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 Jürgen 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.

Researchers resolve the Karakoram glacier anomaly, a cold case of climate science

The researchers found that low-resolution models and a lack of reliable observational data obscured the Karakoram's dramatic shifts in elevation over a small area and heavy winter snowfall. They created a higher-resolution model that showed the elevation and snow water equivalent for (inlaid boxes, from left to right) the Karakoram range and northwest Himalayas, the central Himalayas that include Mount Everest, and the southeast Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. For elevation (left), the high-resolution model showed the sharp variations between roughly 2,500 and 5,000 meters above sea level (yellow to brown) for the Karakoram, while other areas of the map have comparatively more consistent elevations. The model also showed that the Karakoram receive much more annual snowfall (right) than other Himalayan ranges (right), an average of 100 centimeters (brown). The researchers found that the main precipitation season in the Karakoram occurs during the winter and is influenced by cold winds coming from Central Asian countries, as opposed to the heavy summer monsoons that provide the majority of precipitation to the other Himalayan ranges. -  Image by Sarah Kapnick, Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences
The researchers found that low-resolution models and a lack of reliable observational data obscured the Karakoram’s dramatic shifts in elevation over a small area and heavy winter snowfall. They created a higher-resolution model that showed the elevation and snow water equivalent for (inlaid boxes, from left to right) the Karakoram range and northwest Himalayas, the central Himalayas that include Mount Everest, and the southeast Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. For elevation (left), the high-resolution model showed the sharp variations between roughly 2,500 and 5,000 meters above sea level (yellow to brown) for the Karakoram, while other areas of the map have comparatively more consistent elevations. The model also showed that the Karakoram receive much more annual snowfall (right) than other Himalayan ranges (right), an average of 100 centimeters (brown). The researchers found that the main precipitation season in the Karakoram occurs during the winter and is influenced by cold winds coming from Central Asian countries, as opposed to the heavy summer monsoons that provide the majority of precipitation to the other Himalayan ranges. – Image by Sarah Kapnick, Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences

Researchers from Princeton University and other institutions may have hit upon an answer to a climate-change puzzle that has eluded scientists for years, and that could help understand the future availability of water for hundreds of millions of people.

In a phenomenon known as the “Karakoram anomaly,” glaciers in the Karakoram mountains, a range within the Himalayas, have remained stable and even increased in mass while many glaciers nearby — and worldwide — have receded during the past 150 years, particularly in recent decades. Himalayan glaciers provide freshwater to a densely populated area that includes China, Pakistan and India, and are the source of the Ganges and Indus rivers, two of the world’s major waterways.

While there have been many attempts to explain the stability of the Karakoram glaciers, the researchers report in the journal Nature Geoscience that the ice is sustained by a unique and localized seasonal pattern that keeps the mountain range relatively cold and dry during the summer. Other Himalayan ranges and the Tibetan Plateau — where glaciers have increasingly receded as Earth’s climate has warmed — receive most of their precipitation from heavy summer monsoons out of hot South and Southeast Asian nations such as India. The main precipitation season in the Karakoram, however, occurs during the winter and is influenced by cold winds coming from Central Asian countries such as Afghanistan to the west, while the main Himalayan range blocks the warmer air from the southeast throughout the year.

The researchers determined that snowfall, which is critical to maintaining glacier mass, will remain stable and even increase in magnitude at elevations above 4,500 meters (14,764 feet) in the Karakoram through at least 2100. On the other hand, snowfall over much of the Himalayas and Tibet is projected to decline even as the Indian and Southeast Asian monsoons increase in intensity under climate change.

First author Sarah Kapnick, a postdoctoral research fellow in Princeton’s Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, said that a shortage of reliable observational data and the use of low-resolution computer models had obscured the subtleties of the Karakoram seasonal cycle and prevented scientists from unraveling the causes of the anomaly.

For models, the complication is that the Karakoram features dramatic shifts in elevation over a small area, Kapnick said. The range boasts four mountains that are more than 8,000 meters (26,246 feet) high — including K2, the world’s second highest peak — and numerous summits that exceed 7,000 meters, all of which are packed into a length of about 500 kilometers (300 miles).

Kapnick and her co-authors overcame this obstacle with a high-resolution computer model that broke the Karakoram into 50-kilometer pieces, meaning that those sharp fluctuations in altitude were better represented.

