The distribution of detrital mineral cooling ages in river sediment provides a proxy record for the erosional history of mountain ranges. We have developed a numerical model that predicts detrital mineral age distributions for individual catchments in which particle paths move vertically toward the surface. Despite a restrictive set of assumptions, the model permits theoretical exploration of the effects of thermal structure, erosion rate, and topography on cooling ages. Hypsometry of the source-area catchment is shown to exert a fundamental control on the frequency distribution of bedrock and detrital ages. We illustrate this approach by generating synthetic 40Ar/39Ar muscovite age distributions for two catchments with contrasting erosion rates in central Nepal and then by comparing actual measured cooling-age distributions with the synthetic ones. Monte Carlo sampling is used to assess the mismatch between observed and synthetic age distributions and to explore the dependence of that mismatch on the complexity of the synthetic age signal and on the number of grains analysed. Observed detrital cooling ages are well matched by predicted ages for a more slowly eroding Himalayan catchment. A poorer match for a rapidly eroding catchment may result from some combination of large analytical uncertainties in the detrital ages and inhomogeneous erosion rates within the basin. Such mismatches emphasize the need for more accurate thermal and kinematic models and for sampling strategies that are adapted to catchment-specific geologic and geomorphic conditions.
ASJC Scopus subject areas