Wellington, New Zealand

    • Diane Seward
  4. Department of Earth and Planetary Science, Birkbeck University of London, Malet Street, Bloomsbury, London WC1E 7HX, UK

    • Andrew Carter
  5. School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne, Victoria 3010, Australia

    • Barry Kohn
  6. Department of Geosciences, University of Tübingen, Wilhelmstrasse 56, D-72074 Tübingen, Germany

    • Todd A. Ehlers

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Contributions

F.H. designed the study and carried out the data interpretation. F.H., D.S., P.G.V., A.C., B.K. and T.A.E. contributed to compiling the data. All authors contributed to writing the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Frédéric Herman.

Extended data

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains the references of the compiled thermochronometric data.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Table

    This file contains the erosion rate model Supplementary Table. It includes longitude (°), latitude (°), erosion rates (mm/yr) and resolution. These are the values used for Figures 1, 2 and 3. Note the rates are reported at grid points around existing data location for ease of visualization and reduce weight due the sampling density. Only points from fast eroding areas and with resolution higher than 0.25 for all four time steps are used in Figure 2 and 3b. This file was replaced on 20 December 2013.

Videos

  1. 1.

    The time evolution of global erosion rates over the last 8 Myr, resolved into 2 Myr time steps

    The time evolution of global erosion rates over the last 8 Myr, resolved into 2 Myr time steps (see main manuscript and Figure 1 for details).

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12877

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