In their study, the researchers compared their model with climate models from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which averages a resolution of 210-kilometer squares, Kapnick said. At that scale, the Karakoram is reduced to an average height that is too low and results in temperatures that are too warm to sustain sufficient levels of snowfall throughout the year, and too sensitive to future temperature increases.

Thus, by the IPCC’s models, it would appear that the Karakoram’s glaciers are imperiled by climate change due to reduced snowfall, Kapnick said. This region has been a great source of controversy ever since the IPCC’s last major report, in 2007, when the panel misreported that Himalayan glaciers would likely succumb to climate change by 2035. More recent papers using current IPCC models have similarly reported snowfall losses in this region because the models do not accurately portray the topography of the Karakoram, Kapnick said.

“The higher resolution allowed us to explore what happens at these higher elevations in a way that hasn’t been able to be done,” Kapnick said. “Something that climate scientists always have to keep in mind is that models are useful for certain types of questions and not necessarily for other types of questions. While the IPCC models can be particularly useful for other parts of the world, you need a higher resolution for this area.”

Jeff Dozier, a professor of snow hydrology, earth system science and remote sensing at the University of California-Santa Barbara, said that the research addresses existing shortcomings in how mountain climates are modeled and predicted, particularly in especially steep and compact ranges. Dozier, who was not involved in the research, conducts some of his research in the Hindu Kush mountains west of the Karakoram.

Crucial information regarding water availability is often lost in computer models, observational data and other tools that typically do not represent ranges such as Karakoram accurately enough, Dozier said. For instance, a severe 2011 drought in Northern Afghanistan was a surprise partly due to erroneous runoff forecasts based on insufficient models and surface data, he said. The high-resolution model Kapnick and her co-authors developed for Karakoram potentially resolves many of the modeling issues related to mountain ranges with similar terrain, he said.

“The Karakoram Anomaly has been a puzzle, and this paper gives a credible explanation,” Dozier said. “Climate in the mountains is obviously affected strongly by the elevation, but most global climate models don’t resolve the topography well enough. So, the higher-resolution model is appropriate. About a billion people worldwide get their water resources from melting snow and many of these billion get their water from High Mountain Asia.”

The researchers used the high-resolution global-climate model GFDL-CM2.5 at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL), which is on Princeton’s Forrestal Campus and administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The researchers simulated the global climate — with a focus on the Karakoram — based on observational data from 1861 to 2005, and on the IPCC’s greenhouse-gas projections for 2006-2100, which will be included in its Fifth Assessment Report scheduled for release in November.

The 50-kilometer resolution revealed conditions in Karakoram on a monthly basis, Kapnick said. It was then that she and her colleagues could observe that the monsoon months in Karakoram are not only not characterized by heavy rainfall, but also include frigid westerly winds that keep conditions in the mountain range cold enough for nearly year-round snowfall.

“There is precipitation during the summer, it just doesn’t dominate the seasonal cycle. This region, even at the same elevation as the rest of the Himalayas, is just colder,” Kapnick said.

“The high-resolution model shows us that things don’t happen perfectly across seasons. You can have statistical variations in one month but not another,” she continued. “This allows us to piece out those significant changes from one month to the next.”

Kapnick, who received her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Princeton in 2004, worked with Thomas Delworth, a NOAA scientist and Princeton lecturer of geosciences and atmospheric and oceanic sciences; Moestasim Ashfaq, a scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Climate Change Science Institute; Sergey Malyshev, a climate modeler in Princeton’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology based at GFDL; and P.C.D. “Chris” Milly, a research hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey based at GFDL who received his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Princeton in 1978.

While the researchers show that the Karakoram will receive consistent — and perhaps increased — snowfall through 2100, more modeling work is needed to understand how the existing glaciers may change over time as a result of melt, avalanches and other factors, Kapnick said.

“Our work is an important piece to understanding the Karakoram anomaly,” Kapnick said. “But that balance of what’s coming off the glacier versus what’s coming in also matters for understanding how the glacier will change in the future.”

The paper, “Snowfall less sensitive to warming in Karakoram than in Himalayas due to a unique seasonal cycle,” was published online in-advance-of-print Oct. 12 by Nature Geoscience.

Scientists find ancient mountains that fed early life

This image shows the ancient mountain site, Brazil. -  Carlos Ganade de Araujo
This image shows the ancient mountain site, Brazil. – Carlos Ganade de Araujo

Scientists have found evidence for a huge mountain range that sustained an explosion of life on Earth 600 million years ago.

