The Andean orogeny (Spanish: Orogenia andina) is an ongoing process of orogeny, that begun in the Early Jurassic, responsible for the rise of Andes mountains. The orogeny is driven by a reactivation of a long-lived subduction system along the western margin of South America. On a continental scale the Cretaceous (90 Ma) and Oligocene (30 Ma) were periods of re-arrangements in the orogeny. Locally the details of the nature of the orogeny varies depending on the segment and the geological period considered.
Subduction orogeny has been occurring in what is now western South America since the break-up of the supercontinent Rodinia in the Neoproterozoic. The Paleozoic Pampean, Famatinian and Gondwanan orogenies are the immediate precursors to the later Andean orogeny. The first phases of Andean orogeny in the Jurassic and Early Cretaceous were characterized by extensional tectonics, rifting, the development of back-arc basins and the emplacement of large batholiths. This development is presumed to have been linked to the subduction of cold oceanic lithosphere. During the mid to Late Cretaceous (ca. 90 million years ago) the Andean orogeny changed significantly in character. Warmer and younger oceanic lithosphere is believed to have started to be subducted beneath South America around this time. Such kind of subduction is held responsible not only for the intense contractional deformation that different lithologies were subject to, but also the uplift and erosion known to have occurred from the Late Cretaceous onward. Plate tectonic reorganization since the mid-Cretaceous might also have been linked to the opening of the South Atlantic Ocean. Another change related to mid-Cretaceous plate tectonic changes was the change of subduction direction of the oceanic lithosphere that went from having south-east motion to having a north-east motion at about 90 million years ago. While subduction direction changed it remained oblique (and not perpendicular) to the coast of South America, and the direction change affected several subduction zone-parallel faults including Atacama, Domeyko and Liquiñe-Ofqui.
Low angle subduction or flat-slab subduction has been common during the Andean orogeny leading to crustal shortening and deformation and the suppression of arc volcanism. Flat-slab subduction has occurred at different times in various part of the Andes, with northern Colombia (6–10° N), Ecuador (0–2° S), northern Peru (3–13° S) and north-central Chile and Argentina (24–30° S) experiencing these conditions at present.
The tectonic growth of the Andes and the regional climate have evolved simultaneously and have influenced each other. The topographic barrier formed by the Andes stopped the income of humid air into the present Atacama desert. This aridity, in turn, changed the normal surficial redistribution of mass via erosion and river transport, modifying the later tectonic deformation.
In the Oligocene the Farallon Plate broke up, forming the modern Cocos and Nazca plates ushering a series of changes in the Andean orogeny. The new Nazca Plate was then directed into an orthogonal subduction with South America causing ever-since uplift in the Andes, but causing most impact in the Miocene. While the various segments of the Andes have their own uplift histories, as a whole the Andes have risen significantly in last 30 millions years (Oligocene–present).
Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela (12° N–3° S)
Tectonic blocks of continental crust that had separated from northwestern South America in the Jurassic re-joined the continent in the Late Cretaceous by colliding obliquely with it. This episode of accretion occurred in a complex sequence. The accretion of the island arcs against northwestern South America in the Early Cretaceous led to the development of a magmatic arc caused by subduction. The Romeral Fault in Colombia forms the suture between the accreted terranes the rest of South America. Around the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary (ca. 65 million years ago) the oceanic plateau of the Caribbean large igneous province collided with South America. The subduction of the lithosphere as the oceanic plateau approached South America led to the formation of a magmatic arc now preserved in the Cordillera Real of Ecuador and the Cordillera Central of Colombia. In the Miocene an island arc and terrane (Chocó terrane) collided against northwestern South America. This terrane forms parts of what is now Chocó Department and Western Panamá.
The Caribbean Plate collided with South America in the Early Cenozoic but shifted then its movement eastward. Dextral fault movement between the South American and Caribbean plate started 17–15 million years ago. This movement was canalized along a series of strike-slip faults, but these faults alone do not account for all deformation. The northern part of the Dolores-Guayaquil Megashear forms part of the dextral fault systems while in the south the megashear runs along the suture between the accreted tectonic blocks and the rest of South America.
Northern Peru (3–13° S)
Long before the Andean orogeny the northern half of Peru was subject of the accretion of terranes in the Neoproterozoic and Paleozoic. Andean orogenic deformation in northern Peru can be traced to the Albian (Early Cretaceous). This first phase of deformation is called Mochica Phase and is evidenced in the folding of Casma Group sediments near the coast.
