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How and why do mountains form? New theories for an age-old mystery

In an intriguing shift of scientific perspective, research led by Colorado State University (CSU) has hinted that our understanding of mountain formation may require a deeper look. 

The study, largely focused on southern Italy, suggests that the mechanics and underlying causes of mountain building are rooted further beneath Earth’s crust than previously believed.

Sean Gallen, the lead author and an assistant professor of geosciences at CSU, commented: “Mountain building is a fundamental process of how Earth behaves, and this study suggests that we may not understand that as well as we thought we did.”

How the study was conducted

To dig deeper into this mystery, Gallen and his team developed new data sets and techniques. Their approach was unique: use the landscapes to map out the long-term history of mountain building.

At the heart of the study were subduction zones like Calabria in southern Italy. In these zones, one tectonic plate dives beneath another, causing crumpling and thickening of Earth’s crust – typically understood as the primary drivers of mountain formation.

To better understand the history of this process, the team brought together measurements spanning various timescales, from thousands to tens of millions of years. The landscape served as a sort of “geologic tape recorder,” filling in the gaps of the tectonic history.

Professor Gallen explained: “In southern Italy, the landscape actually is the bridge between these different methods that we typically use.”

By studying flat, high-elevation patches of the landscape along the “toe” of the Italian peninsula, the team made a groundbreaking discovery. These regions mark periods of slower mountain formation, while steep transitions below indicate rapid acceleration. Interpreting these clues, the researchers created an extensive, continuous record of rock uplift – the longest and most complete of its kind.

New approach yields surprising results

This innovative method, however, yielded surprising results. “We would expect to see a correlation between the rate at which the plate is diving down beneath the other plate through time and our rock uplift history, and we don’t see that,” noted Gallen.

Rather than attributing the mountain formation primarily to crust crumpling and thickening, the data pointed to another process. The descent of the lower plate through Earth’s mantle and its subsequent alteration of the mantle flow field emerged as key factors controlling rock uplift.

Professor Gallen stressed the significance of this finding: “The results suggest that the typical way we view mountain building doesn’t hold for southern Italy. It appears to be controlled by things that are much deeper within the Earth system. This behavior has been seen in models but never in nature. This is the first time we think we’ve observed it.”

While additional data is needed to verify these findings, existing numerical models provide support. Scientists have previously associated mountain height with tectonic plate interactions within Earth’s plastically flowing mantle. However, this research suggests that such interactions may be the primary driver of mountain building in subduction zones.

“The records we have produced imply that deep earth signals appear to dominate what’s happening at the surface,” said Professor Gallen. “I’ve been working in the Mediterranean for 15 years, and this result has profoundly changed the way I think about these subduction zones.”

Added benefit – new techniques invented for future research

Beyond its findings, the study also pioneered new techniques for constructing long-term rock uplift histories. The team’s innovative approach unifies standard geomorphology measurements – thermochronology, cosmogenic nuclides, bedrock river profiles, and marine terrace records of past sea levels – under one framework. This strategy not only delves further into geologic history but also uses different data sets to uniquely constrain modeling.

The researchers developed software to support their novel approach, making it freely available for other researchers in hopes of spurring more discoveries. The authors of the study – published in the journal Nature Geoscience – are Nikki M. Seymour, Christoph Glotzbach, Daniel F. Stockli, and Paul O’Sullivan. These academics are affiliated with the Department of Geosciences in CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources.

While the technique’s primary strength lies in its application to active geological systems, it is not without limitations. The landscape of a region offers valuable clues about its geological history, but the further back the geological activity, the more challenging it becomes to reconstruct that history with certainty. Despite this, Professor Gallen remains optimistic about the potential implications of their work.

In conclusion, this groundbreaking research not only challenges our current understanding of mountain formation but also offers innovative tools for further exploration. 

This study, which proposes that the processes taking place far deeper beneath the Earth’s surface primarily drive mountain formation, calls for a reevaluation of geological theories. It illuminates the importance of continually probing, questioning, and reshaping our knowledge of the world – even when the subject is as solid and unchanging as mountains.

More about mountains

Mountains are landforms that rise prominently above their surroundings, characterized by steep slopes and high relief. They’re found on every continent and in every kind of environment – in temperate, tropical, and arctic climates. Here is a broad overview:

Formation of Mountains 

Mountains are primarily formed through tectonic forces, causing a section of the Earth’s crust to uplift. This often occurs at the boundaries of tectonic plates. There are various types of mountains, each formed by different geological processes.

