Geologists discover ancient buried canyon in South Tibet

This photo shows the Yarlung Tsangpo Valley close to the Tsangpo Gorge, where it is rather narrow and underlain by only about 250 meters of sediments. The mountains in the upper left corner belong to the Namche Barwa massif. Previously, scientists had suspected that the debris deposited by a glacier in the foreground was responsible for the formation of the steep Tsangpo Gorge -- the new discoveries falsify this hypothesis. -  Ping Wang
This photo shows the Yarlung Tsangpo Valley close to the Tsangpo Gorge, where it is rather narrow and underlain by only about 250 meters of sediments. The mountains in the upper left corner belong to the Namche Barwa massif. Previously, scientists had suspected that the debris deposited by a glacier in the foreground was responsible for the formation of the steep Tsangpo Gorge — the new discoveries falsify this hypothesis. – Ping Wang

A team of researchers from Caltech and the China Earthquake Administration has discovered an ancient, deep canyon buried along the Yarlung Tsangpo River in south Tibet, north of the eastern end of the Himalayas. The geologists say that the ancient canyon–thousands of feet deep in places–effectively rules out a popular model used to explain how the massive and picturesque gorges of the Himalayas became so steep, so fast.

“I was extremely surprised when my colleagues, Jing Liu-Zeng and Dirk Scherler, showed me the evidence for this canyon in southern Tibet,” says Jean-Philippe Avouac, the Earle C. Anthony Professor of Geology at Caltech. “When I first saw the data, I said, ‘Wow!’ It was amazing to see that the river once cut quite deeply into the Tibetan Plateau because it does not today. That was a big discovery, in my opinion.”

Geologists like Avouac and his colleagues, who are interested in tectonics–the study of the earth’s surface and the way it changes–can use tools such as GPS and seismology to study crustal deformation that is taking place today. But if they are interested in studying changes that occurred millions of years ago, such tools are not useful because the activity has already happened. In those cases, rivers become a main source of information because they leave behind geomorphic signatures that geologists can interrogate to learn about the way those rivers once interacted with the land–helping them to pin down when the land changed and by how much, for example.

“In tectonics, we are always trying to use rivers to say something about uplift,” Avouac says. “In this case, we used a paleocanyon that was carved by a river. It’s a nice example where by recovering the geometry of the bottom of the canyon, we were able to say how much the range has moved up and when it started moving.”

The team reports its findings in the current issue of Science.

Last year, civil engineers from the China Earthquake Administration collected cores by drilling into the valley floor at five locations along the Yarlung Tsangpo River. Shortly after, former Caltech graduate student Jing Liu-Zeng, who now works for that administration, returned to Caltech as a visiting associate and shared the core data with Avouac and Dirk Scherler, then a postdoc in Avouac’s group. Scherler had previously worked in the far western Himalayas, where the Indus River has cut deeply into the Tibetan Plateau, and immediately recognized that the new data suggested the presence of a paleocanyon.

Liu-Zeng and Scherler analyzed the core data and found that at several locations there were sedimentary conglomerates, rounded gravel and larger rocks cemented together, that are associated with flowing rivers, until a depth of 800 meters or so, at which point the record clearly indicated bedrock. This suggested that the river once carved deeply into the plateau.

To establish when the river switched from incising bedrock to depositing sediments, they measured two isotopes, beryllium-10 and aluminum-26, in the lowest sediment layer. The isotopes are produced when rocks and sediment are exposed to cosmic rays at the surface and decay at different rates once buried, and so allowed the geologists to determine that the paleocanyon started to fill with sediment about 2.5 million years ago.

The researchers’ reconstruction of the former valley floor showed that the slope of the river once increased gradually from the Gangetic Plain to the Tibetan Plateau, with no sudden changes, or knickpoints. Today, the river, like most others in the area, has a steep knickpoint where it meets the Himalayas, at a place known as the Namche Barwa massif. There, the uplift of the mountains is extremely rapid (on the order of 1 centimeter per year, whereas in other areas 5 millimeters per year is more typical) and the river drops by 2 kilometers in elevation as it flows through the famous Tsangpo Gorge, known by some as the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon because it is so deep and long.