Sedimentary basins in western Peru changed from marine to continental conditions in the Late Cretaceous as a consequence of a generalized vertical uplift. The uplift in northern Peru is thought to be associated with the contemporary accretion of the Piñón terrane in Ecuador. This stage of orogeny is called the Peruvian Phase. Besides coastal Peru the Peruvian Phase affected or caused crustal shortening along the Cordillera Oriental and the tectonic inversion of Santiago Basin in the Sub-Andean zone. The bulk of the Sub-Andean zone was however unaffected by the Peruvian Phase.
After a period without much tectonic activity in the Early Eocene the Incaic Phase of orogeny occurred in the Mid and Late Eocene. No other tectonic event in the western Peruvian Andes compare with the Incaic Phase in magnitude. Horizontal shortening in during the Incaic Phase resulted in the formation of the Marañón fold and thrust belt. An unconformity cutting across the Marañón fold and thrust belt show the Incaic Phase ended no later than 33 million years ago in the earliest Oligocene.
In the period after the Eocene the Northern Peruvian Andes were subject to the Quechua Phase of orogeny. The Quechua Phase is divided into the sub-phases Quechua 1, Quechua 2 and Quechua 3. The Quechua 1 Phase lasted from 17 to 15 million years ago and included a reactivation of Inca Phase structures in the Cordillera Occidental. 9–8 million years ago, in the Quechua 2 Phase, the older parts of the Andes in northern Peru were thrusted to the northeast. Most of the Sub-Andean zone of northern Peru deformed 7–5 million years ago (Late Miocene) during the Quechua 3 Phase. The Sub-Andean stacked in a thrust belt.
The Miocene rise of the Andes in Peru and Ecuador led to increased orographic precipitation along its eastern parts and to the birth of the modern Amazon River. One hypothesis links these two changes by assuming that increased precipitation led to increased erosion and this erosion led to filling the Andean foreland basins beyond their capacity and that it would have been the basin over-sedimentation rather than the rise of the Andes that made drainage basins flow to the east. Previously the interior of northern South America drained to the Pacific.
Bolivian Orocline (13–26° S)
Early Andean subduction in the Jurassic formed a volcanic arc in northern Chile known as La Negra Arc. The remnants of this arc are now exposed in the Chilean Coast Range. Several plutons were emplaced in the Chilean Coast Range in the Jurassic and Early Cretaceous including the Vicuña Mackenna Batholith. Further east at similar latitudes, in Argentina and Bolivia, the Salta rift system developed in during the Late Jurassic and the Early Cretaceous.
From the Late Miocene onward the region that would become the Altiplano rose from low elevations to more than 3,000 m.a.s.l.. It is estimated that the region rose 2000 to 3000 meters in the last ten million years. Together with this uplift several valleys incised in the western flank of the Altiplano. In the Miocene the Atacama Fault moved, uplifting the Chilean Coast Range and creating sedimentary basins east of it. At the same time the Andes around the Altiplano region broadened to exceed any other Andean segment in width. Possibly about 1000 km of lithosphere has been lost due to lithospheric shortening. During subduction the western end of the forearc region flexured downward forming a giant monocline. By contrast the region east of the Altiplano is characterized by deformation and tectonics along a complex fold and thrust belt. Over-all the region surrounding the Altiplano and Puna plateaux has been horizontally shortened since the Eocene.
In southern Bolivia lithospheric shortening has made the Andean foreland basin to move eastward relative to the continent at an average rate of ca. 12–20 mm per year during most of the Cenozoic. Along the Argentine Northwest the Andean uplift has caused Andean foreland basins to separate into several minor isolated intermontane sedimentary basins.
The uplift of the Altiplano is thought to be indebted to a combination of horizontal shortening of the crust and to increased temperatures in the mantle (thermal thinning). The bend in the Andes and the west coast of South America known as the Bolivian Orocline was enhanced by Cenozoic horizontal shortening but existed already independently of it.
Besides direct causes the particular characteristics of the Bolivian Orocline–Altiplano region are attributed to a variety of deeper causes. These causes include a local steepening of the subduction angle of Nazca Plate, increased crustal shortening and plate convergence between the Nazca and South American plates, an acceleration in the westward drift of the South American Plate, and a rise in the shear stress between the Nazca and South American plates. This increase in shear stress could in turn be related to the scarcity of sediments in the Atacama trench which is caused by the arid conditions along Atacama Desert. Capitanio et al. attributes the rise of Altiplano and the bending of the Bolivian Orocline to the varying ages of the subducted Nazca Plate with the older parts of the plate subducting at the centre of the orocline. As Andrés Tassara puts it the rigidity of the Bolivian Orocline crust is derivative of the thermal conditions. The crust of the western region (forearc) of the orocline has been cold and rigid, resisting and damming up the westward flow of warmer and weaker ductile crustal material from beneath the Altiplano.
