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Cordilleran Contradictions, 2018 edition

Spent many hours in November sitting in on sessions and perusing posters at the Geological Society of America annual meeting; one goal was to see what’s up with the evolution of elevation of the U.S. Cordillera.

First a quick recap. There are two camps, more or less, on each side of the Cordillera.  The old mountains camp on both sides points mainly to oxygen and hydrogen isotope variations in proxies for precipitation. There are also attempts to retrodeform the lithosphere resulting in thick crust and high elevations. The dominant counterargument is that the paleometeorology used to interpret the isotopic values is flawed. On the young mountain side, classical geologic observations are invoked, including apparent tilting of river channels and the recent incision events in many places. The counterargument to this is that the appearance of a tilted channel may be biased by the depositional environment and that changes in climate can drive incision as easily as uplift. In between in some ways are geophysical observations of the lithosphere; recent changes in the lithosphere seem likely in much of the region, supporting younger mountains, but seem older east of the Southern Rockies.

Well, a meeting in Indianapolis isn’t one to bring out all the western geologists (next year’s meeting in Phoenix is a whole different matter), but a couple of things popped up. Did anything look to change the landscape, either by opening up new vistas or overturning old results? Not that GG discerned.  Below are some notes probably only of interest to the most interested….

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Which Eocene Erosion Surface? (Detailed)

GG has been piddling along though the Sierra (ostensibly to give a campfire talk in Mineral King) and in doing so stared a bit longer at a recent paper on the age of a pediment in the Sierran foothills by Sousa et al. in Geosphere in 2017. In a way this is a callback to concepts from far back in the geologic literature, namely the significance of an “Eocene erosion surface.”

Here, to be brief, low-temperature thermochronology from a low-elevation pediment in the western foothills of the Sierra yields very old ages–in fact, overlapping with the emplacement of plutons in the Sierran crest [this was not a unique observation; Cecil et al., 2006, had a pretty old point in their collection]. Sousa and coauthors model these data and get a cooling to surface conditions by about 40 Ma.  Because these pediments abut noticeable topography, this means there was at least that much local relief in the ancient Sierra. While the pediments had been noticed by others, many suspected a far more recent age.

In some ways, this is old news.  The Eocene sediments in the northern Sierra have long made clear the presence of significant local relief, and many workers had inferred that such relief was probably higher in the southern Sierra (e.g., Wakabayashi and Sawyer, 2001). But the southern Sierra lacked the Eocene sediments necessary to know what the Eocene landscape might have looked like, so this paper opens up a new window for us.

Where does this lead us? Kind of down a rabbit hole only to come up with no strong and useful statement–though perhaps future work could nail things down. This is more a personal attempt to try and grasp what is going on, so profound errors might exist and insights are few.  So, proceed at your own risk….
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Cold, getting warmer…

It seems a bit odd, but yesterday had, on average, the coldest high temperature here in Boulder of any day of the year.  Coming all of 11 days after the winter solstice, this seemed rather quick to GG.  After all, shouldn’t there be more thermal inertia in the system?  This got GG to wondering about these things, which led to an inability to locate this information trivially.  So a few quick numbers lifted from Intellicast’s archive, which is clearly very smoothed…(except for Boulder, which is from NOAA’s ESRL page–Denver is from Intellicast for comparison)


Place Date Lowest High Date Highest High
Boulder, CO (40N) 1 January (41) 17 July* (87)
Denver, CO (39.7N) 5 January (46) 21 July (89)
New York City (40.7N) 19 January (36) 24 July (83)
St. Louis, MO (38.6N) 12 January (37) 22 July (90)
Los Angeles (34N) 7 January (68) 8 August (85)
San Francisco (37.8N) 2 January (57) 28 September (72)
Phoenix, AZ (33.5N) 29 December (66) 12 July (107)

(*-but several almost as hot days are later in the month)

There is in fact quite a range. Phoenix wins as the place which comes closest to echoing sunlight, telling us that part of the equation is humidity. Boulder and Denver are a close second, which isn’t too surprising given that the altitude limits thermal blankets and the absolute humidity is pretty low. But some of the rest are a bit surprising…

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Return of the Young Sierra

Well, time to catch up on the evolution of the Sierra Nevada.  Although a large collection of paleoaltimetry papers has bolstered a case for the elevations in the Sierra having been created by the Eocene (most based on Rayleigh distillation of precipitation), a couple of other recent works, one geodetic and the other geomorphic, seem to indicate that Sierran topography has grown over the last few million years.

