Abstract

Modern space geodesy has recently enabled the direct observation of slow geological processes that move and shape Earth’s surface, including plate tectonics and crustal strain accumulation that leads to earthquakes. More elusive has been the direct observation of active mountain growth, because geodetic measurements have larger uncertainties in the vertical direction, while mountain growth is typically very slow. For the Sierra Nevada of California and Nevada, western United States, the history of elevation is complex, exhibiting features of both ancient (40–60 Ma) and relatively young (<3 Ma) elevation. Here we exploit the complementary strengths of high-precision three-component point positions from the GPS and blanket coverage line-of-sight measurements from interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR) to show that contemporary vertical motion of the Sierra Nevada is between 1 and 2 mm/yr. The motion is upward with respect to Earth’s center of mass and with respect to a relatively stable eastern Nevada, indicating generation of relief and uplift against gravity. Uplift is distributed along the entire length of the range, between latitude 35°N and 40°N, and is not focused near localized, seismically imaged mantle downwellings. These results indicate that the modern episode of Sierra Nevada uplift is still active and could have generated the entire modern range in <3 m.y.

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