Cenozoic exhumation of the northern Sierra Nevada, California, from (U-Th)/He thermochronology

M. Robinson Cecil, Mihai N. Ducea, Peter W. Reiners, Clement G. Chase

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

81 Scopus citations


Apatite and zircon (U-Th)/He ages from a 100-km-long range-perpendicular transect in the northern Sierra Nevada, California, are used to constrain the exhumation history of the range since ca. 90 Ma. (U-Th)/He ages in apatite decrease from 80 Ma along the low western range flanks to 46 Ma in the higher elevations to the east. (U-Th)/He ages in zircon also show a weak inverse correlation with elevation, decreasing from 91 Main the west to 66 Ma in the east. Rocks near the range crest, sampled at elevations of 2200-2500 m, yield the youngest apatite helium ages (46-55 Ma), whereas zircon helium ages are more uniform across the divide. These data reveal relatively rapid cooling rates between ca. 90 and 60 Ma, which are consistent with relatively rapid exhumation rates of 0.2-0.8 km/m.y., followed by a long period of slower exhumation (0.02-0.04 km/m.y.) from the early Paleogene to today. This is reflected in the low-relief morphology of the northern Sierra Nevada, where an Eocene erosional surface has long been identified. A long period of slow exhumation is also consistent with well-documented, widespread lateritic paleosols at the base of Eocene depositional units. Laterites preserved in the northern Sierra Nevada are the product of intense weathering in a subtropical environment and suggest an enduring, soil-mantled topography. We interpret this exhumation history as recording a Late Cretaceous to early Cenozoic period of relatively rapid uplift and unroofing followed by tectonic quiescence and erosional smoothing of Sierran topography through the Neogene. Well-documented recent incision appears to have had little effect on (U-Th)/He ages, suggesting that less than ∼3 km has been eroded from the Sierra Nevada since the early Cenozoic.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1481-1488
Number of pages8
JournalBulletin of the Geological Society of America
Issue number11-12
StatePublished - Nov 2006


  • Exhumation
  • Paleotopography
  • Sierra Nevada
  • Tectonics
  • Thermochronology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geology


Dive into the research topics of 'Cenozoic exhumation of the northern Sierra Nevada, California, from (U-Th)/He thermochronology'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this