The mountain range was similar in scale to the Himalayas and spanned at least 2,500 kilometres of modern west Africa and northeast Brazil, which at that time were part of the supercontinent Gondwana.

“Just like the Himalayas, this range was eroded intensely because it was so huge. As the sediments washed into the oceans they provided the perfect nutrients for life to flourish,” said Professor Daniela Rubatto of the Research School of Earth Sciences at The Australian National University (ANU).

“Scientists have speculated that such a large mountain range must have been feeding the oceans because of the way life thrived and ocean chemistry changed at this time, and finally we have found it.”

The discovery is earliest evidence of Himalayan-scale mountains on Earth.

“Although the mountains have long since washed away, rocks from their roots told the story of the ancient mountain range’s grandeur,” said co-researcher Professor Joerg Hermann.

“The range was formed by two continents colliding. During this collision, rocks from the crust were pushed around 100 kilometres deep into the mantle, where the high temperatures and pressures formed new minerals.”

As the mountains eroded, the roots came back up to the surface, to be collected in Togo, Mali and northeast Brazil, by Brazilian co-researcher Carlos Ganade de Araujo, from the University of Sao Paolo.

Dr Ganade de Araujo recognised the samples were unique and brought the rocks to ANU where, using world-leading equipment, the research team accurately identified that the rocks were of similar age, and had been formed at similar, great depths.

The research team involved specialists from a range of different areas of Earth Science sharing their knowledge, said Professor Rubatto.

“With everyone cooperating to study tiny crystals, we have managed to discover a huge mountain range,” she said.

Click on this image to view the .mp4 video
Scientists from Australian National University reveal how they found a mountain range that fed an explosion of life 600 million years ago. The range stretched 2,500 km across Gondwana from modern west Africa to Northeast Brazil. Tiny mineral crystals formed in the roots of these huge mountains were the key to reconstructing their age and size. – ANU Media

The Goldilocks principle: New hypothesis explains earth’s continued habitability

Researchers from USC and Nanjing University in China have documented evidence suggesting that part of the reason that the Earth has become neither sweltering like Venus nor frigid like Mars lies with a built-in atmospheric carbon dioxide regulator – the geologic cycles that churn up the planet’s rocky surface.

Scientists have long known that “fresh” rock pushed to the surface via mountain formation effectively acts as a kind of sponge, soaking up the greenhouse gas CO2. Left unchecked, however, that process would simply deplete atmospheric CO2 levels to a point that would plunge the Earth into an eternal winter within a few million years during the formation of large mountain ranges like the Himalayas – which has clearly not happened.

And while volcanoes have long been pointed to as a source of carbon dioxide, alone they cannot balance out the excess uptake of carbon dioxide by large mountain ranges. Instead, it turns out that “fresh” rock exposed by uplift also emits carbon through a chemical weathering process, which replenishes the atmospheric carbon dioxide at a comparable rate.

“Our presence on Earth is dependent upon this carbon cycle. This is why life is able to survive,” said Mark Torres, lead author of a study disclosing the findings that appears in Nature on March 20. Torres, a doctoral fellow at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and a fellow at the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (C-DEBI), collaborated with Joshua West, professor of Earth Sciences at USC Dornsife, and Gaojun Li of Nanjing University in China.

While human-made atmospheric carbon dioxide increases are currently driving significant changes in the Earth’s climate, the geologic system has kept things balanced for million of years.

“The Earth is a bit like a big, natural recycler,” West said. Torres and West studied rocks taken from the Andes mountain range in Peru and found that weathering processes affecting rocks released far more carbon than previously estimated, which motivated them to consider the global implications of CO2 release during mountain formation.

The researchers noted that rapid erosion in the Andes unearths abundant pyrite – the shiny mineral known as “fool’s gold” because of its deceptive appearance – and its chemical breakdown produces acids that release CO2 from other minerals. These observations motivated them to consider the global implications of CO2 release during mountain formation.

Like many other large mountain ranges, such as the great Himalayas, the Andes began to form during the Cenozoic period, which began about 60 million years ago and happened to coincide with a major perturbation in the cycling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Using marine records of the long-term carbon cycle, Torres, West, and Li reconstructed the balance between CO2 release and uptake caused by the uplift of large mountain ranges and found that the release of CO2 release by rock weathering may have played a large, but thus far unrecognized, role in regulating the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide over the last roughly 60 million years.

