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May 23, 2024

Tectonic Collision Beneath Himalayas May Be Tearing Tibet in Two

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Jan 18, 2024

New research suggests the Tibetan plateau is being split in two by powerful tectonic forces driving the continued growth of the Himalayan mountains. As the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates continue their historic collision, the movement appears to be literally ripping Tibet apart along a zone of intense shearing deep underground.

Millions of Years of Plate Movement Led to Formation of Himalayas, Tibetan Plateau

The Himalayan mountain range first began forming over 50 million years ago when the Indian tectonic plate broke off from Madagascar and began drifting northward. About 25-30 million years ago, the fast-moving Indian plate collided with the Eurasian plate, causing the seabed that existed between the landmasses to crumble and thrust upward.

This collision process created the most dramatic uplift of terrain on the planet – the Himalayas and the high Tibetan Plateau behind them. The continued convergence of the two continental plates drives approximately 2 centimeters of growth in the Himalayas each year. However, new research suggests this same tectonic movement may now be tearing Tibet apart from below.

Advanced Satellite Analysis Reveals Extensive Shearing Zone in Tibet’s Crust

In a study published January 11th in Science Advances, an international team of geologists used satellite imagery and seismic data to investigate deformations deep beneath the Tibetan plateau. Their analysis identified a broad shearing zone running east-west across central Tibet, along which opposing sections of the crust appear to be sliding past each other horizontally.

This shearing motion indicates the plateau may be splitting into separate northern and southern “microplates”, driven by the ongoing tectonic collision. The researchers estimate the two sides may be moving apart by approximately 2 centimeters per year – the same rate the Himalayas continue growing upwards.

Key Details on the Newly Discovered Tibetan Shearing Zone

Width of shearing zone 400 km
Depth below surface 15-20 km
Started forming At least 8 million years ago
Current sideways slip rate ~2 cm/year

Lead author Dr. Fan Zhang of Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research said of the findings:

“The high topography of Tibet is the result of the Indian plate pushing the Tibetan plateau northward while the plateau resists this compression through a counter push. This means the plateau is being shortened horizontally and elongated vertically as it is squeezed.”

Dual Tectonic Forces May Be Splitting Plateau Along Same Line That Created It

The newly identified shearing boundary corresponds closely with the Bangong-Nujiang suture zone – an area of intense geological deformation marking where Asia and the Indian subcontinent first collided. The researchers believe the same tectonic forces that uplifted the Tibetan plateau are now acting in opposition along this deep crustal weakness, effectively tearing the landmass in two.

Co-author Dr. Roger Bilham of the University of Colorado Boulder noted:

“The Tibetan plateau as we know it is about to split.”

Impacts and Future Risks of Tibet Being “Zippered” Apart

The splitting of the Tibetan plateau holds major implications, both for scientific understanding of the region’s complex geology and for future earthquake hazards faced by local populations.

As the Indian and Eurasian plates continue their push and pull battle across this deep shear zone, strain will build until suddenly released in the form of large, destructive quakes. The newly observed horizontal slipping motions also help explain previously mysterious patterns of devastating earthquakes occurring in central Tibet over the past century.

However, scientists emphasize the splitting process is likely to continue happening incrementally over millions of years, not suddenly. Ongoing monitoring is needed to better understand the stresses accumulating and prepare vulnerable Himalayan communities for heightened seismic risk.

Conclusions and Outlook Moving Forward

The recent study provides compelling evidence that the formidable tectonic forces uplifting the Himalayas and Tibetan plateau are now acting in opposition far below the surface, effectively tearing Tibet in two along the deep crustal scar of the Bangong-Nujiang suture zone. While the shearing and splitting process may transpire gradually, over geologic timescales, it portends a future of larger and more frequent earthquakes for the region.

Continued analysis of seismicity patterns and surface deformation across Tibet will help researchers better characterize this hazard. But for now, it appears the plateau’s days may be numbered as unrelenting tectonic motions continue to shape and reshape the land in dramatic fashion.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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