Study hints that ancient Earth made its own water — geologically

A new study is helping to answer a longstanding question that has recently moved to the forefront of earth science: Did our planet make its own water through geologic processes, or did water come to us via icy comets from the far reaches of the solar system?

The answer is likely “both,” according to researchers at The Ohio State University– and the same amount of water that currently fills the Pacific Ocean could be buried deep inside the planet right now.

At the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 17, they report the discovery of a previously unknown geochemical pathway by which the Earth can sequester water in its interior for billions of years and still release small amounts to the surface via plate tectonics, feeding our oceans from within.

In trying to understand the formation of the early Earth, some researchers have suggested that the planet was dry and inhospitable to life until icy comets pelted the earth and deposited water on the surface.

Wendy Panero, associate professor of earth sciences at Ohio State, and doctoral student Jeff Pigott are pursuing a different hypothesis: that Earth was formed with entire oceans of water in its interior, and has been continuously supplying water to the surface via plate tectonics ever since.

Researchers have long accepted that the mantle contains some water, but how much water is a mystery. And, if some geological mechanism has been supplying water to the surface all this time, wouldn’t the mantle have run out of water by now?

Because there’s no way to directly study deep mantle rocks, Panero and Pigott are probing the question with high-pressure physics experiments and computer calculations.

“When we look into the origins of water on Earth, what we’re really asking is, why are we so different than all the other planets?” Panero said. “In this solar system, Earth is unique because we have liquid water on the surface. We’re also the only planet with active plate tectonics. Maybe this water in the mantle is key to plate tectonics, and that’s part of what makes Earth habitable.”

Central to the study is the idea that rocks that appear dry to the human eye can actually contain water–in the form of hydrogen atoms trapped inside natural voids and crystal defects. Oxygen is plentiful in minerals, so when a mineral contains some hydrogen, certain chemical reactions can free the hydrogen to bond with the oxygen and make water.

Stray atoms of hydrogen could make up only a tiny fraction of mantle rock, the researchers explained. Given that the mantle is more than 80 percent of the planet’s total volume, however, those stray atoms add up to a lot of potential water.

In a lab at Ohio State, the researchers compress different minerals that are common to the mantle and subject them to high pressures and temperatures using a diamond anvil cell–a device that squeezes a tiny sample of material between two diamonds and heats it with a laser–to simulate conditions in the deep Earth. They examine how the minerals’ crystal structures change as they are compressed, and use that information to gauge the minerals’ relative capacities for storing hydrogen. Then, they extend their experimental results using computer calculations to uncover the geochemical processes that would enable these minerals to rise through the mantle to the surface–a necessary condition for water to escape into the oceans.

In a paper now submitted to a peer-reviewed academic journal, they reported their recent tests of the mineral bridgmanite, a high-pressure form of olivine. While bridgmanite is the most abundant mineral in the lower mantle, they found that it contains too little hydrogen to play an important role in Earth’s water supply.

Another research group recently found that ringwoodite, another form of olivine, does contain enough hydrogen to make it a good candidate for deep-earth water storage. So Panero and Pigott focused their study on the depth where ringwoodite is found–a place 325-500 miles below the surface that researchers call the “transition zone”–as the most likely region that can hold a planet’s worth of water. From there, the same convection of mantle rock that produces plate tectonics could carry the water to the surface.

One problem: If all the water in ringwoodite is continually drained to the surface via plate tectonics, how could the planet hold any in reserve?

For the research presented at AGU, Panero and Pigott performed new computer calculations of the geochemistry in the lowest portion of the mantle, some 500 miles deep and more. There, another mineral, garnet, emerged as a likely water-carrier–a go-between that could deliver some of the water from ringwoodite down into the otherwise dry lower mantle.

If this scenario is accurate, the Earth may today hold half as much water in its depths as is currently flowing in oceans on the surface, Panero said–an amount that would approximately equal the volume of the Pacific Ocean. This water is continuously cycled through the transition zone as a result of plate tectonics.

