Why the 'uplift of the Tibetan plateau' is a myth

May 09, 2020

The phrase 'the uplift of the Tibetan Plateau' is often used to link various phenomena (e.g. monsoon dynamics and biodiversity evolution) but in this review Spicer and colleagues bring together diverse lines of evidence to show that the concept of an extensive low-relief Tibet, rising in its entirety as a result of the India-Eurasia collision, is false, and the product of overly simplistic modelling. The orogeny of the Tibetan region (Tibet, The Himalaya and the Hengduan Mountains) dates back approximately 200 million years, long before the arrival of India, and was the product of earlier Gondwanan tectonic block collisions that produced a complex of mountain chains and valleys. The authors explain why previous stable isotope and fossil-based estimates of past surface heights were often contradictory; isotopes tend to record the height of mountain crests, while the fossils are more indicative of where sediments accumulate in valley bottoms. The isotopic bias towards uplands means that even valleys appear as uplands at the height of the bounding mountains and so appear as an elevated plateau, a result confirmed by isotope-enabled climate modelling. By combining well-dated multiple paleoaltimetric methods a better understanding of past topography emerges.

The formation of a complex topography, and in places thickened crust, before the arrival of India suggests that the formation of the Tibetan Plateau was not only due to the India-Eurasia collision and this has important implications for the amount of crustal shortening and the size of 'greater India' before collision. Previous work pointed to a rise of eastern Tibet and the Hengduan Mountains in the Miocene, but recent radiometric re-dating of key sites shows the region was elevated before plateau formation and the rise of the Himalaya. Uplift began in the Eocene in large part due to extrusion of parts of Tibet beginning as early as ~ 52 Ma and extended into the early Oligocene, with landscape dissection through the expansion of river drainages taking place in the Miocene (subject to the dating being correct) as the monsoons strengthened.

The Himalaya began to rise in the Eocene, but only crested the pre-existing Gangdese mountains that already formed a 4-5 km high 'wall' along southern Tibet after the mid Miocene. North of the Gangdese, along the Bangong-Nujiang Suture south of the Tangula mountains, a deep ancient east-west aligned great central valley existed until early in the Neogene (approximately 23 million years ago) and later in its history was internally-drained. Numerous fossil finds show lakeside sub-tropical vegetation in this valley remained below 2.3 km above sea level for much of its history, the valley floor only rising in the Neogene to form today's flat plateau through ongoing tectonic compression from India and sediment infilling. 'Uplift' in geology relates to the rise of rocks and work done against gravity, so the infilling of basins by sediment to contribute to the formation of a low-relief surface means that Tibet was never 'uplifted' as a plateau, nor was that rise solely a consequence of the India-Eurasia collision.
See the article:

Spicer, R.A., Su, T., Valdes, P.J., Farnsworth, A., Wu, F.-X., Shi, G., Spicer, T.E.V., Zhou, Z.-K. Why the 'uplift of the Tibetan Plateau' is a myth. National Science Review, https://doi.org/10.1093/nsr/nwaa091

Science China Press

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Why the 'uplift of the Tibetan plateau' is a myth
Spicer and colleagues combine stable isotope and fossil paleoaltimetry to chart the growth of Tibet, the Himalaya and the Hengduan mountains through time and show the plateau is young, less that 15 million years old, and evolved not just by the collision of India with Eurasia but through multiple earlier mountain-building events and the infilling of deep ancient lowlands hosting subtropical monsoon-adapted biotas.

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