Theoretical analysis predicts that enhanced erosion related to late Cenozoic global cooling can act as a first-order influence on the internal dynamics of mountain building, leading to a reduction in orogen width and height. The strongest response is predicted in orogens dominated by highly efficient alpine glacial erosion, producing a characteristic pattern of enhanced erosion on the windward flank of the orogen and maximum elevation controlled by glacier equilibrium line altitude, where long-term glacier mass gain equals mass loss. However, acquiring definitive field evidence of an active tectonic response to global climate cooling has been elusive. Here we present an extensive new lowerature thermochronologic data set from the Patagonian Andes, a high-latitude active orogen with a well-documented late Cenozoic tectonic, climatic and glacial history. Data from 38°S to 49°S record a marked acceleration in erosion 7 to 5Myr ago coeval with the onset of major Patagonian glaciation and retreat of deformation from the easternmost thrust front. The highest rates and magnitudes of erosion are restricted to the glacial equilibrium line altitude on the windward western flank of the orogen, as predicted in models of glaciated critical taper orogens where erosion rate is a function of ice sliding velocity. In contrast, towards higher latitudes (49°S to 56°S) a transition to older bedrock cooling ages signifies much reduced late Cenozoic erosion despite dominantly glacial conditions here since the latest Miocene. The increased height of the orogenic divide at these latitudes (well above the equilibrium line altitude) leads us to conclude that the southernmost Patagonian Andes represent the first recognized example of regional glacial protection of an active orogen from erosion, leading to constructive growth in orogen height and width.
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