Soil production breaks geologic speed record

This is a photo of the researcher hiking down the ridge at Rapid Creek to collect soil samples.  The dense bush and heavy 10 kilogram soil samples slowed uphill progress to less than 200 meters per hour. -  Andre Eger
This is a photo of the researcher hiking down the ridge at Rapid Creek to collect soil samples. The dense bush and heavy 10 kilogram soil samples slowed uphill progress to less than 200 meters per hour. – Andre Eger

Geologic time is shorthand for slow-paced. But new measurements from steep mountaintops in New Zealand show that rock can transform into soil more than twice as fast as previously believed possible.

The findings were published Jan. 16 in the early online edition of Science.

“Some previous work had argued that there were limits to soil production,” said first author Isaac Larsen, who did the work as part of his doctoral research in Earth sciences at the University of Washington. “But no one had made the measurements.”

The finding is more than just a new speed record. Rapidly eroding mountain ranges account for at least half of the total amount of the planet’s weathering and sediment production, although they occupy just a few percent of the Earth’s surface, researchers said.

So the record-breaking production at the mountaintops has implications for the entire carbon cycle by which the Earth’s crust pushes up to form mountains, crumbles, washes with rivers and rainwater to the sea, and eventually settles to the bottom to form new rock.

“This work takes the trend between soil production rates and chemical weathering rates and extends it to much higher values than had ever been previously observed,” said Larsen, now a postdoctoral researcher at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

The study site in New Zealand’s Southern Alps is “an extremely rugged mountain range,” Larsen said, with rainfall of 10 meters (33 feet) per year and slopes of about 35 degrees.

To collect samples Larsen and co-author André Eger, then a graduate student at Lincoln University in New Zealand, were dropped from a helicopter onto remote mountaintops above the tree line. They would hike down to an appropriate test site and collect 20 pounds of dirt apiece, and then trek the samples back up to their base camp. The pair stayed at each of the mountaintop sites for about three days.

“I’ve worked in a lot of places,” Larsen said. “This was the most challenging fieldwork I’ve done.”

Researchers then brought soil samples back to the UW and measured the amount of Beryllium-10, an isotope that forms only at the Earth’s surface by exposure to cosmic rays. Those measurements showed soil production rates on the ridge tops ranging from 0.1 to 2.5 millimeters (1/10 of an inch) per year, and decrease exponentially with increasing soil thickness.

The peak rate is more than twice the proposed speed limit for soil production, in which geologists wondered if in places where soil is lost very quickly, the soil production just can’t keep up. In earlier work Larsen had noticed vegetation on very steep slopes and so he proposed this project to measure soil production rates at some of the steepest, wettest locations on the planet.

The new results show that soil production and weathering rates continue to increase as the landscape gets steeper and erodes faster, and suggest that other very steep locations such as the Himalayas and the mountains in Taiwan may also have very fast soil formation.

“A couple millimeters a year sounds pretty slow to anybody but a geologist,” said co-author David Montgomery, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences. “Isaac measured two millimeters of soil production a year, so it would take just a dozen years to make an inch of soil. That’s shockingly fast for a geologist, because the conventional wisdom is it takes centuries.”

The researchers believe plant roots may be responsible here. The mountain landscape was covered with low, dense vegetation. The roots of those plants reach into cracks in the rocks, helping break them apart and expose them to rainwater and chemical weathering.

“This opens up new questions about how soil production might happen in other locations, climates and environments,” Larsen said.

Rising mountains dried out Central Asia, scientists say

A record of ancient rainfall teased from long-buried sediments in Mongolia is challenging the popular idea that the arid conditions prevalent in Central Asia today were caused by the ancient uplift of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau.

Instead, Stanford scientists say the formation of two lesser mountain ranges, the Hangay and the Altai, may have been the dominant drivers of climate in the region, leading to the expansion of Asia’s largest desert, the Gobi. The findings will be presented on Thursday, Dec. 12, at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco.

“These results have major implications for understanding the dominant factors behind modern-day Central Asia’s extremely arid climate and the role of mountain ranges in altering regional climate,” said Page Chamberlain, a professor of environmental Earth system science at Stanford.

Scientists previously thought that the formation of the Himalayan mountain range and the Tibetan plateau around 45 million years ago shaped Asia’s driest environments.

“The traditional explanation has been that the uplift of the Himalayas blocked air from the Indian Ocean from reaching central Asia,” said Jeremy Caves, a doctoral student in Chamberlain’s terrestrial paleoclimate research group who was involved in the study.

