The intramontane basins of the southern Rocky Mountains, USA, have undergone up to 1.5 km of erosion from the middle Miocene to the present. Here I explore the hypothesis that this erosion could have been caused primarily by an increase in the intensity of snowmelt flooding. In the middle Miocene, snow-melt runoff was limited to the highest elevations (>3 km) and hence impacted only a small fraction of the regional landscape. As the global climate system cooled during the late Miocene and Plio-Quaternary periods, the fraction of total river discharge derived from snowmelt increased significantly in areas between 1.5 and 3 km elevation, thereby increasing the magnitude of flooding during periods of snowmelt and the resulting bedload sediment flux and erosion of rivers in that elevation range. In this paper, the fraction of modern discharge derived from snowmelt is used, together with an assumed lapse rate, to map the change in snowmelt discharge and sediment flux through time from the middle Miocene to the Quaternary in the southern Rocky Mountain region. These data are then used as input to a landscape evolution model that maps the spatial distribution of late Cenozoic snowmelt-driven erosion in the region. The model predicts a spatial distribution of erosion that broadly matches the actual distribution determined from geographic information system (GIS) analyses and dated basin-fill remnants. In the model, a factor-of-four increase in sediment flux within the 1.5-3 km elevation range, well within reasonable estimates, is capable of producing the observed magnitude of late Cenozoic erosion in the region. The longitudinal profiles of major rivers sourced from the southern Rocky Mountains are also modeled through time in order to better understand the downstream response to intramontane basin erosion. Model results indicate that erosion would have triggered widespread deposition downstream from those basins, which is broadly consistent with the magnitude, timing, and spatial distribution of the Ogallala Formation. The results of this study suggest that snowmelt-driven erosion may be an important component of late Cenozoic landscape evolution in mid- to high-elevation regions worldwide.
ASJC Scopus subject areas