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Worldwide acceleration of mountain erosion under a cooling climate

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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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Figure 1: Erosion rates and their variations over the past 6 Myr, resolved into 2-Myr time steps.
Figure 2: Relative frequency and cumulative distributions of the ratio of erosion rates between 2–0 Myr ago and 6–4 Myr ago.
Figure 3: Mountain erosion rates and δ18O measurements during the Late Cenozoic era.

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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

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Frédéric Herman.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Compilation of thermochronometric ages.

See the source data and associated references in the Supplementary Information for sample locations, elevations, ages and standard error measurements.

Source data

Extended Data Figure 2 Global inversion sensitivity tests.

a, Same as Fig. 3b, but using different prior erosion rates eP (equation (4) in Methods), as indicated on the figure. b, Same as Fig. 3b, but using different initial near-surface unperturbed geothermal gradients G0. See text for details.

Extended Data Figure 3 One-dimensional inversion results for four different erosion histories.

The red curve is the erosion history used to generate synthetic thermochronometric ages. The ages (Myr) for each test are indicated on the figure. The black lines are the most likely solution obtained from the Bayesian inversion. The grey areas represent the 1σ uncertainty around the most likely erosion rate solution. The blue lines are the results of the linear inversion (Methods and ref. 8). The panels on the left depict inversion results using all four systems; the middle panels use AHe and AFT only; and the right panels use AFT only. See text for details.

Extended Data Figure 4 Thermochronometric data from Patagonia15.

See Extended Data Fig. 1 and ref. 15 for further details.

Extended Data Figure 5 Inversion results of Patagonia thermochronometric data set15.

The upper panels are erosion rates predicted by the inverse method8. The lower panels are resolution estimates (with 0.25 contours).

Extended Data Figure 6 Inversion results of ZFT Patagonia data only.

Upper panels are predicted erosion rates with the inverse method8. Lower panels are resolution estimates (with 0.25 contours).

Extended Data Figure 7 Set-up for the three-dimensional thermo-kinematic model.

a, Topography and horizontal extent. b, Vertical extent, initial unperturbed temperature field and imposed kinematic field.

Extended Data Figure 8 Inversion results on three-dimensional synthetic data.

a, Inversion on synthetic data produced with constant 5 mm yr−1 slip rates. b, Same as a using a 1 mm yr−1 slip rate. c, Same as b, but with a slip rate that increases from 1 mm yr−1 to 5 mm yr−1 in the past 2 Myr. Left panels are erosion rates and right panels are resolution estimates.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains the references of the compiled thermochronometric data. (PDF 414 kb)

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. (PDF 4347 kb)

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). (MOV 1653 kb)

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Herman, F., Seward, D., Valla, P. et al. Worldwide acceleration of mountain erosion under a cooling climate. Nature 504, 423–426 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12877

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