Combining the depth and age of the paleocanyon with the geometry of the valley, the geologists surmised that the river existed in this location prior to about 3 million years ago, but at that time, it was not affected by the Himalayas. However, as the Indian and Eurasian plates continued to collide and the mountain range pushed northward, it began impinging on the river. Suddenly, about 2.5 million years ago, a rapidly uplifting section of the mountain range got in the river’s way, damming it, and the canyon subsequently filled with sediment.

“This is the time when the Namche Barwa massif started to rise, and the gorge developed,” says Scherler, one of two lead authors on the paper and now at the GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences in Potsdam, Germany.

That picture of the river and the Tibetan Plateau, which involves the river incising deeply into the plateau millions of years ago, differs quite a bit from the typically accepted geologic vision. Typically, geologists believe that when rivers start to incise into a plateau, they eat at the edges, slowly making their way into the plateau over time. However, the rivers flowing across the Himalayas all have strong knickpoints and have not incised much at all into the Tibetan Plateau. Therefore, the thought has been that the rapid uplift of the Himalayas has pushed the rivers back, effectively pinning them, so that they have not been able to make their way into the plateau. But that explanation does not work with the newly discovered paleocanyon.

The team’s new hypothesis also rules out a model that has been around for about 15 years, called tectonic aneurysm, which suggests that the rapid uplift seen at the Namche Barwa massif was triggered by intense river incision. In tectonic aneurysm, a river cuts down through the earth’s crust so fast that it causes the crust to heat up, making a nearby mountain range weaker and facilitating uplift.

The model is popular among geologists, and indeed Avouac himself published a modeling paper in 1996 that showed the viability of the mechanism. “But now we have discovered that the river was able to cut into the plateau way before the uplift happened,” Avouac says, “and this shows that the tectonic aneurysm model was actually not at work here. The rapid uplift is not a response to river incision.”


The other lead author on the paper, “Tectonic control of the Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge, revealed by a 2.5 Myr old buried canyon in Southern Tibet,” is Ping Wang of the State Key Laboratory of Earthquake Dynamics, in Beijing, China. Additional authors include J├╝rgen Mey, of the University of Potsdam, in Germany; and Yunda Zhang and Dingguo Shi of the Chengdu Engineering Corporation, in China. The work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the State Key Laboratory for Earthquake Dynamics, and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Could the Colorado River once have flowed into the Labrador Sea?

A figure stands on Esplanade surface opposite Vulcan's Throne volcano, Grand Canyon, USA. Photo by J.W. Sears. -  Photo by James W. Sears
A figure stands on Esplanade surface opposite Vulcan’s Throne volcano, Grand Canyon, USA. Photo by J.W. Sears. – Photo by James W. Sears

In the November issue of GSA Today, James W. Sears of the University of Montana in Missoula advocates a possible Canadian connection for the early Miocene Grand Canyon by arguing for the existence of a “super-river” traceable from headwaters in the southern Colorado Plateau through a proto-Grand Canyon to a delta in the Labrador Sea.

Sears proposes that the river flowed first toward the southwest corner of the Colorado Plateau, and then, in a shift initiated by uplift of the Rio Grande Rift, turned north into Paleogene rifts in the vicinity of Lake Mead. He posits that it then followed northeast-trending grabens across the Idaho and Montana Rockies to the Great Plains and joined the pre-ice age “Bell River” of Canada, which discharged into a massive delta in the Saglek basin of the Labrador Sea.

In this scenario, tectonic faulting beginning 16 million years ago dammed the Miocene Grand Canyon, creating a large lake that existed up to six million years ago. Then volcanism, including the action of the Yellowstone hotspot, cut the river off in Idaho about six million years ago, leading to the eventual capture of the Colorado River by the Gulf of California.

NASA data reveals mega-canyon under Greenland Ice Sheet

Data from a NASA airborne science mission reveals evidence of a large and previously unknown canyon hidden under a mile of Greenland ice.

The canyon has the characteristics of a winding river channel and is at least 460 miles (750 kilometers) long, making it longer than the Grand Canyon. In some places, it is as deep as 2,600 feet (800 meters), on scale with segments of the Grand Canyon. This immense feature is thought to predate the ice sheet that has covered Greenland for the last few million years.

“One might assume that the landscape of the Earth has been fully explored and mapped,” said Jonathan Bamber, professor of physical geography at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, and lead author of the study. “Our research shows there’s still a lot left to discover.”

Bamber’s team published its findings Thursday in the journal Science.

The scientists used thousands of miles of airborne radar data, collected by NASA and researchers from the United Kingdom and Germany over several decades, to piece together the landscape lying beneath the Greenland ice sheet.