The rise of the Altiplano is thought by scientist Adrian Hartley to have enhanced an already prevailing aridity or semi-aridity in Atacama Desert by casting a rain shadow over the region.
Central Chile and Argentina (26–39° S)
At the latitudes between 17 and 39° S the Late Cretaceous and Cenozoic development of the Andean orogeny is characterized by an eastward migration of the magmatic belt and the development of several foreland basins. The eastward migration of the arc is thought to be caused by subduction erosion.
At the latitudes of 32–36° S —that is Central Chile and most of Mendoza Province— the Andean orogeny proper began in the Late Cretaceous when backarc basins were inverted. Immediately east of the early Andes foreland basins developed and their flexural subsidence caused the ingression of waters from the Atlantic all the way to the front of the orogen in the Maastrichtian. The Andes at the latitudes of 32–36° S experienced a sequence of uplift in the Cenozoic that started in the west and spread to the east. Beginning about 20 million years ago in the Miocene the Principal Cordillera (Argentina-Chile border) began an uplift that lasted until about 8 million years ago. From the Eocene to the early Miocene, sediments accumulated in the Abanico Extensional Basin, a north-south elongated basin in Chile that spanned from 29° to 38° S. Tectonic inversion from 21 to 16 million years ago made the basin to collapse and the sediments to be incorporated to the Andean cordillera. Before the Miocene uplift of the Frontal Cordillera was over, the Frontal Cordillera to the east started a period of uplift that lasted from 12 to 5 million years ago. Further east the Precordillera was uplifted in the last 10 million years and the Sierras Pampeanas has experienced a similar uplift in the last 5 million years. The more eastern part of the Andes at these latitudes had their geometry controlled by ancient faults dating to the San Rafael orogeny of the Paleozoic. The Sierras de Córdoba (part of the Sierras Pampeanas) where the effects of the ancient Pampean orogeny can be observed, owes it modern uplift and relief to the Andean orogeny in the Tertiary. Similarly the San Rafael Block east of the Andes and south of Sierras Pampeanas was raised in the Miocene during the Andean orogeny. In broad terms the most active phase of orogeny in area of southern Mendoza Province and northern Neuquén Province (34–38° S) happened in the Late Miocene while arc volcanism occurred east of the Andes.
At more southern latitudes (36–39° S) various Jurassic and Cretaceous marine transgressions from the Pacific are recorded in the sediments of Neuquén Basin. In the Late Cretaceous conditions changed. A marine regression occurred and the fold and thrust belts of Malargüe (36°00 S), Chos Malal (37° S) and Agrio (38° S) started to develop in the Andes and did so in until Eocene times. This meant an advance of the orogenic deformation since the Late Cretaceous that caused the western part of Neuquén Basin to stack in the Malargüe and Agrio fold and thrust belts. In the Oligocene the western part of the fold and thrust belt was subject to a short period of extensional tectonics whose structures were inverted in the Miocene. After a period of quiescence the Agrio fold and thrust belt resumed limited activity in the Eocene and then again in the Late Miocene.
In the south of Mendoza Province the Guañacos fold and thrust belt (36.5° S) appeared and grew in the Pliocene and Pleistocene consuming the western fringes of the Neuquén Basin.
Southern Patagonian Andes (48–55° S)
The early development of the Andean orogeny in southernmost South America affected also the Antarctic Peninsula. In southern Patagonia at the onset of the Andean orogeny in the Jurassic, extensional tectonics created the Rocas Verdes Basin, a back-arc basin whose southeastern extension survives as the Weddell Sea in Antarctica. In the Late Cretaceous the tectonic regime of Rocas Verdes Basin changed leading to its transformation into a compressional foreland basin –the Magallanes Basin– in the Cenozoic. This change was associated with an eastward move of the basin depocenter and the obduction of ophiolites. The closure of Rocas Verdes Basin in the Cretaceous is linked to the high-grade metamorphism of Cordillera Darwin Metamorphic Complex in southern Tierra del Fuego.
As the Andean orogeny went on, South America drifted away from Antarctica during the Cenozoic leading first to the formation of an isthmus and then to the opening of the Drake Passage 45 million years ago. The separation from Antarctica changed the tectonics of the Fuegian Andes into a transpressive regime with transform faults hosting glacial valleys at present.
About 15 million years ago in the Miocene the Chile Ridge begun to subduct beneath southern tip Patagonia (55° S). The point of subduction, the triple junction has gradually moved to the north and lies at present at 47° S. The subduction of the ridge has created a northward moving "window" or gap in the asthenosphere beneath South America.