First up is an update on vertical GPS velocities in California and Nevada by Hammond et al. in the Journal of Geophysical ResearchThey find “…the Sierra Nevada is the most rapid and extensive uplift feature in the western United States, rising up to 2 mm/yr along most of the range….Uplift patterns are consistent with groundwater extraction and concomitant elastic bedrock uplift, plus slower background tectonic uplift.” This in some ways is trimming the sails a bit on the earlier Amos et al. paper in Nature; as we previously discussed this wasn’t entirely unexpected. Their money figure would be this:


The red blob in most of eastern California is the Sierra Nevada.  For most of the range, the pink colors correspond to uplift rates of 0.5-1.0 mm/yr. The presence of the pink/red colors in the central to northern Sierra, where there are no blue colors to the west, would indicate uplift is not being caused by groundwater withdrawal to the west (which is the cause of most of the dark blue south of 38°N and was the focus of the Amos et al. paper). Given the these rates would produce the modern mean elevation of the Sierra in under 6 million years, this would seem to strongly support the young Sierran story and be broadly consistent with the geologic story of a young uplift caused by removal of a dense root.

But, hmm, let’s look more closely…

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Shooting at the foot (and missing)

Sometimes you can say something that proves to be true but illustrate it poorly enough that readers don’t believe you.

Case in point: effect of basement lithologies on the grade of rivers (in this case, for how we interpret paleoriver systems). Manny Gabet (among others) has suggested that this causes the azimuthal variation in grade of Eocene paleochannels, and he illustrated this with the example shown below:


Now one thing here is the distance axis on the three plots: is it measured along the channel, or airline? One might think along the channel.  But in any event, look at the distance from B to C on the map and then on the plots.  Airline it eyeballs to about 6 km on the map, but only 4 km on the plots.  It is even worse if you measure along the river.  So this quick eyeball reality check would make many readers pause and question the conclusion here.

So GG here has carried this slightly further, Read More…

Coordinates and A Hot High Sierra

A recent paper by Mix et al. seeks to further bolster the story about the Sierra Nevada having already reached essentially modern elevations back in the Eocene. Examining the paper made GG want to play with a few things, and in the end the feeling here is that the new data (oxygen isotopes) don’t really help the story.  However reconsidering the whole of this dataset brings up questions about just what is being measured.

OK, first off, the paper appears to have two main goals: first, to show that temperatures were never so high as to have disturbed the ∂D (deuterium-hydrogen) measurements originally put forward by Mulch et al., and second to show that the oxygen isotope ratios support the original inference of near-modern elevations of this region.

The temperature results, which originate in differing fractionation coefficients for hydrogen and oxygen when making kaolinite, produce a very curious pattern:


(Note that “upriver” is distance from shoreline in the original paper, which turns out to be measured along paleorivers). Basically, if you take the temperatures at face value, it would seem that temperatures increased as you went upstream–that higher areas were hotter. Perhaps as curious, the spread of temperatures at a single site seems to be quite large. Although these results were used to argue that the hydrogen results had not been contaminated, the authors declined to interpret these temperatures as reflecting the local climate for several reasons, the most interesting being “uncertainty in the kaolinite- water fractionation at low temperatures (see Sheppard and Gilg, 1996) is likely greater than the resolution necessary for temperature-based paleoaltimetry reconstructions, at least across this modest climatic gradient.” One might take that to mean that the temperatures have no meaning at all, yet the mean temperature of all these is taken to be a significant piece of evidence supporting the Eocene origin of these isotopic patterns. This just feels like a bit of situational ethics–the temperatures are meaningful when they support your hypothesis (no problems with ∂D, matches expected Eocene temperatures) and not when they don’t (higher elevations seem to be warmer).

In playing with plotting, made this plot, the significance of which (if any) remains unclear to GG, being a grumpy geophysicist and not a grumpy geochemist:


Again, at least at face value, this is backwards: more depleted (more negative) ∂D values should be colder; if the temperature estimates were wholly random, you might not expect the rather noticeable correlation. But maybe this makes sense, just seemed strange to GG.

OK, but what about supporting the isotopic gradient story?

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Evaluating paleochannels

Just what, if any, significance is there to the paleochannels from the Eocene on the west side of the Sierra Nevada? These have been held up as demonstrations of post-Eocene uplift of the range and demoted to insignificant artifacts of a landscape developed on metamorphic rock. Consider these conflicting statements from the abstracts of two recent papers:

Eocene paleochannels show lowest gradients parallel to the range axis, steepest ones perpendicular, and reaches with significant “uphill” gradients that rise in the paleo-downstream direction. Modern Sierran rivers lack this relationship. The azimuth-gradient relationships of paleochannels, especially the uphill gradients, require late Cenozoic tilting and uplift.-Wakabayashi, Geosphere, 2013

and the counterpoint:

The studies supporting recent tilting in the northern Sierra Nevada are inconclusive and rely on observations not unique to tectonic forcing. Indeed, much of the evidence based on the paleogradients of the Tertiary channels is consistent with an early trellis drainage network formed across alternating bands of resistant and weak lithologies. –Gabet, Am. J. Sci., 2014

Now to be transparent, GG has published the view that the drainages do support post-Eocene uplift, but that was then and this is now; given the work done in the past decade, reexamining this is worth some effort. (Hopefully sometime we’ll take a long look at the Gabet paper, which is a more comprehensive attempt to consider the surface geology of the Sierra).

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