Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth

Orogeny and orography: The effects of erosion on the structure of mountain belts


  • Sean D. Willett


A numerical model of the coupled processes of tectonic deformation and surface erosion in convergent orogens is developed to investigate the nature of the interaction between these processes. Crustal deformation is calculated by a two-dimensional finite element model of deformation in response to subduction and accretion of continental crust. Erosion operates on the uplifted surface of this model through fluvial incision which is taken to be proportional to stream power. The relative importance of the tectonic and erosion processes is given by a dimensionless “erosion number” relating convergence velocity, rock erodibility, and precipitation rate. This number determines the time required for a system to reach steady state and the final topographic shape and size of a mountain belt. Fundamental characteristics of the model orogens include asymmetric topography with shallower slopes facing the subducting plate and an asymmetric pattern of exhumation with the deepest levels of exhumation opposite to subduction. These characteristics are modified when the regional climate exhibits a dominant wind direction and orographically enhanced precipitation on one side of the mountain belt. The two possible cases are dominant wind in the direction of motion of the subducting plate and dominant wind direction in the opposite direction of the subducting plate velocity. Models of the former case predict a broad zone of exhumation with maximum exhumation in the orogen interior. Models of the latter case predict a focused zone of exhumation at the margin of the orogen and, at high erosion number, a reversal in the topographic asymmetry. Natural examples of these two cases are presented. The Southern Alps of New Zealand exhibits the climate and exhumation asymmetry characteristic of wind in the direction opposite to motion of the subducting plate. The asymmetry of topography suggests that erosion is not efficient enough to have reversed the topographic asymmetry. The contrasting example of dominant wind in the direction of subduction motion is provided by the Olympic Mountains of Washington State. In this case, exhumation of deep levels of the Cascadia accretionary wedge shows a broad domal pattern consistent with the observed orographic precipitation.