You've heard about how climate change can force trees, animals and fish to relocate when dealing with temperature shifts. But here's a new one for you. Climate actually helps move mountains and vice-versa: Mountains influence climate as well.
For millions of years, global climate shifts altered the structure and internal movement of mountain ranges, and in turn, the resulting development of glaciers and erosion has enabled mountains to alter the local climate around them.
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The extent of that feedback loop is documented in a new study on the St. Elias Mountain Range, which is located along the the cost of northwest Canada and southeastern Alaska. The study, led by University of Cincinnati geologist Eva Enkelmann, was published in Geophysical Research Letters and also presented at the Geological Society of America's recent annual meeting in Baltimore.
"To understanding how mountain structures evolve through geologic time is no quick task because we are talking millions of years," Enkelmann said in a press release. "There are two primary processes that result in the building and eroding of mountains and those processes are interacting."
The way a mountain range moves and behaves topographically can also change and affect its local climate by redirecting wind and precipitation. The repercussions of these changes can accelerate the erosion and tectonic seismic activity of that mountain range.
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The St. Elias range, the highest coastal mountains on the planet, illustrate this. Precipitation is high in the southern end of the range, which results in erosion and material coming off the southern flanks of the range. So as climate change influences the erosion, that can produce a tectonic shift.
That process has been predicted by past studies. But Enkelmann provided stronger evidence by gathering data to show how a rapid exhumation -- an uplift of rocks -- occurred in the central part of the mountain range between 2 and 4 million years ago. That back-and-forth effect between erosion and internal tectonic shifting resulted in a large amount of rock moving up toward the surface very rapidly.
As Enkelmann noted, the process is still at work. Enkelmann said in a statement that glaciers today are wet-based and are moving, very aggressively eroding material around and out, and in the case of her observation, into the Gulf of Alaska. The tectonic forces -- internal plates moving toward one another -- continue to move toward Alaska, get pushed underneath and the sediment on top is piling up above the Yakutat plate.