“One way to look at this research is that we’re putting constraints on the amount of water that could be down there,” Pigott added.

Panero called the complex relationship between plate tectonics and surface water “one of the great mysteries in the geosciences.” But this new study supports researchers’ growing suspicion that mantle convection somehow regulates the amount of water in the oceans. It also vastly expands the timeline for Earth’s water cycle.

“If all of the Earth’s water is on the surface, that gives us one interpretation of the water cycle, where we can think of water cycling from oceans into the atmosphere and into the groundwater over millions of years,” she said. “But if mantle circulation is also part of the water cycle, the total cycle time for our planet’s water has to be billions of years.”

Study hints that ancient Earth made its own water — geologically

A new study is helping to answer a longstanding question that has recently moved to the forefront of earth science: Did our planet make its own water through geologic processes, or did water come to us via icy comets from the far reaches of the solar system?

The answer is likely “both,” according to researchers at The Ohio State University– and the same amount of water that currently fills the Pacific Ocean could be buried deep inside the planet right now.

At the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 17, they report the discovery of a previously unknown geochemical pathway by which the Earth can sequester water in its interior for billions of years and still release small amounts to the surface via plate tectonics, feeding our oceans from within.

In trying to understand the formation of the early Earth, some researchers have suggested that the planet was dry and inhospitable to life until icy comets pelted the earth and deposited water on the surface.

Wendy Panero, associate professor of earth sciences at Ohio State, and doctoral student Jeff Pigott are pursuing a different hypothesis: that Earth was formed with entire oceans of water in its interior, and has been continuously supplying water to the surface via plate tectonics ever since.

Researchers have long accepted that the mantle contains some water, but how much water is a mystery. And, if some geological mechanism has been supplying water to the surface all this time, wouldn’t the mantle have run out of water by now?

Because there’s no way to directly study deep mantle rocks, Panero and Pigott are probing the question with high-pressure physics experiments and computer calculations.

“When we look into the origins of water on Earth, what we’re really asking is, why are we so different than all the other planets?” Panero said. “In this solar system, Earth is unique because we have liquid water on the surface. We’re also the only planet with active plate tectonics. Maybe this water in the mantle is key to plate tectonics, and that’s part of what makes Earth habitable.”

Central to the study is the idea that rocks that appear dry to the human eye can actually contain water–in the form of hydrogen atoms trapped inside natural voids and crystal defects. Oxygen is plentiful in minerals, so when a mineral contains some hydrogen, certain chemical reactions can free the hydrogen to bond with the oxygen and make water.

Stray atoms of hydrogen could make up only a tiny fraction of mantle rock, the researchers explained. Given that the mantle is more than 80 percent of the planet’s total volume, however, those stray atoms add up to a lot of potential water.

In a lab at Ohio State, the researchers compress different minerals that are common to the mantle and subject them to high pressures and temperatures using a diamond anvil cell–a device that squeezes a tiny sample of material between two diamonds and heats it with a laser–to simulate conditions in the deep Earth. They examine how the minerals’ crystal structures change as they are compressed, and use that information to gauge the minerals’ relative capacities for storing hydrogen. Then, they extend their experimental results using computer calculations to uncover the geochemical processes that would enable these minerals to rise through the mantle to the surface–a necessary condition for water to escape into the oceans.

In a paper now submitted to a peer-reviewed academic journal, they reported their recent tests of the mineral bridgmanite, a high-pressure form of olivine. While bridgmanite is the most abundant mineral in the lower mantle, they found that it contains too little hydrogen to play an important role in Earth’s water supply.

Another research group recently found that ringwoodite, another form of olivine, does contain enough hydrogen to make it a good candidate for deep-earth water storage. So Panero and Pigott focused their study on the depth where ringwoodite is found–a place 325-500 miles below the surface that researchers call the “transition zone”–as the most likely region that can hold a planet’s worth of water. From there, the same convection of mantle rock that produces plate tectonics could carry the water to the surface.

One problem: If all the water in ringwoodite is continually drained to the surface via plate tectonics, how could the planet hold any in reserve?

