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Facing reality: Late Cenozoic evolution of smooth peaks, glacially ornamented valleys, and deep river gorges of Colorado's Front Range

By
Robert S. Anderson
Robert S. Anderson
1
Department of Geological Sciences and Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), Campus Box 450, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309, USA
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Catherine A. Riihimaki
Catherine A. Riihimaki
2
Department of Earth Sciences, University of California, Santa Cruz, California 95064, USA
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Elizabeth B. Safran
Elizabeth B. Safran
3
Environmental Studies Program, Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon 97219, USA
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Kelly R. MacGregor
Kelly R. MacGregor
4
Geology Department, Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota 55105, USA
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Published:
January 01, 2006

Thirty to forty m.y. of post-Laramide degradation of the southern Rocky Mountains likely produced relatively low-relief topography within the crystalline cores of the ranges, and capped the adjacent sedimentary basins with easily eroded sediments. We focus on the modern, more dissected topography of these ranges, reflecting late Cenozoic evolution driven by fluvial and glacial exhumation, each of which affects different portions of the landscape in characteristic ways. Ongoing exhumation of the adjacent basins, in places by more than 1 km, is effectively lowering base level of streams draining the crystalline range cores. The streams have incised deep bedrock canyons that now cut the flanks of the range. Over the same time scales, glaciation of the headwaters of the major streams has modified the range crests. We utilize the topography of the northern Front Range of Colorado to explore the response of a Laramide range both to the exhumation of the adjacent basin and to glaciation in the high elevations. We break the problem of whole landscape evolution into three related, one-dimensional problems: evolution of the high smooth summit surfaces; evolution of the longitudinal profiles of adjacent glacial troughs; and evolution of the fluvial profiles downstream of the glacial limit. We review work on the high summit surfaces, showing quantitatively that they are steady-state features lowering at rates on the order of 5 μm/yr, and are entirely decoupled from the adjacent glacial troughs. Glaciers not only truncate these high surfaces, but greatly alter the longitudinal profiles of the major streams: major steps occur at tributary junctions, and profiles above the glacial limit are significantly flattened from their original fluvial slopes. We extend existing models of glacial valley evolution by including processes that allow head-wall retreat. This serves to enhance the headward retreat of east-facing valleys, and explains the asymmetric truncation of the high smooth surfaces that form the spine of the range. Fluvial profiles downstream of the glacial limit commonly display a prominent convexity inboard of the range edge. Stream-power–based numerical models of profile evolution of specific rivers demonstrate that this reflects a transient response of the streams to base-level lowering. This response varies significantly with drainage basin area. We explore the degree to which this differential response controls the location of major remnants of pediments on the edge of the Great Plains, such as the prominent Rocky Flats and adjacent surfaces.

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GSA Special Papers

Tectonics, Climate, and Landscape Evolution

Sean D. Willett
Sean D. Willett
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Niels Hovius
Niels Hovius
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Mark T. Brandon
Mark T. Brandon
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Donald M. Fisher
Donald M. Fisher
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Geological Society of America
Volume
398
ISBN print:
9780813723983
Publication date:
January 01, 2006

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