Is erosion paced by Milankovich cycles?

Both physical and chemical weathering reflects climatic controls. Erosion is effectively climate in continuous action on the Earth’s solid surface through water, air and bodies of ice moving under the influence of gravity. These two major processes on the land surface are immensely complicated. Being the surface part of the rock cycle, they interact with biological processes in the continents’ web of climate-controlled ecosystems. It is self-evident that climate exerts a powerful influence on all terrestrial landforms. But at any place on the Earth’s surface climate changes on a whole spectrum of rates and time scales as reflected by palaeoclimatology. With little room for doubt, so too do weathering and erosion. Yet other forces are at play in the development of landforms. ‘Wearing-down’ of elevated areas removes part of the load that the lithosphere bears, so that the surface rises in deeply eroded terrains. Solids removed as sediments depress the lithosphere where they are deposited in great sedimentary basins. In both cases the lithosphere rises and falls to maintain isostatic balance. On the grandest of scales, plate tectonics operates continuously as well. Its lateral motions force up mountain belts and volcanic chains, and drag apart the lithosphere, events that in themselves change climate at regional levels. Tectonics thereby creates ‘blips’ in long term global climate change. So evidence for links between landform evolution and palaeoclimate is notoriously difficult to pin down, let alone analyse.

The evidence for climate change over the last few million years is astonishingly detailed; so much so that it is possible to detect major global events that took as little as a few decades, such as the Younger Dryas, especially using data from ice cores. The record from ocean-floor sediments is good for changes over hundreds to thousands of years. The triumph of palaeoclimatology is that the last 2.5 Ma of Earth’s history has been proved to have been largely paced by variations in the Earth’s orbit and in the angle of tilt and wobbles of its rotational axis: a topic that Earth-logs has tracked since the start of the 21st century. The record also hints at processes influencing global climate that stem from various processes in the Earth system itself, at irregular but roughly millennial scales. The same cannot be said for the geological record of erosion, for a variety of reasons, foremost being that erosion and sediment transport are rarely continuous in any one place and it is more difficult to date the sedimentary products of erosion than ice cores and laminations in ocean-floor sediments. Nonetheless, a team from the US, Germany, the Netherlands , France and Argentina have tackled this thorny issue on the eastern side of the Andes in Argentina (Fisher, G.B. and 11 others 2023. Milankovitch-paced erosion in the southern Central Andes. Nature Communications, v. 14, 424-439; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-36022-0.

Burch Fisher (University of Texas at Austin, USA) and colleagues studied sediments derived from a catchment that drains the Puna Plateau that together with the Altiplano forms the axis of the Central Andes. In the late 19th century the upper reaches of the Rio Iruya were rerouted, which has resulted in its cutting a 100 m deep canyon through Pliocene to Early Pleistocene (6.0 to 1.8 Ma) sediments. The section includes six volcanic ash beds (dated precisely using the zircon U-Pb method) and records nine palaeomagnetic reversals, which together helped to calibrate more closely spaced dating. Their detailed survey used the decay of radioactive isotopes of beryllium and aluminium (10Be and 26Al) in quartz grains that form in the mineral when exposed at the surface to cosmic-ray bombardment. Such cosmogenic radionuclide dating thus records the last time different sediment levels were at the surface, presumably when the sediment was buried, and thus the variation in the rate of sediment supply from erosion of the Rio Iruya catchment since 6 Ma ago.

Measured concentrations (low to high values downwards) of cosmogenic 10Be (turquoise) and 26Al (red) in samples from the Rio Iruya sediment sequence. The higher the value, the longer the layer had resided at the surface; i.e. the slower the erosion rate. (Credit: Fisher et al. Fig 4)

The data from 10Be suggest that erosion rates were consistently high from 6 to 4 Ma, but four times during the later Pliocene and the earliest Pleistocene they slowed dramatically. Each of these episodes occupies downturns in solar warming forced by the 400 ka cycle of orbital eccentricity. The 26Al record confirms this trend. The most likely reason for the slowing of erosion is long-term reductions in rainfall, which Fisher et al have modelled based on Milankovich cycles. However the modelled fluctuations are subtle, suggesting that in the Central Andes at least erosion rates were highly sensitive to climatic fluctuations. Yet the last 400 ka cycle in the record shows no apparent correlation with climate change.  Despite that, astronomical forcing while early Pleistocene oscillations between cooling and warming ramped up does seem to have affected erosion rates based on the cosmogenic dating. The authors attribute this loss of the 400 ka pattern to a kind of swamping effect of dramatically increased erosion rates as the regional climate became more erratic. Whether or not data of this kind will emerge for the more climatically drastic 100 ka cyclicity of the last million years remains to be seen … Anyone who has walked over terrains covered in glacial tills and glaciofluvial gravel beds nearer to the former Late Pleistocene ice sheets can judge the difficulty of such a task.