A large portion of this data was collected from 2009 through 2012 by NASA’s Operation IceBridge, an airborne science campaign that studies polar ice. One of IceBridge’s scientific instruments, the Multichannel Coherent Radar Depth Sounder, can see through vast layers of ice to measure its thickness and the shape of bedrock below.

In their analysis of the radar data, the team discovered a continuous bedrock canyon that extends from almost the center of the island and ends beneath the Petermann Glacier fjord in northern Greenland.

At certain frequencies, radio waves can travel through the ice and bounce off the bedrock underneath. The amount of times the radio waves took to bounce back helped researchers determine the depth of the canyon. The longer it took, the deeper the bedrock feature.

“Two things helped lead to this discovery,” said Michael Studinger, IceBridge project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “It was the enormous amount of data collected by IceBridge and the work of combining it with other datasets into a Greenland-wide compilation of all existing data that makes this feature appear in front of our eyes.”

The researchers believe the canyon plays an important role in transporting sub-glacial meltwater from the interior of Greenland to the edge of the ice sheet into the ocean. Evidence suggests that before the presence of the ice sheet, as much as 4 million years ago, water flowed in the canyon from the interior to the coast and was a major river system.

“It is quite remarkable that a channel the size of the Grand Canyon is discovered in the 21st century below the Greenland ice sheet,” said Studinger. “It shows how little we still know about the bedrock below large continental ice sheets.”

The IceBridge campaign will return to Greenland in March 2014 to continue collecting data on land and sea ice in the Arctic using a suite of instruments that includes ice-penetrating radar.

Click on this image to view the .mp4 video
Hidden for all of human history, a 460-mile-long canyon has been discovered below Greenland’s ice sheet. Using radar data from NASA’s Operation IceBridge and other airborne campaigns, scientists led by a team from the University of Bristol found the canyon runs from near the center of the island northward to the fjord of the Petermann Glacier.

A large portion of the data was collected by IceBridge from 2009 through 2012. One of the mission’s scientific instruments, the Multichannel Coherent Radar Depth Sounder, operated by the Center for the Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets at the University of Kansas, can see through vast layers of ice to measure its thickness and the shape of bedrock below.

This is a narrated version of an animation that can be found, along with more detailed information, here:

Greenland’s Mega-Canyon beneath the Ice Sheet (id 4097) – NASA SVS

Grand Canyon as old as the dinosaurs, suggests new study

An analysis of mineral grains from the bottom of the western Grand Canyon indicates it was largely carved out by about 70 million years ago — a time when dinosaurs were around and may have even peeked over the rim, says a study led by the University of Colorado Boulder.

The new research pushes back the conventionally accepted date for the formation of the Grand Canyon in Arizona by more than 60 million years, said CU-Boulder Assistant Professor Rebecca Flowers. The team used a dating method that exploits the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium atoms to helium atoms in a phosphate mineral known as apatite, said Flowers, a faculty member in CU-Boulder’s geological sciences department.

The helium atoms were locked in the mineral grains as they cooled and moved closer to the surface during the carving of the Grand Canyon, she said. Temperature variations at shallow levels beneath the Earth’s surface are influenced by topography, and the thermal history recorded by the apatite grains allowed the team to infer how much time had passed since there was significant natural excavation of the Grand Canyon, Flowers said.

“Our research implies that the Grand Canyon was directly carved to within a few hundred meters of its modern depth by about 70 million years ago,” said Flowers. A paper on the subject by Flowers and Professor Kenneth Farley of the California Institute of Technology was published online Nov. 29 in Science magazine.

Flowers said there is significant controversy among scientists over the age and evolution of the Grand Canyon. A variety of data suggest that the Grand Canyon had a complicated history, and the entire modern canyon may not have been carved all at the same time. Different canyon segments may have evolved separately before coalescing into what visitors see today.

In a 2008 study, Flowers and colleagues showed that parts of the eastern section of the Grand Canyon likely developed some 55 million years ago, although the bottom of that ancient canyon was above the height of the current canyon rim at that time before it subsequently eroded to its current depth.

Over a mile deep in places, Arizona’s steeply sided Grand Canyon is about 280 miles long and up to 18 miles wide in places. Visited by more than 5 million people annually, the iconic canyon was likely carved in large part by an ancestral waterway of the Colorado River that was flowing in the opposite direction millions of years ago, said Flowers.

