A steep escarpment edge, deep gorges and distinct knickzones in river profiles characterize the landscape on the Western Escarpment of the Andes between ~5°S and ~18°S (northern Peru to northern Chile). Strong north–south and east–west precipitation gradients are exploited in order to determine how climate affects denudation rates in three river basins spanning an otherwise relatively uniform geologic and geomorphologic setting. Late Miocene tectonics uplifted the Meseta/Altiplano plateau (~3000 m a.s.l.), which is underlain by a series of Tertiary volcanic-volcanoclastic rocks. Streams on this plateau remain graded to the Late Miocene base level. Below the rim of the Meseta, streams have responded to this ramp uplift by incising deeply into fractured Mesozoic rocks via a series of steep, headward retreating knickzones that grade to the present-day base level defined by the Pacific Ocean.
It is found that the Tertiary units on the plateau function as cap-rocks, which aid in the parallel retreat of the sharp escarpment edge and upper knickzone tips. 10Be-derived catchment denudation rates of the Rio Piura (5°S), Rio Pisco (13°S) and Rio Lluta (18°S) average ~10 mm ky−1 on the Meseta/Altiplano, irrespective of precipitation rates; whereas, downstream of the escarpment edge, denudation rates range from 10 mm ky−1 to 250 mm ky−1 and correlate positively with precipitation rates, but show no strong correlation with hillslope angles or channel steepness. These relationships are explained by the presence of a cap-rock and climate-driven fluvial incision that steepens hillslopes to near-threshold conditions.
Since escarpment retreat and the precipitation pattern were established at least in the Miocene, it is speculated that the present-day distribution of morphology and denudation rates has probably remained largely unchanged during the past several millions of years as the knickzones have propagated headward into the plateau. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.