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Miocene drainage reversal of the Amazon River driven by plate–mantle interaction


Northern South America experienced significant changes in drainage patterns during the opening of the South Atlantic Ocean. Disappearance of a mega-wetland in the western Amazonian basins was followed by the formation of the eastward-draining Amazon River, which has been attributed to Andean uplift1,2,3,4,5. However, South America’s westward motion over cold, dense subducted slabs implies that regional subsidence and uplift east of the Andes may have been driven by mantle convection. Here we use a coupled model of mantle convection and plate kinematics to show that dynamic subsidence of up to 40 m Myr−1 initially formed the Amazonian mega-wetland. In our model, the sustained westward motion of continental South America over subducted slabs resulted in rebound of the Amazonian mega-wetland region at rates of up to 40 m Myr−1 after 30 million years ago, paired with continued subsidence of the eastern Amazonian sedimentary basins at 10–20 m Myr−1. The resulting progressive tilt of northern South America to the east enabled the establishment of the Amazon River, suggesting that mantle convection can profoundly affect the evolution of continental drainage systems.

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Figure 1: Palaeo-geography of the Amazon region.
Figure 2: Temperature structure underlying South America.
Figure 3: Dynamic topography and change in elevation.


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Supported by StatOil, NSF Grant EAR-0810303 at Caltech and ARC Grant FL0992245 at Sydney.

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G.E.S. post-processed model output and developed palaeo-geography analysis and prepared the manuscript; R.D.M. supervised the project and contributed to the manuscript; L.L. prepared and executed numerical models and contributed to the manuscript; R.D.M. and M.G. conceived project ideas and gave technical and conceptual advice.

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Correspondence to G. E. Shephard or L. Liu.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Shephard, G., Müller, R., Liu, L. et al. Miocene drainage reversal of the Amazon River driven by plate–mantle interaction. Nature Geosci 3, 870–875 (2010).

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