“An ancient Grand Canyon has important implications for understanding the evolution of landscapes, topography, hydrology and tectonics in the western U.S. and in mountain belts more generally,” said Flowers. The study was funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

Whether helium is retained or lost from the individual apatite crystals is a function of temperatures in the rocks of Earth’s crust, she said. When temperatures of the apatite grains are greater than 158 degrees Fahrenheit, no helium is retained in the apatite, while at temperatures below 86 degrees F, all of the helium is retained.

“The main thing this technique allows us to do is detect variations in the thermal structure at shallow levels of the Earth’s crust,” she said. “Since these variations are in part induced by the topography of the region, we obtained dates that allowed us to constrain the timeframe when the Grand Canyon was incised.”

Flowers and Farley took their uranium/thorium/helium dating technique to a more sophisticated level by analyzing the spatial distribution of helium atoms near the margin of individual apatite crystals. “Knowing not just how much helium is present in the grains but also how it is distributed gives us additional information about whether the rocks had a rapid cooling or slow cooling history,” said Flowers.

There have been a number of studies in recent years reporting various ages for the Grand Canyon, said Flowers. The most popular theory places the age of the Grand Canyon at 5 million to 6 million years based on the age of gravel washed downstream by the ancestral Colorado River. In contrast, a 2008 study published in Science estimated the age of the Grand Canyon to be some 17 million years old after researchers dated mineral deposits inside of caves carved in the canyon walls.

Paleontologists believe dinosaurs were wiped out when a giant asteroid collided with Earth 65 million years ago, resulting in huge clouds of dust that blocked the sun’s rays from reaching Earth’s surface, cooling the planet and killing most plants and animals.

Because of the wide numbers of theories, dates and debates regarding the age of the Grand Canyon, geologists have redoubled their efforts, said Flowers. “There has been a resurgence of work on this problem over the past few years because we now have some new techniques that allow us to date rocks that we couldn’t date before,” she said.

While the dating research for the new study was done at Caltech, Flowers recently set up her own lab at CU-Boulder with the ability to conduct uranium/thorium/helium dating.

“If it were simple, I think we would have solved the problem a long time ago,” said Flowers. “But the variety of conflicting information has caused scientists to argue about the age of the Grand Canyon for more than 150 years. I expect that our interpretation that the Grand Canyon formed some 70 million years ago is going to generate a fair amount of controversy, and I hope it will motivate more research to help solve this problem.”

More evidence for an ancient Grand Canyon

For over 150 years, geologists have debated how and when one of the most dramatic features on our planet-the Grand Canyon-was formed. New data unearthed by researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) builds support for the idea that conventional models, which say the enormous ravine is 5 to 6 million years old, are way off.

In fact, the Caltech research points to a Grand Canyon that is many millions of years older than previously thought, says Kenneth A. Farley, Keck Foundation Professor of Geochemistry at Caltech and coauthor of the study. “Rather than being formed within the last few million years, our measurements suggest that a deep canyon existed more than 70 million years ago,” he says.

Farley and Rebecca Flowers-a former postdoctoral scholar at Caltech who is now an assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder-outlined their findings in a paper published in the November 29 issue of Science Express.

Building upon previous research by Farley’s lab that showed that parts of the eastern canyon are likely to be at least 55 million years old, the team used a new method to test ancient rocks found at the bottom of the canyon’s western section. Past experiments used the amount of helium produced by radioactive decay in apatite-a mineral found in the canyon’s walls-to date the samples. This time around, Farley and Flowers took a closer look at the apatite grains by analyzing not only the amount but also the spatial distribution of helium atoms that were trapped within the crystals of the mineral as they moved closer to the surface of the earth during the massive erosion that caused the Grand Canyon to form.

Rocks buried in the earth are hot-with temperatures increasing by about 25 degrees Celsius for every kilometer of depth-but as a river canyon erodes the surface downwards towards a buried rock, that rock cools. The thermal history-shown by the helium distribution in the apatite grains-gives important clues about how much time has passed since there was significant erosion in the canyon.

“If you can document cooling through temperatures only a few degrees warmer than the earth’s surface, you can learn about canyon formation,” says Farley, who is also chair of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences at Caltech.

