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S.B. Nielsen

The periglacial engine of mountain erosion – Part 2: Modelling large-scale landscape evolution

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There is growing recognition of strong periglacial control on bedrock erosion in mountain landscapes, including the shaping of low-relief surfaces at high elevations (summit flats). But, as yet, the hypothesis that frost action was crucial to the assumed Late Cenozoic rise in erosion rates remains compelling and untested. Here we present a landscape evolution model incorporating two key periglacial processes – regolith production via frost cracking and sediment transport via frost creep – which together are harnessed to variations in temperature and the evolving thickness of sediment cover. Our computational experiments time-integrate the contribution of frost action to shaping mountain topography over million-year timescales, with the primary and highly reproducible outcome being the development of flattish or gently convex summit flats. A simple scaling of temperature to marine 18O records spanning the past 14 Myr indicates that the highest summit flats in mid- to high-latitude mountains may have formed via frost action prior to the Quaternary. We suggest that deep cooling in the Quaternary accelerated mechanical weathering globally by significantly expanding the area subject to frost. Further, the inclusion of subglacial erosion alongside periglacial processes in our computational experiments points to alpine glaciers increasing the long-term efficiency of frost-driven erosion by steepening hillslopes.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEarth Surface Dynamics
Pages (from-to)463-482
Number of pages20
Publication statusPublished - 2015

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