The topographic imprint of a transient climate episode: the western Andean flank between 15·5° and 41·5°S


  • Correction added on 2 September, after first online publication. The location information has been added to part D of Figure 3


Mountain-range topography is determined by the complex interplay between tectonics and climate. However, often it is not clear to what extent climate forces topographic evolution and how past climatic episodes are reflected in present-day relief.

The Andes are a tectonically active mountain belt encompassing various climatic zones with pronounced differences in rainfall, erosion, and glacier extent under similar plate-boundary conditions. In the central to south-western Andes, climatic zones range from hyperarid desert with mean annual rainfall of 5 mm/a (22·5°S) to year-round humidity with 2500 mm/a (40°S). The Andes thus provide a unique setting for investigating the relationship between tectonics, climate, and topography.

We present an analysis of 120 catchments along the western Andean watersheds between 15·5° and 41·5°S, which is based on SRTMV3-90m data and new medium-resolution rainfall, tropical rainfall measurement mission (TRMM) dataset. For each basin, we extracted geometry, relief, and climate parameters to test whether Andean topography shows a climatic imprint and to analyze how climate influences relief.

Our data document that elevation and relief decrease with increasing rainfall and descending snowline elevation. Furthermore, we show that local relief reaches high values of 750 m in a zone between 28°S to 35°S. During Pleistocene glacial stages this region was affected by the northward shifting southern hemisphere Westerlies, which provided moisture for valley-glacier formation and extended glacial coverage as well as glacial erosion. In contrast, the southern regions between 35°S to 40°S receive higher rainfall and have a lower local relief of 200 m, probably related to an increased drainage density. We distinguish two different, climatically-controlled mechanisms shaping topography: (1) fluvial erosion by prolonged channel-hillslope coupling, which smoothes relief, and (2) erosion by valley glaciers that generates relief. Finally, Our results suggests that the catchment-scale relief of the Andes between 28°S to 35°S is characterized by a pronounced transient component reflecting past climatic conditions. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.