Quantifying motions inside continents

If you are a member of the Geological Society of America you will either have heard or read the 2003 Address of its President (Burchfiel, B.C. 2004.  New technology; new geological challenges.  GSA Today, v. 14, p. 4-10).  If not, get the February 2004 issue of GSA Today, if only for the wonderful illustrations in Burchfiel’s paper.  His topic is how the use of ever-increasing precision of satellite global positioning (GPS) has revolutionised continental neotectonics, since it began to be used by geoscientists in the late-1980s.  The illustrations have a backdrop of what I suspect to be the 90m resolution Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) digital elevation model (DEM), and show the fine topographic detail that stems very much from active tectonic movements.  Superimposed on them are estimates of the speed at which points on the surface are moving and the directions of motion, gathered using GPS technology.  Measured in mm per year, these velocities stem from the most precise positional measurements, with the degradation built into the GPS satellite signals for US military reasons (turned off in 2001) removed using differential processing.  They are averages representing motions over the last 17 years or so.  The most dramatic example covers the Tibetan Plateau and areas to the east of it, based on extensive work by Chinese scientists..  In general it shows a sort of clockwise swirling away of expelled crust east of the Eastern Himalayan Syntaxis (the “big bend” at the eastern termination of the Himalaya) in the ranges through which the headwaters of the Irrawaddy, Salween and Mekong rivers flow, rather than the eastward expulsion towards the China Sea first postulated by Tapponier in the early 1980s.  Field studies suggest that this kind of motion has been going on for at least the last 4-6 Ma.  Another conflict with expectation lies in the area of the Longmen Shan mountains and the huge Sichuan Basin of western China.  A simple model of crust being expelled from the zone of the India-Asia collision suggests that Tibetan crust would be moving eastwards here to throw up the steep front of the Longmen Shan above the Sichuan Basin.  There is in fact very little sideways movement at the surface.  Explaining this requires deep crust from Tibet moving in a ductile manner far below, thereby “inflating” the Longmen Shan where entirely different kinds of crust are juxtaposed..  Many of the motions in East Asia can only be explained in terms of differential movements at different levels in the lithosphere, and the influence of subduction systems, such as the Indo-Burman and West Pacific, as well as the long-suspected expulsion of over-thickened crust in Tibet due to increased gravitational potential there.

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