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Modelling the effects of ice transport and sediment sources on the form of detrital thermochronological age probability distributions from glacial settings

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  • Maxime Bernard, Universite de Rennes 1
  • ,
  • Philippe Steer, Universite de Rennes 1
  • ,
  • Kerry Gallagher, Universite de Rennes 1
  • ,
  • David Lundbek Egholm

The impact of glaciers on the Quaternary evolution of mountainous landscapes remains controversial. Although in situ or bedrock low-temperature thermochronology offers insights on past rock exhumation and landscape erosion, the method also suffers from potential biases due to the difficulty of sampling bedrock buried under glaciers. Detrital thermochronology attempts to overcome this issue by sampling sediments at e.g. the catchment outlet, a component of which may originate from beneath the ice. However, detrital age distributions not only reflect the catchment exhumation, but also spatially variable patterns and rates of surface erosion and sediment transport. In this study, we use a new version of a glacial landscape evolution model, iSOSIA, to address the effect of erosion and sediment transport by ice on the form of synthetic detrital age distributions. Sediments are tracked as Lagrangian particles formed by bedrock erosion, and their transport is restricted to ice or hillslope processes, neglecting subglacial hydrology, until they are deposited. We base our model on the Tiedemann Glacier (British Columbia, Canada), which has simple morphological characteristics, such as a linear form and no connectivity to large tributary glaciers. Synthetic detrital age distributions are generated by specifying an erosion history, then sampling sediment particles at the frontal moraine of the modelled glacier. Results show that sediment sources, reflecting different processes such as glacier and hillslope erosion, can have distinct bedrock age distribution signatures, and estimating such distributions should help to identify predominant sources in the sampling site. However, discrepancies between the detrital and bedrock age distributions occur due to (i) the selective storage of a large proportion of sediments in small tributary glaciers and in lateral moraines, (ii) the large range of particle transport times due to varying transport lengths and strong variability of glacier ice velocity, (iii) the heterogeneous pattern of erosion, and (iv) the advective nature of glacier sediment transport along ice streamlines. This last factor leads to a poor lateral mixing of particle detrital signatures inside the frontal moraine, and then local sampling of the frontal moraine is likely to reflect local sources upstream. Therefore, sampling randomly across the moraine is preferred for a more representative view of the catchment age distribution. Finally, systematic comparisons between synthetic (U−Th)/He and fission track detrital ages, with different bedrock age-elevation profiles and different relative age uncertainties, show that the nature of the age-elevation relationship and age uncertainties largely control the ability to track sediment sources in the detrital record. However, depending on the erosion pattern spatially, qualitative first-order information may still be extracted from a thermochronological system with high uncertainties (> 30 %). Overall, our results demonstrate that detrital age distributions in glaciated catchments are strongly impacted not only by erosion and exhumation but also by sediment transport processes and their spatial variability. However, when combined with bedrock age distributions, detrital thermochronology offers a novel means to constrain the transport pattern and time of sediment particles.

Original languageEnglish
JournalEarth Surface Dynamics
Pages (from-to)931-953
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2020

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ID: 201315631