For the research presented at AGU, Panero and Pigott performed new computer calculations of the geochemistry in the lowest portion of the mantle, some 500 miles deep and more. There, another mineral, garnet, emerged as a likely water-carrier–a go-between that could deliver some of the water from ringwoodite down into the otherwise dry lower mantle.

If this scenario is accurate, the Earth may today hold half as much water in its depths as is currently flowing in oceans on the surface, Panero said–an amount that would approximately equal the volume of the Pacific Ocean. This water is continuously cycled through the transition zone as a result of plate tectonics.

“One way to look at this research is that we’re putting constraints on the amount of water that could be down there,” Pigott added.

Panero called the complex relationship between plate tectonics and surface water “one of the great mysteries in the geosciences.” But this new study supports researchers’ growing suspicion that mantle convection somehow regulates the amount of water in the oceans. It also vastly expands the timeline for Earth’s water cycle.

“If all of the Earth’s water is on the surface, that gives us one interpretation of the water cycle, where we can think of water cycling from oceans into the atmosphere and into the groundwater over millions of years,” she said. “But if mantle circulation is also part of the water cycle, the total cycle time for our planet’s water has to be billions of years.”

North Atlantic signalled Ice Age thaw 1,000 years before it happened, reveals new research

The Atlantic Ocean at mid-depths may have given out early warning signals – 1,000 years in advance – that the last Ice Age was going to end, scientists report today in the journal Paleoceanography.

Scientists had previously known that at the end of the last Ice Age, around 14,700 years ago, major changes occurred to the Atlantic Ocean in a period known as the Bolling-Allerod interval. During this period, as glaciers melted and the Earth warmed, the currents of the Atlantic Ocean at its deepest levels changed direction.

The researchers have analysed the chemistry of 24 ancient coral fossils from the North Atlantic Ocean to learn more about the circulation of its waters during the last Ice Age. They found that the corals recorded a high variability in the currents of the Atlantic Ocean at mid-depths, around 2km below the surface, up to 1,000 years prior to the Bolling-Allerod interval. The team suggests that these changes may have been an early warning signal that the world was poised to switch from its glacial state to the warmer world we know today, and that the changes happened first at mid-depths.

The study was carried out by researchers from Imperial College London in conjunction with academics from the Scottish Marine Institute, the University of Bristol and Caltech Division of Geology and Planetary Sciences.

Dr David Wilson, from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, said: “The world’s oceans have always been an important barometer when it comes to changes in our planet. Excitingly, the coral fossils we’ve studied are showing us that the North Atlantic Ocean at mid-depths was undergoing changes up to 1,000 years earlier than we had expected. The tantalising prospect is that this high variability may have been a signal that the last Ice Age was about to end.”

The fossil corals analysed by the team come from a species called Desmophyllum dianthus, which are often around 5cm in diameter and look like budding flowers. They typically only live for 100 years, giving the team a rare insight into what was happening to the ocean’s currents during this relatively brief time. Thousands of years ago they grew on the New England Seamounts, which are a chain of undersea mountains approximately 1000km off the east coast of the US, located at mid-depths 2km beneath the surface. This underwater area is important for understanding the North Atlantic’s currents.

While some of the corals analysed by the team come from historical collections, most have been collected by researchers from previous expeditions in 2003 and 2005 to the New England Seamounts. The researchers used deep sea robotic submergence vehicles called Hercules and Alvin to collect the ancient coral fossils.

These ancient coral fossils accumulated rare earth elements from seawater, including neodymium, which leached from rocks on land into the Atlantic Ocean and circulated in its currents, eventually ending up in the coral skeletons. Neodymium isotopes in different regions of the world have specific signatures, created by radioactive decay over billions of years. The scientists studied the chemistry of the coral fossils to determine where the neodymium isotopes had come from, giving them a glimpse into the circulation of the Atlantic Ocean at the end of the Ice Age.

