Lateral variations in lower crustal strength control the temporal evolution of mountain ranges: examples from south-east Tibet

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Camilla Emily Penney, Alex Copley


Controversy surrounds the rheology of the continental lithosphere, and how it controls the evolution and behaviour of mountain ranges. In this study, we investigate the effect of lateral contrasts in the strength of the lower crust, such as those between cratonic continental interiors and weaker rocks in the adjacent deforming regions, on the evolution of topography. We combine numerical modelling with recently published results from stable-isotope palaeoaltimetry in south-east Tibet. Stable-isotope palaeoaltimetry in this region provides constraints on vertical motions, which are required to distinguish between competing models for lithosphere rheology and deformation. We use numerical modelling to investigate the effect of lateral strength contrasts on the shape and temporal evolution of mountain ranges. In combination with palaeoaltimetry results, our modelling suggests that lateral strength contrasts provide a first-order control on the evolution of topography in south-east Tibet. We find that the evolution of topography in the presence of such strength contrasts leads to laterally-varying topographic gradients, and to key features of the GPS- and earthquake-derived strain-rate field, without the need for a low-viscosity, lower-crustal channel. We also find that palaeoaltimetric samples may have been transported laterally for hundreds of kilometres, an effect which should be accounted for in their interpretation. Our results are likely to be applicable to the evolution of mountain ranges in general, and provide an explanation for the spatial correlation between cratonic lowland regions and steep mountain range-fronts.



Earth Sciences, Geochemistry, Geomorphology, Geophysics and Seismology, Physical Sciences and Mathematics, Tectonics and Structure


rheology, continental dynamics, mountain building, paleoaltimetry, Tibet


Published: 2020-04-17 18:23

Last Updated: 2021-02-28 03:47

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CC BY Attribution 4.0 International

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