A global GIS- and literature-based analysis of the altitude and relief of more than 14,000 ice-free glacial cirques in 56 study areas ranging from 69°N to 77°S shows that average cirque floor altitudes vary with latitude in a zone centered on the Quaternary average equilibrium line altitude (QA-ELA). In addition, relief above cirque floors averages 346 ± 107 m, and is rarely >600 m. In regions where ice-free cirques are abundant, cirque relief is independent of modern precipitation rates, tectonic regime, and relative peak height, limiting peaks to within a fixed distance above the QA-ELA and thus causing them to also parallel the ELA. We propose a physical process model where, under suitable geologic and tectonic conditions, climate exerts a first-order control on mountain range height. In this model, glacial erosion excavates a zone of cirques with floors centered on the QA-ELA, while climate-driven weathering processes on adjacent slopes limit the peaks to within a few hundred meters above this zone.

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