The high elevation and deep incision of the Alps have traditionally been used as an argument for recent tectonic activity that has elevated the belt and increased erosion rates. Normal faulting and horizontal extension, however, dominate current tectonic activity, and isostatic compensation of thinning crust should lead not to increased but to decreased mean elevations. Here we test the idea that enhanced Quaternary erosion of the Alps and isostatic compensation of the mass removed can account for the distribution of present-day geodetically measured rates of vertical movement in the western Alps. Using geophysical relief and Kuhlemann's estimated average erosion rate for the Alps, we quantify the spatial distribution of erosion and the volume of eroded rock, respectively. From these, we obtain a map of rock eroded within a given time span. The calculated isostatic response of the Alpine lithosphere to erosional unloading for a variety of values of the flexural rigidity of the Alpine lithosphere reaches a maximum of ∼500 m since 1 Ma in the inner Swiss Alps, and vertical movement extends across the entire belt, including peri-Alpine basins. Assuming a steady erosion rate since 1 Ma, this rebound accounts for half of the measured vertical motion of 1.1 mm/yr in the southern Valais. Thus, a significant fraction (∼50%) of the present-day vertical movement results from the isostatic response to enhanced erosion during Plio-Quaternary time.

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