This process was thought to have created a distinct rain shadow that led to wetter climates in India and Nepal and drier climates in Central Asia. Similarly, the elevation of the Tibetan Plateau was thought to have triggered an atmospheric process called subsidence, in which a mass of air heated by a high elevation slowly sinks into Central Asia.

“The falling air suppresses convective systems such as thunderstorms, and the result is you get really dry environments,” Caves said.

This long-accepted model of how Central Asia’s arid environments were created mostly ignores, however, the existence of the Altai and Hangay, two northern mountain ranges.

Searching for answers

To investigate the effects of the smaller ranges on the regional climate, Caves and his colleagues from Stanford and Rocky Mountain College in Montana traveled to Mongolia in 2011 and 2012 and collected samples of ancient soil, as well as stream and lake sediments from remote sites in the central, southwestern and western parts of the country.

The team carefully chose its sites by scouring the scientific literature for studies of the region conducted by pioneering researchers in past decades.

“A lot of the papers were by Polish and Russian scientists who went there to look for dinosaur fossils,” said Hari Mix, a doctoral student at Stanford who also participated in the research. “Indeed, at many of the sites we visited, there were dinosaur fossils just lying around.”

The earlier researchers recorded the ages and locations of the rocks they excavated as part of their own investigations; Caves and his team used those age estimates to select the most promising sites for their own study.

At each site, the team bagged sediment samples that were later analyzed to determine their carbon isotope content. The relative level of carbon isotopes present in a soil sample is related to the productivity of plants growing in the soil, which is itself dependent on the annual rainfall. Thus, by measuring carbon isotope amounts from different sediment samples of different ages, the team was able to reconstruct past precipitation levels.

An ancient wet period

The new data suggest that rainfall in central and southwestern Mongolia had decreased by 50 to 90 percent in the last several tens of million of years.

“Right now, precipitation in Mongolia is about 5 inches annually,” Caves said. “To explain our data, rainfall had to decrease from 10 inches a year or more to its current value over the last 10 to 30 million years.”

That means that much of Mongolia and Central Asia were still relatively wet even after the formation of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau 45 million years ago. The data show that it wasn’t until about 30 million years ago, when the Hangay Mountains first formed, that rainfall started to decrease. The region began drying out even faster about 5 million to 10 million years ago, when the Altai Mountains began to rise.

The scientists hypothesize that once they formed, the Hangay and Altai ranges created rain shadows of their own that blocked moisture from entering Central Asia.

“As a result, the northern and western sides of these ranges are wet, while the southern and eastern sides are dry,” Caves said.

The team is not discounting the effect of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau entirely, because portions of the Gobi Desert likely already existed before the Hangay or Altai began forming.

“What these smaller mountains did was expand the Gobi north and west into Mongolia,” Caves said.

The uplift of the Hangay and Altai may have had other, more far-reaching implications as well, Caves said. For example, westerly winds in Asia slam up against the Altai today, creating strong cyclonic winds in the process. Under the right conditions, the cyclones pick up large amounts of dust as they snake across the Gobi Desert. That dust can be lofted across the Pacific Ocean and even reach California, where it serves as microscopic seeds for developing raindrops.

The origins of these cyclonic winds, as well as substantial dust storms in China today, may correlate with uplift of the Altai, Caves said. His team plans to return to Mongolia and Kazakhstan next summer to collect more samples and to use climate models to test whether the Altai are responsible for the start of the large dust storms.

“If the Altai are a key part of regulating Central Asia’s climate, we can go and look for evidence of it in the past,” Caves said.

Geochemical ‘fingerprints’ leave evidence that megafloods eroded steep gorge

This 2005 image shows a concentration of grains of zircon taken from sand deposits, where it occurs with other heavy minerals such as magnetite and ilmenite. -  U.S. Geological Survey
This 2005 image shows a concentration of grains of zircon taken from sand deposits, where it occurs with other heavy minerals such as magnetite and ilmenite. – U.S. Geological Survey

The Yarlung-Tsangpo River in southern Asia drops rapidly through the Himalaya Mountains on its way to the Bay of Bengal, losing about 7,000 feet of elevation through the precipitously steep Tsangpo Gorge.

