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Photo Essay: Sculpting Tropical Peaks

Tropical mountain ranges erode quickly, as heavy year-round rains feed raging rivers and trigger huge, fast-moving landslides. Rapid erosion produces rugged terrain, with steep rivers running through deep valleys. However, in a number of tropical mountain ranges, landscapes with deep, steep valleys transition quickly into landscapes with low-sloping streams and gentle slopes at high elevations. This topographic contrast between high and low elevations poses a problem for geologists. Though heavy rains fall throughout the mountain range, erosion seems to sculpt parts of the mountain differently from others.

Mount Chirripó, Costa Rica’s highest peak, bears exactly this type of terrain, with flat valleys at high elevation capping rugged valleys below. The beveled summit of Mount Chirripó bears striking resemblance to summits as far away as Taiwan, Papua New Guinea and Uganda. Some geologists think that tectonic forces deep below earth’s surface pushed Chirripó into its flat-topped form about 2.5 million years ago. Others think glaciers did the work, sculpting the peak in over hundreds of thousands of years.

Max Cunningham, a graduate student at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, traveled to Chirripó this past summer to test the idea that mountain glaciers carved the summit we see today. Working with his adviser Colin Stark, a geomorphologist, and Michael Kaplan, a geochemist, both at Lamont-Doherty, Cunningham chiseled away samples of glacial debris to take home for analysis. The researchers hope to eventually pin down when the high-elevation valleys capping Mount Chirripó’s summit eroded into their current form. Read more about their work in the above slideshow.

Photos by Max Cunningham unless otherwise credited.

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