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The Andes Mountains: How Mother Nature Sculpted a Spectacular Landscape

The Andes as seen from Space. NASA.

Spanning 8,900 kilometers along South America's western edge, the Andes Mountains' formation remains enigmatic to geologists.

New research from the University of Copenhagen may help answer the question of how the Andes Mountains, the world’s longest mountain range, achieved their massive size through a groundbreaking method for estimating the changes in the speed of Earth’s tectonic plates over millions of years.

The Mystery of the Andes’ Colossal Formation

Spanning 8,900 kilometers along South America’s western edge, the Andes Mountains’ formation remains enigmatic to geologists. University of Copenhagen researchers developed a novel method to study the tectonic plate on which the range sits, shedding new light on the Andes’ emergence.

Shifting Tectonic Plates and Sudden Slowdowns

The researchers’ new method demonstrates that the South American plate experienced two significant slowdowns in the past 15 million years, potentially contributing to the enormous mountain range’s expansion. Published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, the study suggests that the Andean range’s compression and rapid growth preceded these slowdowns.

The Andes’ Lateral Expansion and Plate Slowdowns

The researchers believe that the interaction between the Andes’ expansion and the plate’s decreased speed was caused by a phenomenon called delamination. Unstable material beneath the Andes broke away and sank into the mantle, causing significant adjustments in the plate’s configuration. The plate accumulated more mountain material and became heavier, slowing its movement.

A New Standard Model for Plate Motion Calculation

The new method for calculating tectonic plate motion changes relies on high-resolution geological data, providing estimates with unparalleled accuracy. After testing the method with six other tectonic plates, the researchers believe it could become a new standard method for refining historical models of tectonic plates and reconstructing unclear geological phenomena.

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