Subduction and continental collision in the Himalaya

The Indian subcontinent after it separated from Madagascar in the Late Cretaceous to move northwards to its destined collision with Eurasia and the formation of the Himalaya. (Credit: Frame from an animation ©Christopher Scotese)

During the Early Cretaceous (~140 Ma ago) India, Madagascar, Antarctica and Australia parted company with Africa after 400 Ma of unity as components of the Gondwana supercontinent. By 120 Ma Antarctica and Australia split from India and Madagascar, and the Indian Ocean began to form. India moved northwards , leaving Madagascar in its wake after about 70 Ma ago. By 50 Ma the subcontinent began to collide with Eurasia, its northward motion driving before it crustal materials that eventually formed the Himalaya. This highly complex process is wonderfully documented in an animation made in 2015 by Christopher Scotese, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Northwestern University, USA. At the start of its journey India moved northwards at a slow rate of about 5 cm per year. After 80 Ma it speeded up dramatically to 15 cm per year, about twice as fast as any modern continental drift and a pace that lasted for over 30 Ma until collision began. How could that, in a geological sense, sudden and sustained acceleration have been induced? It would have required a change in the slab-pull force that is the primary driver of plate tectonics, suggesting an increase in the amount of subduction in the Tethys Ocean that formerly lay between India and Eurasia, probably at two, now hidden destructive plate margins.

A group of geoscientists from Canada, the US and Pakistan has documented that collision in terms of the record of metamorphism experienced beneath the Himalaya as slab after slab of once near-surface rocks were driven beneath the rising orogen (Soret, M. et al. 2021. How Himalayan collision stems from subduction. Geology, v. 49, p. 894-898; DOI: 10.1130/G48803.1). The Western Himalaya has trapped a deformed and tilted magmatic rock sequence of an island arc – the Kohistan Arc – between  the Eurasian plate and a zone of crustal thickening and shortening that was thrust southward over the ancient metamorphic basement of India itself. That crust was mantled by a variety of younger sediments deposited on the Tethyan continental shelf of the northern Indian plate which became involved in the process of crustal thickening. The Kohistan Arc probably formed above one of the destructive margins that consumed the oceanic lithosphere of the now vanished Tethys Ocean. Two distinct types of rock make up the slabs stacked-up by thrusting.

The uppermost, which also forms the highest part of the Western Himalaya in the form of Nanga Parbat (at 8,126 metres the world’s ninth highest mountain) comprises rocks thought to represent Tethyan oceanic lithosphere subducted perhaps at the second destructive margin. Their mineral assemblages, especially those of eclogites, indicate that they have been metamorphosed under pressures corresponding to depths of up to 100 km, but at low temperatures along a geothermal gradient of about 7°C km-1, i.e. in a low heat-flow environment. These ultra-high pressure (UHP) metamorphic rocks formed at the start of the India-Eurasia collision. The sequence of sedimentary slabs now overridden by the UHP slab were metamorphosed at around the same time, but under very different conditions. Their burial reached only about 35 km – the normal thickness of the continental crust – and a temperature of about 600°C on a 30°C km-1 geothermal gradient. Detailed mineralogy of the UHP slab reveals that as it was driven over the metasediments it evolved to the same geothermal conditions.

Matthew Soret and his colleagues explain how this marked metamorphic duality may have arisen in rocks that are now part of the same huge thrust complex. Their results are consistent with slicing together of oceanic lithosphere in a subduction zone to form a tectonic wedge of UHP mineral assemblages at the same time as continental shelf sediments were metamorphosed under more normal geothermal conditions. This was happening just as India came into contact with Eurasia. When crustal thickening began in earnest through the inter-slicing of the two assemblages, pressure on the UHP rocks fell rapidly as a result of their being thrust over the dominantly metasedimentary shelf sequence. It also moved into a zone of normal heat flow, first heating up equally quickly and then following a path of decreasing pressure and temperature as erosion pared away the newly thickened crust. Both assemblages now became part of the same metamorphic regime. In this way a subduction system evolved to become incorporated in an orogenic zone as two continents collided; a complex process that finds parallels in other orogens such as the Alps.

Explosive erosion in the Himalaya

As the Yalung-Tsangpo River on the northern flank of the Himalaya approaches  a bend the rotates its flow by almost 180 degrees to become the Brahmaputra it enters one of the world’s largest canyons. Over the 200 km length of the Tsangpo Gorge the river descends two kilometres between peaks that tower 7 km above sea level. Since the area is rising tectonically and as a result of the unloading that attends erosion, for the Tsangpo to have maintained its eastward flow it has been suggested that an average erosion rate of 3 to 5 km per million years was maintained continuously over the last 3 to 5 Ma. However, new information from the sediments downstream of the gorge suggests that much of the gorge’s depth was cut during a series of sudden episodes (Lang, K.A. et al. 2013. Erosion of the Tsangpo Gorge by megafloods, Eastern Himalaya. Geology, v. 41, p. 1003-1006).

English: Map of the Yarlung Tsangpo River wate...
The Yarlung Tsangpo River watershed which drains the north slope of the Himalayas. (credit: Wikipedia)

It has become clear from a series of mountainside terraces that during the Pleistocene glaciers and debris from them often blocked the narrow valleys through which the river flowed along the northern flank of the Himalaya. Each blockage would have impounded enormous lakes upstream of the Tsangpo Gorge, containing up to 800 km3 of water. Failure of the natural dams would have unleashed equally spectacular floods. The researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle examined the valley downstream of the gorge, to find unconsolidated sediments as much as 150 m above the present channel. They have similar grain size distributions to flood deposits laid down some 30 m above the channel by a flood unleashed in 2000 by the failure of a temporary dam caused by a landslide. The difference is that the higher level deposits are densely vegetated and have well-developed soils: they are almost certainly relics of far larger floods in the distant past from the lakes betrayed by the terraces above the Tsangpo Gorge.

By measuring the age of zircons found in the megaflood deposits using the U/Pb methods the team  have been able to show that the sediments were derived mainly from 500 Ma crystalline basement in the Tsangpo Gorge itself rather than from the younger terranes in Tibet. There are four such deposits at separate elevations above the modern river below the gorge. Like the 2000 AD flood deposit, each terrace is capped by landslide debris suggesting that flooding and associated erosion destabilised the steep slopes so characteristic of the region. Because the valleys are so narrow (<200 m at the bottom), each flood would have been extremely deep, flows being of the order of a million cubic metres per second. The huge power would have been capable of moving blocks up to 18 m across with 1 m boulders being carried in suspension. It has been estimated that each of the floods would have been capable of removing material that would otherwise have taken up to 4000 years to erode at present rates of flow.