Crustal thickening in Gansu-Qinghai, lithospheric mantle subduction, and oblique, strike-slip controlled growth of the Tibet plateau

TitleCrustal thickening in Gansu-Qinghai, lithospheric mantle subduction, and oblique, strike-slip controlled growth of the Tibet plateau
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1998
AuthorsMeyer B, Tapponnier P, Bourjot L, Métivier F, Gaudemer Y, Peltzer G, Guo S, Chen Z
JournalGeophysical Journal InternationalGeophysical Journal International
Date PublishedOct
ISBN Number0956-540X
Accession NumberWOS:000076370100001

Fieldwork complemented by SPOT image analysis throws light on current crustal shortening processes in the ranges of northeastern Tibet (Gansu and Qinghai provinces, China). The ongoing deformation of Late-Pleistocene bajada aprons in the forelands of the ranges involves folding, at various scales, and chiefly north-vergent, seismogenic thrusts. The most active thrusts usually break the ground many kilometres north of the range-fronts, along the northeast limbs of growing, asymmetric ramp-anticlines. Normal faulting at the apex of other growing anticlines, between the range fronts and the thrust breaks, implies slip on blind ramps connecting distinct active decollement levels that deepen southwards. The various patterns of uplift of the bajada surfaces can be used to constrain plausible links between contemporary thrusts downsection. Typically, the foreland thrusts and decollements appear to splay from master thrusts that plunge at least 15-20 km down beneath the high ranges. Plio-Quaternary anticlinal ridges rising to more than 3000 m a.s.l. expose Palaeozoic metamorphic basement in their core. In general, the geology and topography of the ranges and forelands imply that structural reliefs of the order of 5-10 km have accrued at rates of 1-2 mm yr(-1) in approximately the last 5 Ma. From hill to range size, the elongated reliefs that result from such Late-Cenozoic, NE-SW shortening appear to follow a simple scaling law, with roughly constant length/width ratio, suggesting that they have grown self-similarly. The greatest mountain ranges, which are over 5.5 km high, tens of kilometres wide and hundreds of kilometres long may thus be interpreted to have formed as NW-trending ramp anticlines, at the scale of the middle-upper crust. The fairly regular, large-scale arrangement of those ranges, with parallel crests separated by piggy-back basins, the coevality of many parallel, south-dipping thrusts, and a change in the scaling ratio (from approximate to 5 to 8) for range widths greater than approximate to 30 km further suggests that they developed as a result of the northeastward migration of large thrust ramps above a broad decollement dipping SW at a shallow angle in the middle lower crust, This, in turn, suggests that the 400-500 km-wide crustal wedge that forms the northeastern edge of the Tibet-Qinghai plateau shortens and thickens as a thick-skinned accretionary prism decoupled from the stronger upper mantle underneath. Such a thickening process must have been coupled with propagation of the Altyn Tagh fault towards the ENE because most thrust traces merge northwestwards with active branches of this fault, after veering clockwise. This process appears to typify the manner in which the Tibet-Qinghai highlands have expanded their surface area in the Neogene, The present topography and structure imply that, during much of that period, the Tibet plateau grew predominantly towards the northeast or east-northeast, but only marginally towards the north-northwest. This was accomplished by the rise, in fairly fast succession. of the Arka Tagh, Qiman Tagh, Mahan shan, Tanghenan Shan, and other NW-trending mountain ranges splaying southeastwards from the Altyn Tagh, isolating the Aqqik-Ayakkum Kol, Qaidam, Suhai and other catchments and basins that became incorporated into the highland mass as intermontane troughs. The tectonic cut-off of catchments and the ultimate infilling of basins by debris from the adjacent ranges, a result of tectonically forced internal drainage, have thus been essential relief-smoothing factors, yielding the outstandingly flat topography that makes Tibet a plateau. Using Late-Mesozoic and Neogene horizons as markers, the retrodeformation of sections across the West Qilian Ranges and Qaidam basin implies at least approximate to 150 km of N30 degrees E Neogene shortening. On a broader scale, taking erosion into account, and assuming isostatic compensation and an initial crustal thickness comparable to that of the Gobi platform (47.5 +/- 5 km), minimum amounts of Late-Cenozoic crustal shortening on NE sections between the Kunlun fault and the Hexi corridor are estimated to range between 100 and 200 km. In keeping with the inference of a deep crustal decollement and with the existence of Mid-Miocene to Pliocene plutonism and volcanism south of the Kunlun range, such values suggest that the lithospheric mantle of the Qaidam plunged obliquely into the asthenosphere south of that range to minimum depths of the order of 200-300 km. A minimum of approximate to 150 km of shortening in the last approximate to 10 Ma, consistent with the average age of the earliest volcanic-plutonic rocks just south of the Kunlun (approximate to 10.8 Ma) would imply average Late-Cenozoic rates of shortening and regional uplift in NE Tibet of at least approximate to 15 mm yr(-1) and approximate to 0.2 mm yr(-1), respectively. Such numbers are consistent with a cumulative sinistral offset and slip rate of at least approximate to 200 km and approximate to 2 cm yr(-1), respectively, on the Altyn Tagh fault east of 88 degrees E. The fault may have propagated more than 1000 km, to 102 degrees E, in the last 10 Ma. Our study of ongoing tectonics in northeast Tibet is consistent with a scenario in which, while the Himalayas-Gangdese essentially 'stagnated' above India's subducting mantle, much of Tibet grew by thickening of the Asian crust, as propagation of large, lithospheric, strike-slip shear zones caused the opposite edge of the plateau to migrate far into Asia. The Asian lithospheric mantle, decoupled from the crust, appears to have subducted southwards along the two Mesozoic sutures that cut Tibet north of the Gangdese, rather than to have thickened. The Bangong-Nujiang suture was probably reactivated earlier than the Jinsha-Kunlun suture, located farther north. Overall, the large-scale deformation bears a resemblance to plate tectonics at obliquely convergent margins, including slip-partioning along large strike-slip faults such as the Altyn Tagh and Kunlun faults. Simple mechanisms at the level of the lithospheric mantle are merely hidden by the broader distribution and greater complexity of strain in the crust.