Since the world’s oceans are connected by currents, the next step will see the team integrating the evidence they gathered from the North Atlantic Ocean into a picture of global changes in the mid-depths of oceans around the world. In particular, the team is interested in exploring how the Southern Ocean around Antarctica changed around the same time by analysing neodymium isotopes in a collection of Southern Ocean corals.

North Atlantic signalled Ice Age thaw 1,000 years before it happened, reveals new research

The Atlantic Ocean at mid-depths may have given out early warning signals – 1,000 years in advance – that the last Ice Age was going to end, scientists report today in the journal Paleoceanography.

Scientists had previously known that at the end of the last Ice Age, around 14,700 years ago, major changes occurred to the Atlantic Ocean in a period known as the Bolling-Allerod interval. During this period, as glaciers melted and the Earth warmed, the currents of the Atlantic Ocean at its deepest levels changed direction.

The researchers have analysed the chemistry of 24 ancient coral fossils from the North Atlantic Ocean to learn more about the circulation of its waters during the last Ice Age. They found that the corals recorded a high variability in the currents of the Atlantic Ocean at mid-depths, around 2km below the surface, up to 1,000 years prior to the Bolling-Allerod interval. The team suggests that these changes may have been an early warning signal that the world was poised to switch from its glacial state to the warmer world we know today, and that the changes happened first at mid-depths.

The study was carried out by researchers from Imperial College London in conjunction with academics from the Scottish Marine Institute, the University of Bristol and Caltech Division of Geology and Planetary Sciences.

Dr David Wilson, from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, said: “The world’s oceans have always been an important barometer when it comes to changes in our planet. Excitingly, the coral fossils we’ve studied are showing us that the North Atlantic Ocean at mid-depths was undergoing changes up to 1,000 years earlier than we had expected. The tantalising prospect is that this high variability may have been a signal that the last Ice Age was about to end.”

The fossil corals analysed by the team come from a species called Desmophyllum dianthus, which are often around 5cm in diameter and look like budding flowers. They typically only live for 100 years, giving the team a rare insight into what was happening to the ocean’s currents during this relatively brief time. Thousands of years ago they grew on the New England Seamounts, which are a chain of undersea mountains approximately 1000km off the east coast of the US, located at mid-depths 2km beneath the surface. This underwater area is important for understanding the North Atlantic’s currents.

While some of the corals analysed by the team come from historical collections, most have been collected by researchers from previous expeditions in 2003 and 2005 to the New England Seamounts. The researchers used deep sea robotic submergence vehicles called Hercules and Alvin to collect the ancient coral fossils.

These ancient coral fossils accumulated rare earth elements from seawater, including neodymium, which leached from rocks on land into the Atlantic Ocean and circulated in its currents, eventually ending up in the coral skeletons. Neodymium isotopes in different regions of the world have specific signatures, created by radioactive decay over billions of years. The scientists studied the chemistry of the coral fossils to determine where the neodymium isotopes had come from, giving them a glimpse into the circulation of the Atlantic Ocean at the end of the Ice Age.

Since the world’s oceans are connected by currents, the next step will see the team integrating the evidence they gathered from the North Atlantic Ocean into a picture of global changes in the mid-depths of oceans around the world. In particular, the team is interested in exploring how the Southern Ocean around Antarctica changed around the same time by analysing neodymium isotopes in a collection of Southern Ocean corals.

Earth’s most abundant mineral finally has a name

An ancient meteorite and high-energy X-rays have helped scientists conclude a half century of effort to find, identify and characterize a mineral that makes up 38 percent of the Earth.

And in doing so, a team of scientists led by Oliver Tschauner, a mineralogist at the University of Las Vegas, clarified the definition of the Earth’s most abundant mineral – a high-density form of magnesium iron silicate, now called Bridgmanite – and defined estimated constraint ranges for its formation. Their research was performed at the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility located at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory.

The mineral was named after 1964 Nobel laureate and pioneer of high-pressure research Percy Bridgman. The naming does more than fix a vexing gap in scientific lingo; it also will aid our understanding of the deep Earth.

