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When India collided with Asia to form the Himalayan mountains?

Science China Press

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IMAGE: Definition of the initial collision time and reconstructed cross-section of the crusts during the earliest stage of the India-Asian collision. (Left: A sketch illustrating the definitions of initial collision time... view more

Credit: ©Science China Press

The collision between the Indian subcontinent and the Asian landmass resulted in the formation of the Himalayan Mountains and the rise of the Tibetan Plateau, with consequent major climatic and environmental changes around our planet. Placing precise constraints on the timing of the India-Asia continental collision is essential to understand the subsequent geological and topographic evolution of the orogenic belt as well as the tectonic uplift of the Tibetan Plateau and their effects on climate, environment, and life. A recent study has constrained precisely the timing of the initial India-Asia continental collision by the accurate analysis of the sedimentary record preserved along the collision zone.

The related research, entitled "Constraining the timing of the India-Asia continental collision by the sedimentary record", has just been published as a cover article in Issue 4, Volume 60 of SCIENCE CHINA Earth Sciences 2017, in both Chinese and English, with Professor Xiumian Hu from Nanjing University as first and corresponding author. Based on the detailed study of fossils and detrital minerals contained in strata exposed along both sides of the Yarlung-Zangbo suture zone in Tibet, a team of Chinese and Italian researchers has determined with unprecedented accuracy the time when India and Asia first came into contact by pin-pointing major changes of sedimentary style and in provenance of detritus. A variety of approaches have been followed to date such a major tectonic event, including paleomagnetism and biostratigraphic or radiometric dating of sedimentary, magmatic and metamorphic rocks coupled with structural, stratigraphic and sedimentological observations. A fierce debate ensued often because different research teams used different indicators and criteria to define continental collision and tentatively assess the chronological sequence of progressing orogeny.

This new research starts from a clear definition of collision onset as the timing of first contact between the opposite edges of the Indian and Asian continental crusts following complete consumption of intervening Neo-Tethyan oceanic lithosphere at a point. By accurately dating with multiple methods the turbiditic deep-sea sediments derived from both India and Asia and deposited in the trench just south of the zone of initial collision, the researchers have constrained precisely the India-Asia collision onset as middle Palaeocene (59±1 million years ago). Initial continent-continent collision preceded by 20 million years the final disappearance of marine seaways from the Himalayas, and by 30 million years the accumulation of massive fluvial gravel and sand deposits in the Indo-Gangetic plain of northern India. Researchers also show that there was no major diachroneity of collision onset from the central to the western Himalaya.

This study represents a major contribution to understand plate tectonics and continental dynamics, and is of great significance not only as far as the India-Asia collision, Himalayan orogeny, Tibetan-Plateau uplift and consequent Cenozoic climatic change are concerned, but also because it provides a reference standard useful to investigate the process of continental collision and to reconstruct its progress in time resulting in the full growth of huge mountain belts.

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This research was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) for Distinguished Young Scholar (41525007) and Chinese Academy of Sciences Strategic Priority Research Program (B) (XDB03010600).

See the article: Hu XM, Wang JG, An W, Garzanti E, Li J, 2017. Constraining the timing of the India-Asia continental collision by the sedimentary record. Science China Earth Sciences, 60: 603-625, doi: 10.1007/s11430-016-9003-6

This article was published online, in the Science China Earth Sciences, by Science China Press and Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg.

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