Continent elevation, mountains, and erosion: Freeboard implications Academic Article uri icon


  • To the simplest approximation, Earth's continental crust is a floating aggregate on the planet's surface that is first attracted to subduction zones and, upon arrival, thickened by mountain building (then producing some extension). Thickened regions are thinned again by erosion. A comparison between 65 Ma and the present shows that the modern state is significantly more mountainous. An estimated average continental elevation increase relative to average ocean floor depth of about 54 m and sea level decrease relative to the ocean floor of about 102 m add up to a 156-m increase of continent elevation over sea level since 65 Ma. Both are affected most strongly by the roughly 1.7% continent surface area decrease caused by Cenozoic mountain building. This includes contributions from erosion. Volumes of sediments in deltas and submarine fans indicate an average thickness of 371 m deposited globally in the ocean basins since 65 Ma. This relatively large change of continent area over a short span of Earth history has significant consequences. Extrapolating, if continent area change exceeded 5% in the past, either severe erosion or flooded continents occurred. If continent elevation (freeboard) remains at the present value of a few hundred meters, the past continent-ocean area ratio might have been quite different, depending on earlier volumes of continental crust and water. We conclude that, along with the ages of ocean basins, continental crustal thickening exerts a first-order control on the global sea level over hundreds of million years.

publication date

  • 2009