To determine the makeup of the inner layers of the Earth, scientists need to test materials under extreme pressure and temperatures. For decades, scientists have believed a dense perovskite structure makes up 38 percent of the Earth’s volume, and that the chemical and physical properties of Bridgmanite have a large influence on how elements and heat flow through the Earth’s mantle. But since the mineral failed to survive the trip to the surface, no one has been able to test and prove its existence – a requirement for getting a name by the International Mineralogical Association.

Shock-compression that occurs in collisions of asteroid bodies in the solar system create the same hostile conditions of the deep Earth – roughly 2,100 degrees Celsius (3,800 degrees Farenheit) and pressures of about 240,000 times greater than sea-level air pressure. The shock occurs fast enough to inhibit the Bridgmanite breakdown that takes place when it comes under lower pressure, such as the Earth’s surface. Part of the debris from these collisions falls on Earth as meteorites, with the Bridgmanite “frozen” within a shock-melt vein. Previous tests on meteorites using transmission electron microscopy caused radiation damage to the samples and incomplete results.

So the team decided to try a new tactic: non-destructive micro-focused X-rays for diffraction analysis and novel fast-readout area-detector techniques. Tschauner and his colleagues from Caltech and the GeoSoilEnviroCARS, a University of Chicago-operated X-ray beamline at the APS at Argonne National Laboratory, took advantage of the X-rays’ high energy, which gives them the ability to penetrate the meteorite, and their intense brilliance, which leaves little of the radiation behind to cause damage.

The team examined a section of the highly shocked L-chondrite meteorite Tenham, which crashed in Australia in 1879. The GSECARS beamline was optimal for the study because it is one of the nation’s leading locations for conducting high-pressure research.

Bridgmanite grains are rare in the Tenhma meteorite, and they are smaller than 1 micrometer in diameter. Thus the team had to use a strongly focused beam and conduct highly spatially resolved diffraction mapping until an aggregate of Bridgmanite was identified and characterized by structural and compositional analysis.

This first natural specimen of Bridgmanite came with some surprises: It contains an unexpectedly high amount of ferric iron, beyond that of synthetic samples. Natural Bridgmanite also contains much more sodium than most synthetic samples. Thus the crystal chemistry of natural Bridgmanite provides novel crystal chemical insights. This natural sample of Bridgmanite may serve as a complement to experimental studies of deep mantle rocks in the future.

Prior to this study, knowledge about Bridgmanite’s properties has only been based on synthetic samples because it only remains stable below 660 kilometers (410 miles) depth at pressures of above 230 kbar (23 GPa). When it is brought out of the inner Earth, the lower pressures transform it back into less dense minerals. Some scientists believe that some inclusions on diamonds are the marks left by Bridgmanite that changed as the diamonds were unearthed.

The team’s results were published in the November 28 issue of the journal Science as “Discovery of bridgmanite, the most abundant mineral in Earth, in a shocked meteorite,” by O. Tschauner at University of Nevada in Las Vegas, N.V.; C. Ma; J.R. Beckett; G.R. Rossman at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.; C. Prescher; V.B. Prakapenka at University of Chicago in Chicago, IL.

This research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA, and NSF.

Earth’s most abundant mineral finally has a name

An ancient meteorite and high-energy X-rays have helped scientists conclude a half century of effort to find, identify and characterize a mineral that makes up 38 percent of the Earth.

And in doing so, a team of scientists led by Oliver Tschauner, a mineralogist at the University of Las Vegas, clarified the definition of the Earth’s most abundant mineral – a high-density form of magnesium iron silicate, now called Bridgmanite – and defined estimated constraint ranges for its formation. Their research was performed at the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility located at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory.

The mineral was named after 1964 Nobel laureate and pioneer of high-pressure research Percy Bridgman. The naming does more than fix a vexing gap in scientific lingo; it also will aid our understanding of the deep Earth.

To determine the makeup of the inner layers of the Earth, scientists need to test materials under extreme pressure and temperatures. For decades, scientists have believed a dense perovskite structure makes up 38 percent of the Earth’s volume, and that the chemical and physical properties of Bridgmanite have a large influence on how elements and heat flow through the Earth’s mantle. But since the mineral failed to survive the trip to the surface, no one has been able to test and prove its existence – a requirement for getting a name by the International Mineralogical Association.

Shock-compression that occurs in collisions of asteroid bodies in the solar system create the same hostile conditions of the deep Earth – roughly 2,100 degrees Celsius (3,800 degrees Farenheit) and pressures of about 240,000 times greater than sea-level air pressure. The shock occurs fast enough to inhibit the Bridgmanite breakdown that takes place when it comes under lower pressure, such as the Earth’s surface. Part of the debris from these collisions falls on Earth as meteorites, with the Bridgmanite “frozen” within a shock-melt vein. Previous tests on meteorites using transmission electron microscopy caused radiation damage to the samples and incomplete results.

So the team decided to try a new tactic: non-destructive micro-focused X-rays for diffraction analysis and novel fast-readout area-detector techniques. Tschauner and his colleagues from Caltech and the GeoSoilEnviroCARS, a University of Chicago-operated X-ray beamline at the APS at Argonne National Laboratory, took advantage of the X-rays’ high energy, which gives them the ability to penetrate the meteorite, and their intense brilliance, which leaves little of the radiation behind to cause damage.

The team examined a section of the highly shocked L-chondrite meteorite Tenham, which crashed in Australia in 1879. The GSECARS beamline was optimal for the study because it is one of the nation’s leading locations for conducting high-pressure research.

Bridgmanite grains are rare in the Tenhma meteorite, and they are smaller than 1 micrometer in diameter. Thus the team had to use a strongly focused beam and conduct highly spatially resolved diffraction mapping until an aggregate of Bridgmanite was identified and characterized by structural and compositional analysis.

This first natural specimen of Bridgmanite came with some surprises: It contains an unexpectedly high amount of ferric iron, beyond that of synthetic samples. Natural Bridgmanite also contains much more sodium than most synthetic samples. Thus the crystal chemistry of natural Bridgmanite provides novel crystal chemical insights. This natural sample of Bridgmanite may serve as a complement to experimental studies of deep mantle rocks in the future.

Prior to this study, knowledge about Bridgmanite’s properties has only been based on synthetic samples because it only remains stable below 660 kilometers (410 miles) depth at pressures of above 230 kbar (23 GPa). When it is brought out of the inner Earth, the lower pressures transform it back into less dense minerals. Some scientists believe that some inclusions on diamonds are the marks left by Bridgmanite that changed as the diamonds were unearthed.

The team’s results were published in the November 28 issue of the journal Science as “Discovery of bridgmanite, the most abundant mineral in Earth, in a shocked meteorite,” by O. Tschauner at University of Nevada in Las Vegas, N.V.; C. Ma; J.R. Beckett; G.R. Rossman at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.; C. Prescher; V.B. Prakapenka at University of Chicago in Chicago, IL.

This research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA, and NSF.

Himalaya tectonic dam with a discharge

The Himalaya features some of the most impressive gorges on Earth that have been formed by rivers. The geologic history of the famous Tsangpo Gorge, in the eastern Himalaya, now needs to be rewritten.

A team of German, Chinese, and American geoscientists have namely discovered a canyon, filled with more than 500 m of sediments beneath the bed of the present-day Yarlung Tsangpo River upstream from the gorge. Using drill cores, the scientists were able to reconstruct the former valley floor of this river, which allowed them to reconstruct the geological history of the Tsangpo Gorge (Science, 21.11.2014). They discovered that the gorge obtained its steep form in response to rapid tectonic uplift in the Himalaya, two to three million years ago. “Because of its high gradient, the river incises its bed very rapidly”, explains Dirk Scherler from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences. “The rocks here are eroded at annual rates of up to one centimeter per year which is matched by tectonic uplift of the same rate.” The collision of India with the Eurasian continent has created a tectonic dam here.

