Nonuniform surface uplift of the Andean plateau revealed by deuterium isotopes in Miocene volcanic glass from southern Peru

Joel E. Saylor, Brian K. Horton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

71 Scopus citations


Proposals for rapid late Miocene surface uplift driven by large-scale lithospheric removal beneath the central Andean plateau have been based largely on temperature-sensitive paleoaltimeters. Both the magnitude and mechanism of this proposed pulse of uplift have been challenged. First, climatic general circulation models support protracted uplift with predicted temperature and isotopic shifts enhanced by attainment of threshold elevations. Second, tectonic models in which surface elevations are compensated by regional contraction and crustal thickening question the need for lithospheric removal and predict broadly coeval uplift of the entire plateau. We present hydrogen isotope data using a novel temperature-insensitive volcanic glass proxy from continuous, well-dated lower to middle Miocene basin fill in the Western Cordillera of the northern plateau that show a rapid decrease in δD values (-62.8‰) at 19-16 Ma, with extremely negative values continuing into the Pliocene. We propose that the basin reached its current elevation by 16 Ma, >6 Myr earlier than proposed for the central plateau. The rapid decrease in δD values is consistent with punctuated surface uplift of 2.2-3.7 km between 19 and 16 Ma. Whereas the 3.7 km upper estimate assumes a static climate similar to modern, the 2.2 km lower estimate conservatively incorporates modeled changes in the isotopic composition of precipitation associated with elevation change. Comparison of these results to existing paleoelevation estimates from the Andean plateau facilitates a tentative reconstruction of earliest middle Miocene paleotopography showing a central depression with flanking hinterland and thrust-belt highlands. This apparent pattern of nonuniform plateau uplift contradicts shortening-proportional topographic growth over tens of Myr. We propose that temporally and spatially irregular surface uplift may be linked to pronounced local variability in crustal shortening and/or piecemeal removal of dense mantle lithosphere. Insofar as these irregularities reflect the scale of heterogeneity for surface uplift processes, available paleoelevation estimates point to a principal uplift mechanism that varies over relatively short (<250 km) horizontal distances.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)120-131
Number of pages12
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
StatePublished - Feb 1 2014


  • Altiplano
  • Central Andean plateau
  • Deuterium
  • Paleoaltimetry
  • Paleoelevation
  • Stable isotope geochemistry

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science


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