Empirical evidence of climate's role in Rocky Mountain landscape evolution

Catherine A. Riihimaki, Peter W. Reiners

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Climate may be the dominant factor affecting landscape evolution during the late Cenozoic, but models that connect climate and landscape evolution cannot be tested without precise ages of landforms. Zircon (U-Th)/He ages of clinker, metamorphosed rock formed by burning of underlying coal seams, provide constraints on the spatial and temporal patterns of Quaternary erosion in the Powder River basin of Wyoming and Montana. The age distribution of 86 sites shows two temporal patterns: (1) a bias toward younger ages because of erosion of older clinker and (2) periodic occurrence of coal fires likely corresponding with particular climatic regimes. Statistical t tests of the ages and spectral analyses of the age probability density function indicate that these episodes of frequent coal fires most likely correspond with times of high eccentricity in Earth's orbit, possibly driven by increased seasonality in the region causing increased erosion rates and coal exhumation. Correlation of ages with interglacial time periods is weaker. The correlations between climate and coal fires improve when only samples greater than 50km from the front of the Bighorn Range, the site of the nearest alpine glaciation, are compared. Together, these results indicate that the interaction between upstream glaciation and downstream erosion is likely not the dominant control on Quaternary landscape evolution in the Powder River basin, particularly since 0.5Ma. Instead, incision rates are likely controlled by the response of streams to climate shifts within the basin itself, possibly changes in local precipitation rates or frequency-magnitude distributions, with no discernable lag time between climate changes and landscape responses. Clinker ages are consistent with numerical models in which stream erosion is driven by fluctuations in stream power on thousand year timescales within the basins, possibly as a result of changing precipitation patterns, and is driven by regional rock uplift on million year timescales.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberF02007
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Geophysics


Dive into the research topics of 'Empirical evidence of climate's role in Rocky Mountain landscape evolution'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this