Abstract

Despite broad interest in determining the topographic and climatic histories of mountain ranges, the evolution of California’s Sierra Nevada remains actively debated. Prior stable isotope–based studies of the Sierra Nevada have relied primarily on hydrogen isotopes in kaolinite, hydrated volcanic glass, and leaf n-alkanes. Here, we reconstruct the temperature and elevation of the early Eocene Sierra Nevada using the oxygen isotope composition of kaolinitized granite clasts from the ancestral Yuba and American Rivers that drained the windward (Pacific) flank of the Sierra Nevada. First, we evaluated the possible contributions of hydrogen isotope exchange in kaolinite by direct comparison with oxygen isotope measurements. Next, we utilized differences in the hydrogen and oxygen isotope fractionation in kaolinite to constrain early Eocene midlatitude weathering temperatures. Oxygen isotope geochemistry of in situ kaolinites indicates upstream (eastward) depletion of 18O in the northern Sierra Nevada. The δ18O values, ranging from 11.4‰ to 14.4‰ at the easternmost localities, correspond to paleoelevations as high as 2400 m when simulating the orographic precipitation of moisture from a Pacific source using Eocene boundary conditions. This result is consistent with prior hydrogen isotope studies of the northern Sierra, but oxygen isotope–based paleoelevation estimates are systematically ∼500–1000 m higher than those from hydrogen-based estimates from the same samples. Kaolinite geothermometry from 16 samples produced early Eocene weathering temperatures of 13.0–36.7 °C, with an average of 23.2 ± 6.4 °C (1σ). These kaolinite temperature reconstructions are in general agreement with paleofloral and geochemical constraints from Eocene California localities and climate model simulations. Our results confirm prior hydrogen isotope–based paleoelevation estimates and further substantiate the existence of a hot and high Eocene Sierra Nevada.

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