Human-induced climate change could ultimately influence deep Earth processes
Diagram showing plate movements due to erosion, Image: Russell Pysklywec
Trace of Alpine Fault along western margin of Southern Alps, Image: Russell Pysklywec
The erosion caused by rainfall directly affects the movement of continental plates beneath mountain ranges, says a University of Toronto geophysicist — the first time science has raised the possibility that human-induced climate change could affect the deep workings of the planet.
“In geology, we have this idea that erosion’s going to affect merely the surface,” says Russell Pysklywec, a professor of geology who creates computer models where he can control how a range of natural processes can create and modify mountains over millions of years. Pysklywec conducts field research in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, where the mountains are high and geologically “young.” He found that when mountains are exposed to New Zealand-type rainfall (which causes one centimetre of erosion per year) compared to southern California-type rainfall (which erodes one-tenth of a centimetre or less), it profoundly changes the behaviour of the tectonic plates beneath the mountains. “These are tiny, tiny changes on the surface, but integrating them over geologic time scales affects the roots of the mountains, as opposed to just the top of them,” says Pysklywec. “It goes right down to the mantle thermal engine — the thing that’s actually driving plate tectonics. It’s fairly surprising — it hasn’t been shown before.”
Nicolle Wahl | EurekAlert!
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