  1. Fold Mountains: These are formed when two tectonic plates collide, and the edges of the plates fold due to immense pressure. The Himalayas in Asia, the Alps in Europe, and the Andes in South America are examples of fold mountains.
  2. Fault-Block Mountains: These are formed when faults or cracks in the Earth’s crust force materials or blocks of rock upwards or downwards. The Sierra Nevada Mountains in North America are an example of fault-block mountains.
  3. Dome Mountains: These form when a large amount of molten rock, or magma, pushes its way up under the Earth crust but doesn’t reach the surface. The magma then cools, creating a bulge or dome. The Black Hills of South Dakota are an example of dome mountains.
  4. Volcanic Mountains: These are formed when magma from deep within the Earth breaks through the crust and erupts on the surface, forming a mountain over time as the lava cools and accumulates. Mount Fuji in Japan and Mount St. Helens in the U.S. are examples of volcanic mountains.
  5. Plateau Mountains: These are formed by erosion, with water, wind, and ice cutting into solid rock to form mountains. The Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern U.S. are examples of plateau mountains.

Ecology and Biodiversity 

Mountains are home to a diverse range of flora and fauna. Due to the change in climate with altitude (it becomes colder the higher you go), different levels or zones of vegetation can be seen on a mountain, often referred to as life zones. This altitude effect also means that mountains can host a variety of ecosystems, from temperate forests at their base to alpine tundra environments at their peaks.

In addition to plant life, mountains are also home to a diverse range of animal species. Some animals have evolved to thrive in the harsh conditions at high altitudes, and many species are endemic to mountainous regions (meaning they’re found nowhere else on Earth).

Human Interaction 

Humans have been interacting with mountainous environments for thousands of years. Mountains have often been seen as sacred places, and many cultures attach spiritual significance to them.

Mountains also provide a range of ecosystem services that are vital for human societies, such as fresh water, forest products, and mineral resources. In addition, they’re important for tourism and recreational activities, such as hiking, skiing, and mountaineering.

However, human activities also pose threats to mountain environments. Climate change, deforestation, overgrazing, and other forms of environmental degradation can damage these delicate ecosystems, leading to a loss of biodiversity and affecting the services that mountains provide.

Importance for Climate and Water

Mountains play a crucial role in our planet’s water cycle. They receive more rainfall than low-lying areas because as air is forced over higher ground, it cools, causing moisture to condense and fall as rain. They’re also home to many of the world’s glaciers, which store water as ice during the winter and gradually release it in the warmer months.

Furthermore, mountains have a significant influence on the Earth’s climate. They act as barriers to air movement and play a key role in the circulation of the Earth’s atmosphere. For instance, they can force air upwards, causing it to cool and leading to condensation and precipitation. This is why one side of a mountain range can be wet (the windward side) while the other side (the leeward side) can be very dry, a phenomenon known as a rain shadow effect.

Cultural Significance

Across many cultures and throughout history, mountains have held a profound cultural and spiritual significance. They’ve been revered as the dwelling place of deities, as seen in ancient Greek mythology with Mount Olympus, the home of the gods. Many cultures undertake pilgrimages to mountain tops as part of their spiritual practice.

In addition, mountains often feature prominently in literature, art, folklore, and music, symbolizing challenges to overcome, places of solitude, or sites of awe-inspiring beauty.

Study of Mountains

The scientific study of mountains is known as orography, a branch of physical geography. It includes studying the formation, classification, and distribution of mountains, as well as understanding the effects of mountains on climate and weather conditions.

Safety and Mountain Sports

While mountains offer recreational activities like hiking, trekking, climbing, skiing, and mountain biking, they also present unique dangers. These include high-altitude sickness due to lower oxygen levels, avalanches, sudden weather changes, and difficult terrain. Mountain safety education is essential for anyone wanting to participate in these activities.


Due to their ecological importance, fragility, and the unique flora and fauna they harbor, many mountainous regions are protected under national park status or other conservation designations. Nevertheless, mountains face threats from climate change, habitat destruction, and over-exploitation of resources, and ongoing conservation efforts are critical.

In conclusion, mountains are fascinating and complex structures. They’re integral to Earth’s ecosystems, impacting climate, water distribution, and biodiversity. They serve as a source of resources and enjoyment for humans, yet they require our respect and careful stewardship to protect their fragile environments for future generations.


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