Taking the pulse of mountain formation in the Andes

Apr 21, 2014
Sedimentary deposits near Cerdas in the Altiplano plateau of Bolivia are shown. These rocks contain ancient soils used to decipher the surface temperature and surface uplift history of the southern Altiplano. Credit: Photo by Carmala Garzione/University of Rochester.

Scientists have long been trying to understand how the Andes and other broad, high-elevation mountain ranges were formed. New research by Carmala Garzione, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester, and colleagues sheds light on the mystery.

In a paper published in the latest Earth and Planetary Science Letters, Garzione explains that the Altiplano plateau in the central Andes—and most likely the entire —was formed through a series of rapid growth spurts.

"This study provides increasing evidence that the plateau formed through periodic rapid pulses, not through a continuous, gradual uplift of the surface, as was traditionally thought," said Garzione. "In geologic terms, rapid means rising one kilometer or more over several millions of years, which is very impressive."

It's been understood that the Andes mountain range has been growing as the Nazca oceanic plate slips underneath the South American , causing the Earth's crust to shorten (by folding and faulting) and thicken. But that left two questions: How quickly have the Andes risen to their current height, and what was the actual process that enabled their rise?

Several years ago (2006-2008), Garzione and several colleagues provided the first estimates of the timing and rates of the surface uplift of the central Andes ("Mountain Ranges Rise Much More Rapidly than Geologists Expected") by measuring the ancient surface temperatures and rainfall compositions preserved in the soils of the central Altiplano, a plateau in Bolivia and Peru that sits about 12,000 feet above sea level. Garzione concluded that portions of the dense lower crust and upper mantle that act like an anchor on the base of the crust are periodically detached and sink through the mantle as the thickened continental plate heats up. Detachment of this dense anchor allows the Earth's low density upper crust to rebound and rise rapidly.

More recently, Garzione and Andrew Leier, an assistant professor of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of South Carolina, used a relatively new temperature-recording technique in two separate studies in different regions of the Andes to determine whether pulses of rapid surface uplift are the norm, or the exception, for the formation of mountain ranges like the Andes.

Garzione and Leier ("Stable isotope evidence for multiple pulses of rapid surface uplift in the Central Andes, Bolivia") both focused on the bonding behavior of carbon and oxygen isotopes in the mineral calcite that precipitated from rainwater; their results were similar.

Garzione worked in the southern Altiplano, collecting climate records preserved in ancient soils at both low elevations (close to sea level), where temperatures remained warm over the history of the Andes, and at high elevations where temperatures should have cooled as the mountains rose. The calcite found in the soil contains both the lighter isotopes of carbon and oxygen—12C and 16O—as well as the rare heavier isotopes—13C and 18O. Paleo-temperature estimates from calcite rely on the fact that heavy isotopes form stronger bonds. At lower temperatures, where atoms vibrate more slowly, the heavy isotope 13C-18O bonds would be more difficult to break, resulting in a higher concentration of 13C-18O bonds in calcite, compared to what is found at warmer temperatures. By measuring the abundance of heavy isotope bonds in both low elevation (warm) sites and high elevation (cooler) sites over time, Garzione used the temperature difference between the sites to estimate the elevation of various layers of ancient soils at specific points in time.

She found that the southern Altiplano region rose by about 2.5 kilometers between 16 million and 9 million years ago, which is considered a rapid rate in geologic terms. Garzione speculates that the pulsing action relates to a dense root that grows at the boundary of the lower crust and upper mantle. As the oceanic plate slips under the continental plate, the continental plate shortens and thickens, increasing the pressure on the lower crust. The basaltic composition of the lower crust converts to a very high-density rock called eclogite, which serves as an anchor to the low-density upper crust. As this root is forced deeper into the hotter part of the mantle, it heats to a temperature where it can be rapidly removed (over several million years), resulting in the rapid rise of the mountain range.

"What we are learning is that the Altiplano plateau formed by pulses of rapid surface uplift over several million years, separated by long periods (several tens of million years) of stable elevations," said Garzione. "We suspect this process is typical of other high-elevation ranges, but more research is needed before we know for certain."

Explore further: Geologists prove early Tibetan Plateau was larger than previously thought

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Not so fast! Andes rise was gradual, not abrupt

Apr 01, 2010

Trailing like a serpent's spine along the western coast of South America, the Andes are the world's longest continental mountain range and the highest range outside Asia, with an average elevation of 13,000 ...

Continents set the pace

Jan 28, 2014

The origin and stimulus behind plate tectonics has been simulated with the aid of high-performance computers. A new study sheds light on the role continents play in the formation of oceanic crust.

Rapid Sierra Nevada uplift tracked by scientists

May 03, 2012

From the highest peak in the continental United States, Mt. Whitney at 14,000 feet in elevation, to the 10,000-foot-peaks near Lake Tahoe, scientific evidence from the University of Nevada, Reno shows the entire Sierra Nevada ...

Recommended for you

Improving forecasts for rain-on-snow flooding

19 hours ago

Many of the worst West Coast winter floods pack a double punch. Heavy rains and melting snow wash down the mountains together to breach riverbanks, wash out roads and flood buildings.

The Greenland Ice Sheet: Now in HD

19 hours ago

The Greenland Ice Sheet is ready for its close-up. The highest-resolution satellite images ever taken of that region are making their debut. And while each individual pixel represents only one moment in time, ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.