For the first time, scientists have direct geochemical evidence that the 150-mile long gorge, possibly the world’s deepest, was the conduit by which megafloods from glacial lakes, perhaps half the volume of Lake Erie, drained suddenly and catastrophically through the Himalayas when their ice dams failed at times during the last 2 million years.

“You would expect that if a three-day long flood occurred, there would be some pretty significant impacts downstream,” said Karl Lang, a University of Washington doctoral candidate in Earth and space sciences.

In this case, the water moved rapidly through bedrock gorge, carving away the base of slopes so steep they already were near the failure threshold. Because the riverbed through the Tsangpo Gorge is essentially bedrock and the slope is so steep and narrow, the deep flood waters could build enormous speed and erosive power.

As the base of the slopes eroded, areas higher on the bedrock hillsides tumbled into the channel, freeing microscopic grains of zircon that were carried out of the gorge by the fast-moving water and deposited downstream.

Uranium-bearing zircon grains carry a sort of geochemical signature for the place where they originated, so grains found downstream can be traced back to the rocks from which they eroded. Lang found that normal annual river flow carries about 40 percent of the grains from the Tsangpo Gorge downstream. But grains from the gorge found in prehistoric megaflood deposits make up as much as 80 percent of the total.

He is the lead author of a paper documenting the work published in the September edition of Geology. Co-authors are Katharine Huntington and David Montgomery, both UW faculty members in Earth and space sciences.

The Yarlung-Tsangpo is the highest major river in the world. It begins on the Tibetan Plateau at about 14,500 feet, or more than 2.5 miles, above sea level. It travels more than 1,700 miles, crossing the plateau and plunging through the Himalayas before reaching India’s Assam Valley, where it becomes the Brahmaputra River. From there it continues its course to the Ganges River delta and the Bay of Benga

At the head of the Tsangpo Gorge, the river makes a sharp bend around Namche Barwa, a 25,500-foot peak that is the eastern anchor of the Himalayas. Evidence indicates that giant lakes were impounded behind glacial dams farther inland from Namche Barwa at various times during the last 2.5 million years ago.

Lang matched zircons in the megaflood deposits far downstream with zircons known to come only from Namche Barwa, and those signature zircons turned up in the flood deposits at a much greater proportion than they would in sediments from normal river flows. Finding the zircons in deposits so far downstream is evidence for the prehistoric megafloods and their role in forming the gorge.

Lang noted that a huge landslide in early 2000 created a giant dam on the Yiggong River, a tributary of the main river just upstream from the Gorge. The dam failed catastrophically in June 2000, triggering a flood that caused numerous fatalities and much property damage downstream.

That provided a vivid, though much smaller, illustration of what likely occurred when large ice dams failed millions of years ago, he said. It also shows the potential danger if humans decide to build dams in that area for hydroelectric generation.

“We are interested in it scientifically, but there is certainly a societal element to it,” Lang said. “This takes us a step beyond speculating what those ancient floods did. There is circumstantial evidence that, yes, they did do a lot of damage.”

The process in the Tsangpo Gorge is similar to what happened with Lake Missoula in Western Montana 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. That lake was more than 10,000 feet lower in elevation than lakes associated with the Tsangpo Gorge, though its water discharge was 10 times greater. Evidence suggests that Lake Missoula’s ice dam failed numerous times, unleashing a torrent equal to half the volume of Lake Michigan across eastern Washington, where it carved the Channeled Scablands before continuing down the Columbia River basin.

“This is a geomorphic process that we know shapes the landscape, and we can look to eastern Washington to see that,” Lang said.

River deep, mountain high — new study reveals clues to lifecycle of worlds iconic mountains

This image shows the very steep topography of East Timor. The evolution of this mountain range is dominated by ongoing feedbacks between landslides and river erosion. -  Mike Sandiford University of Melbourne
This image shows the very steep topography of East Timor. The evolution of this mountain range is dominated by ongoing feedbacks between landslides and river erosion. – Mike Sandiford University of Melbourne

Scientists have discovered the reasons behind the lifespan of some of the world’s iconic mountain ranges.

The study conducted by the University of Melbourne, Australia, and Aarhus University, Denmark, has revealed that interactions between landslides and erosion, caused by rivers, explains why some mountain ranges exceed their expected lifespan.

Co-author Professor Mike Sandiford of the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Melbourne said the study had answered the quandary as to why there was fast erosion in active mountain ranges in the Himalayas and slow erosion in others such as the Great Dividing Range in Australia or the Urals in Russia.

