Across the world, rivers wash mountains into the sea. In the beautiful and rugged mountains of southeast Alaska, glaciers grind mountains down as fast as the earths colliding tectonic plates shove them up.
"Like an ice palace cheese grater, glaciers sweep and grind rocks off of mountains. No matter how fast the plate pushes the rock up, the glacier will erode it just as fast," said James A. Spotila of Blacksburg, assistant professor of geosciences at Virginia Tech. The National Science Foundation-funded research is reported in the June issue of Geology, in the article, "Long-term glacial erosion of active mountain belts: Example of the Chugach-St. Elias Range, Alaska," by Spotila; Jamie Buscher of Los Angeles, a Ph.D. candidate in geosciences at Virginia Tech; Andrew Meigs of Oregon State University, and Peter Reiners of Yale.
The research team collected and dated rocks from the rugged, dangerous Chugach and St Elias mountain ranges in southeast Alaska, where a bend in the tectonic plate boundary results in collision of a plate fragment. This fragment, the Yakutat microplate, is sandwiched between the colliding Pacific and North American plates, which move closer together by about 5 centimeters per year, producing massive earthquakes and towering mountains. This collision of tectonic plates has pushed the Chugach-St. Elias Range up faster and higher than any other mountain belt this close to the sea. The range has the greatest coastal relief on earth. Mt. St. Elias rises to a height of 18,008 feet in a distance of less than 20 miles from the sea, despite eroding and discharging one of the highest rate of sediment in the world into the ocean.
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