Miocene rejuvenation of topographic relief in the southern Appalachians
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Conventional wisdom holds that the southern Appalachian Mountains have not experienced a significant phase of tectonic forcing for >200 myr; yet, they share many characteristics with tectonically active settings, including locally high topographic relief, steep slopes, incised river gorges, and frequent mass-wasting events. Two competing hypotheses are commonly used to explain their modern topographic expression. One suggests that relief is largely controlled by variable lithologic resistance to weathering and that their modern form has long persisted in a dynamic equilibrium. The second postulates that their relief is a product of recent rejuvenation, driven either by climate change or the epeirogenic uplift of the land surface driven by mantle forcing. Within portions of the Cullasaja River basin of the southern Appalachians, we show that relief has increased by >150% since the Miocene. Evident within the basin are a set of retreating knickpoints that delineate a rugged, actively incising landscape from lower-relief relict topography. Constraints on the timing of knickpoint entry into the basin suggest that the process of landscape rejuvenation began well prior to the late Cenozoic (<4 myr) transition to a more oscillatory (glacial-interglacial) climate regime. Furthermore, the geomorphology of the Cullasaja River basin is difficult to reconcile in the context of a transition to a more erosive climatic regime but is consistent with an epeirogenically uplifted landscape. Consequently, these observations lend new support to the idea that the rugged topography of the southern Appalachians has developed in response to post-orogenic regional uplift in the Miocene.
Manuscript received 10 Aug. 2012; accepted 30 Oct. 2012