February 24, 2024

A fault in the tectonic plates beneath Tibet

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New research reveals unexpected dynamics of tectonic plates in the Himalayas. These results could shed light on future earthquakes.

Frankfurt – The highest mountain range in the world, the Himalayas, were formed by the collision of huge tectonic plates. New scientific findings based on seismic and geochemical measurements in southern Tibet provide new insights into how the tectonic plates of India and Eurasia behave when they collide. This discovery could provide clues about possible future earthquakes.

Two continental plates are colliding with each other under the Himalayas and the Tibet region. © Bond5/Imago

Science disagrees about the dynamics of giant continental plate collisions

The Indian plate began thrusting under the Eurasian plate about 60 million years ago. This process continues to this day and leads to the continuous growth of the Himalayas. The famous specialized magazine Sciences So he describes “the towering peaks of the Himalayas” as a “geological battlefield.”

However, until now, there has been debate among scientists about the dynamics that actually arise when massive plates collide. Some researchers suspect that the Indian plate is sliding horizontally under Tibet towards the north. Others believe that the bulging part of the Indian plate bulges vertically into the Earth's mantle at the edge of collision.

Seismic data and gas samples provide evidence of vertical rifting in the Indian plate

There has long been speculation that there may be a third type of behavior of tectonic plates when they collide. Accordingly, this means that part of the Indian plate could be sliding under the Eurasian plate while the lower part is detached. At an American Geophysical Union conference in December 2023, a research team from the United States and China presented new findings supporting this scenario.

Simon Kemberer of Stanford University and other researchers used seismic data from hundreds of seismic stations in southern Tibet and combined it with previously collected data to create a 3D model of plate collision. In addition, gas samples were taken from about 200 natural springs. The research team identified helium isotopes from different layers and was able to see a clear pattern.

Himalayas, Tibet, highest mountain range, Earth's mountains, Eurasian plates, Indians meeting each other, creating a rift
Researchers suspect a rift exists where the Indian continental plate meets the Eurasian continental plate. © Bond5/Imago

The study provides evidence of a vertical fracture or crack at the border between the drifting and horizontal parts of the plate, she says. Sciences. The African continent is also at risk of being slowly torn in two due to the collision of Earth's plates. On the other hand, the ocean plate called Pontus has already largely disappeared into the Earth's mantle.

Knowledge of plate dynamics may also be relevant to earthquake prediction

According to the specialized portal Science Alert The researchers' results are the first experimental evidence of tectonic plates splitting. While some parts of the Indian plate appear more or less intact, parts of the plate are thrust into the Earth's mantle at a depth of about 100 km.

The data and results are still limited and are nothing more than a “snapshot,” says geodynamics expert Fabio Capitano from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. Sciences. However, the study is a step in the right direction toward understanding how today's landscapes were formed millions of years ago.

According to seismologist Anne Meltzer, a better understanding of plate dynamics can also help better understand the risks posed by earthquakes. At the beginning of the year, Japan, located to the east of China, was hit by a devastating earthquake. Study author Klemperer points out that the discovered crack could have an impact on the formation of earthquakes in the region. A deep fracture in the Tibetan Plateau, the Konna Sangri Trench, shows that underground processes are becoming felt on the surface.

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