The Cenozoic climatic and topographic evolution of the western North American Cordillera

TitleThe Cenozoic climatic and topographic evolution of the western North American Cordillera
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2012
AuthorsChamberlain C P, Mix HT, Mulch A, Hren MT, Kent-Corson M L, Davis SJ, Horton TW, Graham SA
JournalAmerican Journal of Science

Herein we present oxygen isotope records from Cretaceous to Recent terrestrial sediments in the western North American Cordillera. The purpose of this analysis is to use oxygen isotope records to understand the coupled surface elevation and climate histories of this region through the Cenozoic. To do this we constructed δ18O maps of surface waters for time intervals that trace the development of topography of western North America. These maps are based on 4861 oxygen isotope analyses from both published (4478) and new (383) data. We determined the δ18O values of surface waters using paleotemperatures derived previously from floral assemblages and the appropriate isotope fractionation factors. These data suggest that in the late Cretaceous to early Eocene the Sevier hinterland formed a plateau of unknown height. Around 50 Ma, a topographic wave developed in British Columbia and eastern Washington that swept southward reaching northeastern Nevada at ∼40 to 38 Ma, and southern Nevada ∼23 Ma. This southward encroachment of an Eocene Plateau (SWEEP) caused reorganization of drainage patterns such that the intraforeland basins of Wyoming and Utah drainages extended deep within the Sevier hinterland as the wave swept southward. The landscape within the Sevier hinterland developed into a rugged and high mountain range with the hypsometric mean elevation of ∼4 km and relief of ∼1.5 km. This Eocene highland was bordered on the west by a high Sierra Nevada ramp and on the east by the intraforeland basins that captured water draining these growing highlands. The spatial and temporal evolution of this highland correlates with the timing of volcanism and extension. These observations support tectonic models that call for north to south removal of the Farallon slab or piecemeal removal of mantle lithosphere.The isotopic data show that prior to growth of this highland the North American Monsoon (NAM) penetrated much farther north in the Paleocene/Eocene than today. The combined effects of global cooling, increasing latitudinal temperature gradients, and the generation of the orographic barrier created by the growing north to south highland produced a southward migration of the NAM front. By the Oligocene the hydrologic regime that we observe today was in place. It has been modified since then as a result of Basin and Range extension and collapse of the highlands in the mid-Miocene. This collapse allowed the NAM to penetrate farther north into the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah.