Mar. 20, 2009 The discovery by Indian and British scientists that the Earth’s strong outer shell – the ‘lithosphere’ – within the central Indian Ocean began to deform and fracture 15.4–13.9 million years ago, much earlier than previously thought, impacts our understanding of the birth of the Himalayas and the strengthening of the Indian-Asian monsoon.
India and Asia collided around 50 million years ago as a result of plate tectonics – the large-scale movements of the lithosphere, which continue to this day. The new study, published in the scientific journal Geology, focuses on the tectonics-related deformation of the lithosphere below the central Indian Ocean.
“Compression of the lithosphere has caused large-scale buckling and cracking,” says team member Professor Jon Bull of the University of Southampton’s School of Ocean and Earth Science based at the National Oceanography Centre; “The ocean floor has been systematically transformed into folds 100-300 kilometres long and 2,000-3,000 metres high, and there are also regularly spaced faults or fractures that are evident from seismic surveys and ocean drilling.”
The onset of this deformation marks the start of major geological uplift of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau, some 4,000 km further to the north, due to stresses within the wider India-Asia area. Some studies indicate that it began around 8.0–7.5 million years ago, while others have indicated that it started before 8.0 million years ago, and perhaps much earlier.
This controversy has now been addressed by Professor Bull and his colleagues Dr Kolluru Krishna of the National Institute of Oceanography in India, and Dr Roger Scrutton of Edinburgh University. They have analysed seismic profiles of 293 faults in the accumulated sediments of the Bengal Fan. This is the world’s largest submarine fan, a delta-shaped accumulation of land-derived sediments covering the floor of the Bay of Bengal.
They demonstrate that deformation of the lithosphere within the central Indian Ocean started around 15.4–13.9 million years ago, much earlier than most previous estimates. This implies considerable Himalayan uplift before 8.0 million years ago, which is when many geologists believe that the strong seasonal winds of the India-Asia monsoon first started.
“However,” says Professor Bull, “the realisation that the onset of lithospheric deformation within the central Indian Ocean occurred much earlier fits in well with more recent evidence that the strengthening of the monsoon was linked to the early geological uplift of the Himalayas and Tibetan plateau up to 15-20 million years ago.”
Intensive deep-sea drilling within the Bengal Fan should provide better age estimates for the onset of deformation of the lithosphere in the central Indian Ocean and help settle the controversy.
The research was funded by India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and the United Kingdom’s Royal Society and Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).
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