Weathering and transport of sediments in the Bolivian Andes: time constraints from uranium-series isotopes
Rivers from the upper Rio Madeira basin (Bolivia) have been studied with uranium-series isotopes in order to constrain the timescales of weathering and sediment transfer from the Andes through the Amazon tropical plain. Uranium (U), thorium (Th) and radium (Ra) isotopes (238U–234U–230Th–226Ra and 232Th) have been analyzed in the suspended load (>0.2 μm) of rivers. Increasing 230Th excesses relative to 238U in suspended particles from the Andes to the tropical plain is interpreted as an increasing duration of weathering during sediment transport and storage in the foreland basin. Model calculations for (230Th/238U) and (226Ra/230Th) activity ratios in suspended particles using a continuous weathering model indicates that: (i) the timescale for production, storage and transport of sediments in the Andean Cordillera is only a few kyr, (ii) the storage time of suspended sediments in the foreland basin is 5±1 kyr and (iii) the average transfer time of suspended sediments from the Andes to the confluence of Rio Madeira with the Amazon River is 17±3 kyr. An implication of these short timescales is that the bedrock eroded must have lost part of its uranium during one or several past erosion cycles. This demonstrates the recycling of sediments through several erosion cycles before transfer to the oceans. The calculation of long-term (>1 kyr), steady-state erosion rates indicates that they are much lower than present-day rates. This increase in denudation rates must be recent and could be explained by an increase in precipitation ∼4 ka ago, as suggested by palaeoclimatic evidences and the draining of transient sedimentary basins encountered on the Altiplano and easily eroded. This suggests that climatic variability rather than tectonics alone produces high erosion rates.