“We have shown that links between landslides and rivers are important in maintaining erosion in active or ancient mountain ranges,” he said.

“This study is a great insight into the origins and topography of our globe’s mountainous landscape.”

Mountain ranges are expected to erode away in the absence of tectonic activity but several ranges, such as the Appalachians in the US and the Urals in Russia, have been preserved over several hundred million years.

Co-author, Professor David Egholm from Aarhus University said the new model study published in Nature today provided a plausible mechanism for the preservation of tectonically inactive mountain ranges.

“Computational simulations performed for the study revealed that variations in mountain erosion may relate to a coupling between river incision and landslides,” he said.

Researchers said rivers can cut through bedrock and this process is thought to be the major factor in controlling mountain erosion, however, the long-term preservation of some mountains is at odds with some of the underlying assumptions regarding river erosion rates in current models of river-based landscape evolution.

The study revealed landslides affected river erosion rates in two ways. Large landslides overwhelm river transport capacity and can protect the riverbed from further erosion; conversely, landslides also deliver abrasive agents to the streams, thereby accelerating erosion.

Feedback between these processes can help to stabilize the rates of erosion and increase the lifespan of mountains, the authors said.

India joined with Asia 10 million years later than previously thought

The peaks of the Himalayas are a modern remnant of massive tectonic forces that fused India with Asia tens of millions of years ago. Previous estimates have suggested this collision occurred about 50 million years ago, as India, moving northward at a rapid pace, crushed up against Eurasia. The crumple zone between the two plates gave rise to the Himalayas, which today bear geologic traces of both India and Asia. Geologists have sought to characterize the rocks of the Himalayas in order to retrace one of the planet’s most dramatic tectonic collisions.

Now researchers at MIT have found that the collision between India and Asia occurred only 40 million years ago – 10 million years later than previously thought. The scientists analyzed the composition of rocks from two regions in the Himalayas, and discovered evidence of two separate collisional events: As India crept steadily northward, it first collided with a string of islands 50 million years ago, before plowing into the Eurasian continental plate 10 million years later.

Oliver Jagoutz, assistant professor of geology in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, says the results, which will be published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, change the timeline for a well-known tectonic story.

“India came running full speed at Asia and boom, they collided,” says Jagoutz, an author of the paper. “But we actually don’t think it was one collision ? this changes dramatically the way we think India works.”

‘How great was Greater India?’

In particular, Jagoutz says, the group’s findings may change scientists’ ideas about the size of India before it collided with Asia. At the time of collision, part of the ancient Indian plate – known as “Greater India” – slid underneath the Eurasian plate.

What we see of India’s surface today is much smaller than it was 50 million years ago. It’s not clear how much of India lies beneath Asia, but scientists believe the answer may come partly from knowing how fast the Indian plate migrates, and exactly when the continent collided with Asia.

“The real question is, ‘How great was Greater India?'” Jagoutz says. “If you know when India hit, you know the size of Greater India.”

By dating the Indian-Eurasian collision to 10 million years later than previous estimates, Jagoutz and his colleagues conclude that Greater India must have been much smaller than scientists have thought.

“India moved more than 10 centimeters a year,” Jagoutz says. “Ten million years [later] is 1,000 kilometers less in convergence. That is a real difference.”

Leafing through the literature

To pinpoint exactly when the Indian-Eurasian collision occurred, the team first looked to a similar but more recent tectonic example. Over the last 2 million years, the Australian continental plate slowly collided with a string of islands known as the Sunda Arc. Geologists have studied the region as an example of an early-stage continental collision.

Jagoutz and his colleagues reviewed the geologic literature on Oceania’s rock composition. In particular, the team looked for telltale isotopes – chemical elements that morph depending on factors like time and tectonic deformation. The researchers identified two main isotopic systems in the region’s rocks: one in which the element lutetium decays to hafnium, and another in which samarium decays to neodymium. From their analysis of the literature, the researchers found that rocks high in neodymium and hafnium isotopes likely formed before Australia collided with the islands. Rocks high in neodymium and hafnium probably formed after the collision.

Heading to the Himalayas

Once the team identified the isotopic signatures for collision, it looked for similar signatures in rocks gathered from the Himalayas.

