Investigating links between climate and orography in the central Andes: Coupling erosion and precipitation using a physical-statistical model

Lauren E.L. Lowman, Ana P. Barros

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Prior studies evaluated the interplay between climate and orography by investigating the sensitivity of relief to precipitation using the stream power erosion law (SPEL) for specified erosion rates. Here we address the inverse problem, inferring realistic spatial distributions of erosion rates for present-day topography and contemporaneous climate forcing. In the central Andes, similarities in the altitudinal distribution and density of first-order stream outlets and precipitation suggest a direct link between climate and fluvial erosion. Erosion rates are estimated with a Bayesian physical-statistical model based on the SPEL applied at spatial scales that capture joint hydrogeomorphic and hydrometeorological patterns within five river basins and one intermontane basin in Peru and Bolivia. Topographic slope and area data were generated from a high-resolution (∼90 m) digital elevation map, and mean annual precipitation was derived from 14 years of Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission 3B42v.7 product and adjusted with rain gauge data. Estimated decadal-scale erosion rates vary between 0.68 and 11.59 mm/yr, with basin averages of 2.1-8.5 mm/yr. Even accounting for uncertainty in precipitation and simplifying assumptions, these values are 1-2 orders of magnitude larger than most millennial and million year timescale estimates in the central Andes, using various geological dating techniques (e.g., thermochronology and cosmogenic nuclides), but they are consistent with other decadal-scale estimates using landslide mapping and sediment flux observations. The results also reveal a pattern of spatially dependent erosion consistent with basin hypsometry. The modeling framework provides a means of remotely estimating erosion rates and associated uncertainties under current climate conditions over large regions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1322-1353
Number of pages32
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Bayesian hierarchical modeling
  • climate-landform interactions
  • erosion
  • geomorphology
  • hypsometry

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Forestry
  • Oceanography
  • Aquatic Science
  • Ecology
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Soil Science
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Atmospheric Science
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Palaeontology

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