The history of erosion of southwestern North America and its relationship to surface uplift is a long-standing topic of debate. We use geologic and thermochronometric data to reconstruct the erosion history of southwestern North America. We infer that erosion events occurred mostly in response to surface uplift by contemporaneous tectonism, and were not long-delayed responses to surface uplift caused by later climate change or drainage reorganization. Rock uplift in response to isostatic compensation of exhumation occurred during each erosion event, but has been quantified only for parts of the late Miocene–Holocene erosion episode. We recognize four episodes of erosion and associated tectonic uplift: (1) the Laramide orogeny (ca. 75–45 Ma), during which individual uplifts were deeply eroded as a result of uplift by thrust faults, but Laramide basins and the Great Plains region remained near sea level, as shown by the lack of significant Laramide exhumation in these areas; (2) late middle Eocene erosion (ca. 42–37 Ma) in Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado, which probably occurred in response to epeirogenic uplift from lithospheric rebound that followed the cessation of Laramide dynamic subsidence; (3) late Oligocene–early Miocene deep erosion (ca. 27–15 Ma) in a broad region of the southern Cordillera (including the southern Colorado Plateau, southern Great Plains, trans-Pecos Texas, and northeastern Mexico), which was uplifted in response to increased mantle buoyancy associated with major concurrent volcanism in the Sierra Madre Occidental of Mexico and in the Southern Rocky Mountains; (4) Late Miocene–Holocene erosion (ca. 6–0 Ma) in a broad area of southwestern North America, with loci of deep erosion in the western Colorado–eastern Utah region and in the western Sierra Madre Occidental. Erosion in western Colorado–eastern Utah reflects mantle-related rock uplift as well as an important isostatic component caused by compensation of deep fluvial erosion in the upper Colorado River drainage following its integration to the Gulf of California. Erosion in the western Sierra Madre Occidental occurred in response to rift-shoulder uplift and the proximity of oceanic base level following the late Miocene opening of the Gulf of California. We cannot estimate the amount of rock or surface uplift associated with each erosion episode, but the maximum depths of exhumation for each were broadly similar (typically ∼1–3 km). Only the most recent erosion episode is temporally correlated with climate change.
Paleoaltimetric studies, except for those based on leaf physiognomy, are generally compatible with the uplift chronology we propose here. Physiognomy-based paleoelevation data suggest that near-modern elevations were attained during the Paleogene, but are the only data that uniquely support such interpretations. High Paleogene elevations require a complex late Paleogene–Neogene uplift and subsidence history for the Front Range and western Great Plains of Colorado that is not compatible with the regional sedimentation and erosion events we describe here. Our results suggest that near-modern surface elevations in southwestern North America were generally not attained until the Neogene, and that these high elevations are the cumulative result of four major episodes of Cenozoic rock uplift of diverse origin, geographic distribution, and timing.