Since 2000, Jagoutz has trekked to the northwest corner of the Himalayas, a region of Pakistan and India called the Kohistan-Ladakh Arc. This block of mountains is thought to have been a string of islands that was sandwiched between the two continents as they collided. Jagoutz traversed the mountainous terrain with pack mules and sledgehammers, carving out rock samples from the region’s northern and southern borders. His team has brought back three tons of rocks, which he and his colleagues analyzed for signature isotopes.

The researchers split the rocks, and separated out more than 3,000 zircons – micron-long crystals containing isotopic ratios. Jagoutz and his colleagues first determined the age of each zircon using another isotopic system, in which uranium turns slowly to lead with time. The team then measured the ratios of strontium to neodymium, and lutetium to hafnium, to determine the presence of a collision, keeping track of where each zircon was originally found (along the region’s northern or southern border).

The team found a very clear signature: Rocks older than 50 million years contained exactly the same ratio of isotopes in both the northern and southern samples. However, Jagoutz found that rocks younger than 50 million years, along the southern boundary of the Kohistan-Ladakh Arc, suddenly exhibited a range of isotopic ratios, indicating a dramatic tectonic event. Along the arc’s northern boundary, the same sudden change in isotopes occurs, but only in rocks younger than 40 million years.

Taken together, the evidence supports a new timeline of collisional events: Fifty million years ago, India collided with a string of islands, pushing the island arc northward. Ten million years later, India collided with the Eurasian plate, sandwiching the string of islands, now known as the Kohistan-Ladakh Arc, between the massive continents.

“If you actually go back in the literature to the 1970s and ’80s, people thought this was the right way,” Jagoutz says. “Then somehow the literature went in another direction, and people largely forgot this possibility. Now this opens up a lot of new ideas.”

Ground-breaking study warns of more great quakes in the Himalayas

A research team led by scientists from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has discovered that massive earthquakes in the range of 8 to 8.5 magnitudes on the Richter scale have left clear ground scars in the central Himalayas.

This ground-breaking discovery has huge implications for the area along the front of the Himalayan Mountains, given that the region has a population density similar to that of New York City.

NTU Professor Paul Tapponnier, who is recognised as a leading scientist in the field of neotectonics, said that the existence of such devastating quakes in the past means that quakes of the same magnitude could happen again in the region in future, especially in areas which have yet to have their surface broken by a temblor.

Published recently in Nature Geosciences, a prestigious scientific journal, the study by NTU’s Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS) and colleagues in Nepal and France showed that in 1255 and 1934, two great earthquakes ruptured the surface of the earth in the Himalayas. This runs contrary to what scientists have previously thought.

Massive earthquakes are not unknown in the Himalayas, as quakes in 1897, 1905, 1934 and 1950 all had magnitudes between 7.8 and 8.9, each causing tremendous damage. But they were previously thought not to have broken the earth’s surface – classified as blind quakes – which are much more difficult to track.

However, Prof Tapponnier said that by combining new high resolution imagery and state of the art dating techniques, they could show that the 1934 earthquake did indeed rupture the surface, breaking the ground over a length of more than 150 kilometres, essentially south of the part of the range that harbours Mt Everest.

This break formed along the main fault in Nepal that currently marks the boundary between the Indian and Asian tectonic plates – also known as the Main Frontal Thrust (MFT) fault.

Using radiocarbon dating of offset river sediments and collapsed hill-slope deposits, the research team managed to separate several episodes of tectonic movement on this major fault and pin the dates of the two quakes, about 7 centuries apart.

“The significance of this finding is that earthquakes of magnitude 8 to 8.5 may return at most twice per millennium on this stretch of the fault, which allows for a better assessment of the risk they pose to the surrounding communities,” said Prof Tapponnier.

Prof Tapponnier warns that the long interval between the two recently discovered earthquake ruptures does not mean people should be complacent, thinking that there is still time before the next major earthquake happens in the region.

“This does not imply that the next mega-earthquake in the Himalayas will occur many centuries from now because we still do not know enough about adjacent segments of the MFT Mega-thrust,” Prof Tapponier explains.

“But it does suggest that areas west or east of the 1934 Nepal ground rupture are now at greater risk of a major earthquake, since there are little or no records of when last earth shattering temblor happened in those two areas.”

The next step for Prof Tapponnier and his EOS scientists is to uncover the full extent of such fault ruptures, which will then allow them to build a more comprehensive model of earthquake hazard along the Himalayan front.

About the NTU’s Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS)

EOS is a premier research institute at NTU which conducts fundamental research on earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunami and climate change in and around Southeast Asia, towards safer and more sustainable societies.