This barrier caused a lower flow velocity of the Yarlung Tsangpoupstream. Previously, the river had deeply incised into the Tibetan Plateau. Due to the reduced flow rate the sediments which the Yarlung Tsangpo River and its tributaries eroded from the highlands were deposited in the river bed along hundreds of kilometers.

The scientists estimated that these deposits are up to 1000 m thick. “Five drillings have been conducted over a distance of 300 km upstream of the gorge”, says Dirk Scherler. “One of the drillings encountered bedrock after 540 meters of sediments. From the drill cores, we were able to infer the reduction in stream flow velocity and date the initiation of sedimentation using cosmogenic nuclides. These are rare isotopes that are produced by cosmic rays near the Earth’s surface. Three Million years ago, the river was still incising into Himalayan bedrock.” But today the once huge canyon is buried by sediments.

The Yarlung Tsangpo is the largest high mountain river on Earth. It flows along a distance of 1700 km across the Tibetan Plateau, at an elevation of around 4000 meters and follows the boundary between India and Eurasia. In the eastern Himalaya, the river leaves the high plateau and breaks through the world famous, horseshoe-shaped Tsangpo Gorge for the plains of India.

The new findings show that rapid incision of the Yarlung Tsangpo and the development of the Tsangpo Gorge occurred in response to tectonic uplift, and not, as previously thought, the other way round. In addition, these observations refute existing hypotheses that relate the origin of the Tsangpo Gorge to river capture of the Yarlung Tsangpo by the Brahmaputra River.

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.”

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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.

Himalaya tectonic dam with a discharge

The Himalaya features some of the most impressive gorges on Earth that have been formed by rivers. The geologic history of the famous Tsangpo Gorge, in the eastern Himalaya, now needs to be rewritten.

A team of German, Chinese, and American geoscientists have namely discovered a canyon, filled with more than 500 m of sediments beneath the bed of the present-day Yarlung Tsangpo River upstream from the gorge. Using drill cores, the scientists were able to reconstruct the former valley floor of this river, which allowed them to reconstruct the geological history of the Tsangpo Gorge (Science, 21.11.2014). They discovered that the gorge obtained its steep form in response to rapid tectonic uplift in the Himalaya, two to three million years ago. “Because of its high gradient, the river incises its bed very rapidly”, explains Dirk Scherler from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences. “The rocks here are eroded at annual rates of up to one centimeter per year which is matched by tectonic uplift of the same rate.” The collision of India with the Eurasian continent has created a tectonic dam here.

This barrier caused a lower flow velocity of the Yarlung Tsangpoupstream. Previously, the river had deeply incised into the Tibetan Plateau. Due to the reduced flow rate the sediments which the Yarlung Tsangpo River and its tributaries eroded from the highlands were deposited in the river bed along hundreds of kilometers.

The scientists estimated that these deposits are up to 1000 m thick. “Five drillings have been conducted over a distance of 300 km upstream of the gorge”, says Dirk Scherler. “One of the drillings encountered bedrock after 540 meters of sediments. From the drill cores, we were able to infer the reduction in stream flow velocity and date the initiation of sedimentation using cosmogenic nuclides. These are rare isotopes that are produced by cosmic rays near the Earth’s surface. Three Million years ago, the river was still incising into Himalayan bedrock.” But today the once huge canyon is buried by sediments.

The Yarlung Tsangpo is the largest high mountain river on Earth. It flows along a distance of 1700 km across the Tibetan Plateau, at an elevation of around 4000 meters and follows the boundary between India and Eurasia. In the eastern Himalaya, the river leaves the high plateau and breaks through the world famous, horseshoe-shaped Tsangpo Gorge for the plains of India.

The new findings show that rapid incision of the Yarlung Tsangpo and the development of the Tsangpo Gorge occurred in response to tectonic uplift, and not, as previously thought, the other way round. In addition, these observations refute existing hypotheses that relate the origin of the Tsangpo Gorge to river capture of the Yarlung Tsangpo by the Brahmaputra River.

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.