Latitudinal Controls on Topography: The Role of Precipitation and Fluvial Erosion

Friday, 19 December 2014
Clayton Sorensen and Brian Yanites, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID, United States
Observations from the North and South American Cordillera show that mean and maximum elevations decrease with increasing latitude. The trend in elevation follows the latitudinal dependence of snowline altitudes. This correlation between elevation and snowline altitude has been the impetus behind the glacial ‘buzzsaw’ hypothesis, which states that glaciers limit the elevation of mountain peaks. Underlying this hypothesis is an assumption that elevations prior to glaciation were either uniform, randomly distributed, or followed a pattern that is no longer present. However, there may be other factors that are responsible for these patterns, such as latitudinal trends in precipitation. Here, we address this assumption and the necessity of glacial erosion in explaining the latitudinal trend in elevation. We use the CHILD landscape evolution model parameterized by modern precipitation data along a latitudinal gradient in the Andes to predict the topography in the absence of glaciation. Using NCEP/NCAR Reanalysis precipitation data from 1981-2010, we derive storm duration, intensity, and frequency statistics for a series of locations along the Andean orogen. For each location, we run a model using a sequence of storms generated from these statistics. Erodibility and rock-uplift are held constant between the different locations and the models are run until topographic steady-state is achieved. We also present runs exploring the role of a threshold for bedrock detachment in the modeled results. For each run, we track the maximum and mean elevation as well as the time to steady-state. Preliminary results for all cases show that fluvial processes alone are sufficient to account for the latitudinal dependence of topography. For example, landscapes produced with precipitation statistics similar to the dry central Andes are more than an order of magnitude higher than landscapes from the southern, wetter, part of the orogen. Future analysis will use precipitation data from Pliocene climate models as well as link CHILD with a spatially-distributed hydrology model (TopoFlow). Although preliminary, our results potentially challenge the glacial ‘buzzsaw’ hypothesis and present fluvial erosion as a capable mechanism of generating latitudinal trends in topography.