PerspectiveGeophysics

Can erosion drive tectonics?

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Science  21 Nov 2014:
Vol. 346, Issue 6212, pp. 918-919
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa0887

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Summary

Can climate-modulated erosion affect the location, rate, and style of tectonic deformation in Earth's crust and thus seismic hazards? Particularly in the Himalaya, there are clear correlations between rugged topography and high rates of rainfall, erosion, and rock uplift (1, 2), but a vigorous cause-and-effect debate continues, with new papers presenting evidence for (14) and against (57) erosional control of tectonics (see the figure). Although much field data are consistent with predicted associations among topography, erosion, climate, and deformation, unambiguous evidence has proven elusive (8). By focusing on a simple diagnostic test, Wang et al. show on page 978 of this issue (9) that the zone of rugged topography and extreme erosion rates where the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra River cuts through the Namche Barwa massif (see the figure)—often argued to reflect a dynamic tectonic response to river incision (2)—records, instead, a passive landscape response to tectonics over the past ~2 to 2.5 million years. The data threaten to undermine one of the most dramatic examples of a proposed tectonic response to erosion.