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The Western Escarpment of the Andes at 18.30°S (Arica area, northern Chile) is a classical example for a transient state in landscape evolution. This part of the Andes is characterized by the presence of >10,000 km2 plains that formed between the Miocene and the present, and >1500 m deeply incised valleys. Although processes in these valleys scale the rates of landscape evolution, determinations of ages of incision, and more importantly, interpretations of possible controls on valley formation have been controversial. This paper uses morphometric data and observations, stratigraphic information, and estimates of sediment yields for the time interval between ca. 7.5 Ma and present to illustrate that the formation of these valleys was driven by two probably unrelated components. The first component is a phase of base-level lowering with magnitudes of∼300–500 m in the Coastal Cordillera. This period of base-level change in the Arica area, that started at ca. 7.5 Ma according to stratigraphic data, caused the trunk streams to dissect headward into the plains. The headward erosion interpretation is based on the presence of well-defined knickzones in stream profiles and the decrease in valley widths from the coast toward these knickzones. The second component is a change in paleoclimate. This interpretation is based on (1) the increase in the size of the largest alluvial boulders (from dm to m scale) with distal sources during the last 7.5 m.y., and (2) the calculated increase in minimum fluvial incision rates of ∼0.2 mm/yr between ca. 7.5 Ma and 3 Ma to ∼0.3 mm/yr subsequently. These trends suggest an increase in effective water discharge for systems sourced in the Western Cordillera (distal source). During the same time, however, valleys with headwaters in the coastal region (local source) lack any evidence of fluvial incision. This implies that the Coastal Cordillera became hyperarid sometime after 7.5 Ma. Furthermore, between 7.5 Ma and present, the sediment yields have been consistently higher in the catchments with distal sources (∼15 m/m.y.) than in the headwaters of rivers with local sources (<7 m/m.y.). The positive correlation between sediment yields and the altitude of the headwaters (distal versus local sources) seems to reflect the effect of orographic precipitation on surface erosion. It appears that base-level change in the coastal region, in combination with an increase in the orographic effect of precipitation, has controlled the topographic evolution of the northern Chilean Andes.

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