The analysis of the spatial distribution of helium allowed for detection of variations in the thermal structure at shallow levels of Earth’s crust, says Flowers. That gave the team dates that enabled them to fine-tune the timeframe when the Grand Canyon was incised, or cut.

“Our research implies that the Grand Canyon was directly carved to within a few hundred meters of its modern depth by about 70 million years ago,” she says.

Now that they have narrowed down the “when” of the Grand Canyon’s formation, the geologists plan to continue investigations into how it took shape. The genesis of the canyon has important implications for understanding the evolution of many geological features in the western United States, including their tectonics and topography, according to the team.

“Our major scientific objective is to understand the history of the Colorado Plateau-why does this large and unusual geographic feature exist, and when was it formed,” says Farley. “A canyon cannot form without high elevation-you don’t cut canyons in rocks below sea level. Also, the details of the canyon’s incision seem to suggest large-scale changes in surface topography, possibly including large-scale tilting of the plateau.”

Grand Canyon May Be As Old As Dinosaurs, According To New Geologic Dating Study

The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon

New geological evidence indicates the Grand Canyon may be so old that dinosaurs once lumbered along its rim, according to a study by researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder and the California Institute of Technology.

The team used a technique known as radiometric dating to show the Grand Canyon may have formed more than 55 million years ago, pushing back its assumed origins by 40 million to 50 million years. The researchers gathered evidence from rocks in the canyon and on surrounding plateaus that were deposited near sea level several hundred million years ago before the region uplifted and eroded to form the canyon.

A paper on the subject will be published in the May issue of the Geological Society of America Bulletin. CU-Boulder geological sciences Assistant Professor Rebecca Flowers, lead author and a former Caltech postdoctoral researcher, collaborated with Caltech geology Professor Brian Wernicke and Caltech geochemistry Professor Kenneth Farley on the study, which was conducted while Flowers was at Caltech.

“As rocks moved to the surface in the Grand Canyon region, they cooled off,” said Flowers. “The cooling history of the rocks allowed us to reconstruct the ancient topography, telling us the Grand Canyon has an older prehistory than many had thought.”

The team believes an ancestral Grand Canyon developed in its eastern section about 55 million years ago, later linking with other segments that had evolved separately. “It’s a complicated picture because different segments of the canyon appear to have evolved at different times and subsequently were integrated,” Flowers said.

The ancient sandstone in the canyon walls contains grains of a phosphate mineral known as apatite — hosting trace amounts of the radioactive elements uranium and thorium — which expel helium atoms as they decay, she said. An abundance of the three elements, paired with temperature information from Earth’s interior, provided the team a clock of sorts to calculate when the apatite grains were embedded in rock a mile deep — the approximate depth of the canyon today — and when they cooled as they neared Earth’s surface as a result of erosion.

Apatite samples from the bottom of the Upper Granite Gorge region of the Grand Canyon yield similar dates as samples collected on the nearby plateau, said Caltech’s Wernicke. “Because both canyon and plateau samples resided at nearly the same depth beneath the Earth’s surface 55 million years ago, a canyon of about the same dimensions of today may have existed at least that far back, and possibly as far back as the time of dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago.”

One of the most surprising results from the study is the evidence showing the adjacent plateaus around the Grand Canyon may have eroded away as swiftly as the Grand Canyon itself, each dropping a mile or more, said Flowers. Small streams on the plateaus appear to have been just as effective at stripping away rock as the ancient Colorado River was at carving the massive canyon.

“If you stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon today, the bottom of the ancestral canyon would have sat over your head, incised into rocks that have since been eroded away,” said Flowers. The ancestral Colorado River was likely running in the opposite direction millions of years ago, she said.

When the canyon was formed, it probably looked like a much deeper version of present-day Zion Canyon, which cuts through strata of the Mesozoic era dating from about 250 million to 65 million years ago, Wernicke said. From 28 million to 15 million years ago, a pulse of erosion deepened the already-formed canyon and also scoured surrounding plateaus, stripping off the Mesozoic strata to reveal the Paleozoic rocks visible today, he said.

The prevailing belief is that the canyon was incised by an ancient river about six million years ago as the surrounding plateau began rising from sea level to the current elevation of about 7,000 feet. The new scenario described in the GSA Bulletin by Flowers and her colleagues is consistent with recent evidence by other geologists using radiometric dating techniques indicating the Grand Canyon is significantly older than scientists had long believed.

The National Science Foundation and Caltech funded the study.