Bias and error in modelling thermochronometric data: Resolving a potential increase in Plio-Pleistocene erosion rate

Sean D. Willett, Frédéric Herman, Matthew Fox, Nadja Stalder, Todd A. Ehlers, Ruohong Jiao, Rong Yang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Thermochronometry provides one of few methods to quantify rock exhumation rate and history, including potential changes in exhumation rate. Thermochronometric ages can resolve rates, accelerations, and complex histories by exploiting different closure temperatures and path lengths using data distributed in elevation. We investigate how the resolution of an exhumation history is determined by the distribution of ages and their closure temperatures through an error analysis of the exhumation history problem. We define the sources of error, defined in terms of resolution, model error and methodological bias in the inverse method used by Herman et al. (2013) which combines data with different closure temperatures and elevations. The error analysis provides a series of tests addressing the various types of bias, including addressing criticism that there is a tendency of thermochronometric data to produce a false inference of faster erosion rates towards the present day because of a spatial correlation bias. Tests based on synthetic data demonstrate that the inverse method used by Herman et al. (2013) has no methodological or model bias towards increasing erosion rates. We do find significant resolution errors with sparse data, but these errors are not systematic, tending rather to leave inferred erosion rates at or near a Bayesian prior. To explain the difference in conclusions between our analysis and that of other work, we examine other approaches and find that previously published model tests contained an error in the geotherm calculation, resulting in an incorrect age prediction. Our reanalysis and interpretation show that the original results of Herman et al. (2013) are correctly calculated and presented, with no evidence for a systematic bias.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1153-1221
Number of pages69
JournalEarth Surface Dynamics
Issue number5
StatePublished - 10 Sep 2021
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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