Earthquakes drive focused denudation along a tectonically active mountain front

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Earthquakes cause widespread landslides that can increase erosional fluxes observed over years to decades. However, the impact of earthquakes on denudation over the longer timescales relevant to orogenic evolution remains elusive. Here we assess erosion associated with earthquake-triggered landslides in the Longmen Shan range at the eastern margin of the Tibetan Plateau. We use the Mw7.9 2008 Wenchuan and Mw6.6 2013 Lushan earthquakes to evaluate how seismicity contributes to the erosional budget from short timescales (annual to decadal, as recorded by sediment fluxes) to long timescales (kyr to Myr, from cosmogenic nuclides and low temperature thermochronology). Over this wide range of timescales, the highest rates of denudation in the Longmen Shan coincide spatially with the region of most intense landsliding during the Wenchuan earthquake. Across sixteen gauged river catchments, sediment flux-derived denudation rates following the Wenchuan earthquake are closely correlated with seismic ground motion and the associated volume of Wenchuan-triggered landslides (r2>0.6), and to a lesser extent with the frequency of high intensity runoff events (r2=0.36). To assess whether earthquake-induced landsliding can contribute importantly to denudation over longer timescales, we model the total volume of landslides triggered by earthquakes of various magnitudes over multiple earthquake cycles. We combine models that predict the volumes of landslides triggered by earthquakes, calibrated against the Wenchuan and Lushan events, with an earthquake magnitude–frequency distribution. The long-term, landslide-sustained “seismic erosion rate” is similar in magnitude to regional long-term denudation rates (∼0.5–1 mm yr−1). The similar magnitude and spatial coincidence suggest that earthquake-triggered landslides are a primary mechanism of long-term denudation in the frontal Longmen Shan. We propose that the location and intensity of seismogenic faulting can contribute to focused denudation along a high-relief plateau margin.




Li, G., West, A. J., Densmore, A. L., Jin, Z., Zhang, F., Wang, J., … Hilton, R. G. (2017). Earthquakes drive focused denudation along a tectonically active mountain front. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 472, 253–265.

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