Title page for ETD etd-04042008-133831

Type of Document Dissertation
Author Berger, Aaron Louis
Author's Email Address alberger@vt.edu
URN etd-04042008-133831
Title A Thermochronological Investigation of Orogenic Architecture, Kinematics, and Tectonic-Climatic Interactions within the St. Elias Orogen, Alaska
Degree PhD
Department Geosciences
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Spotila, James A. Committee Chair
Bodnar, Robert J. Committee Member
Eriksson, Kenneth A. Committee Member
Hole, John A. Committee Member
Law, Richard D. Committee Member
  • critical Coulomb wedge
  • orogenesis
  • glacial erosion
  • St. Elias orogen
  • thermochronometry
  • (U-Th)/He dating
  • exhumation
  • terrane accretion
  • climate-tectonic coupling
  • Alaska tectonics
Date of Defense 2008-03-24
Availability unrestricted
The kinematics and architecture of orogenic systems may be heavily influenced by climate, but little research has focused on the long-term effects of glacial erosion on orogenesis. Low-temperature thermochronometry and subsidiary structural, earthquake relocation, and offshore seismic reflection data from the St. Elias orogen are the basis for a new architectural model and demonstrate an association between glacial denudation and orogenic evolution. These data show that exhumation and deformation within the St. Elias orogen are focused across a thin-skinned fold and thrust belt on the windward flank, whereas the leeward flank functions as a deformational backstop. A previously unrecognized structure beneath the Bagley ice field separates these domains with south-side-up motion. This structure is interpreted to be a backthrust, making the orogen doubly-vergent. Suggestive of accelerated fault motion in response to climate change, bedrock cooling rates within the hanging wall of the backthrust and across the entire subaerial wedge accelerated ~ten-fold coeval with the onset of intense glacial conditions. Within the orogenic wedge, the zone of highest Quaternary exhumation (5 km/myr (±25%)) is focused around a narrow zone where the glacial equilibrium line altitude (ELA) intersects mean topography. This zone of rapid exhumation, not present prior to the onset of intense glacial conditions, cuts across the structural trend of the orogen and is more narrowly focused than the zone of orographic precipitation. Augmented glacial erosion around glacial ELA also coincided with a regional shift in deformation away from prominent forethrusts including the North American-Yakutat terrane suture (Chugach St. Elias fault) and the seaward deformation front (Pamplona zone). Accelerated denudation across the subaerial wedge thus appears to have forced the redistribution of strain along the backthrust and a series of forethrusts that lie beneath the zone of highest glacial flux, which in turn are systematically truncated by the backthrust. In a cause and effect response, the expansion of glaciers therefore appears to have resulted in an orogen scale structural reorganization and a narrowing of the orogenic wedge to preserve topographic slope. The focusing of long-term erosion around glacial ELA and the structural response of the orogenic wedge to Cenozoic climate change have not previously been observed in a real-world orogenic system and imply a high degree of coupling between climate and tectonics in this glacially-dominated orogen.

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