Mesozoic–Cenozoic geological evolution of the Himalayan-Tibetan orogen and working tectonic hypotheses


Paul Kapp
Peter G. DeCelles


The Himalayan-Tibetan orogen culminated during the Cenozoic India – Asia collision, but its geological framework and initial growth were fundamentally the result of multiple, previous ocean closure and intercontinental suturing events. As such, the Himalayan-Tibetan orogen provides an ideal laboratory to investigate geological signatures of the suturing process in general, and how the Earth's highest and largest orogenic feature formed in specific. This paper synthesizes the Triassic through Cenozoic geology of the central Himalayan-Tibetan orogen and presents our tectonic interpretations in a time series of schematic lithosphere-scale cross-sections and paleogeographic maps. We suggest that north-dipping subducting slabs beneath Asian continental terranes associated with closure of the Paleo-, Meso-, and Neo-Tethys oceans experienced phases of southward trench retreat prior to intercontinental suturing. These trench retreat events created ophiolites in forearc extensional settings and/or a backarc oceanic basins between rifted segments of upper-plate continental margin arcs. This process may have occurred at least three times along the southern Asian margin during northward subduction of Neo-Tethys oceanic lithosphere: from ∼174 to 156 Ma; 132 to 120 Ma; and 90 to 70 Ma. At most other times, the Tibetan terranes underwent Cordilleran-style or collisional contractional deformation. Geological records indicate that most of northern and central Tibet (the Hoh-Xil and Qiangtang terranes, respectively) were uplifted above sea level by Jurassic time, and southern Tibet (the Lhasa terrane) north of its forearc region has been above sea level since ∼100 Ma. Stratigraphic evidence indicates that the northern Himalayan margin of India collided with an Asian-affinity subduction complex – forearc – arc system beginning at ∼60 Ma. Both the Himalaya (composed of Indian crust) and Tibet show continuous geological records of orogenesis since ∼60 Ma. As no evidence exists in the rock record for a younger suture, the simplest interpretation of the geology is that India – Asia collision initiated at ∼60 Ma. Plate circuit, paleomagnetic, and structural reconstructions, however, suggest that the southern margin of Asia was too far north of India to have collided with it at that time. Seismic tomographic images are also suggestive of a second, more southerly Neo-Tethyan oceanic slab in the lower mantle where the northernmost margin of India may have been located at ∼60 Ma. The geology of Tibet and the India – Asia suture zone permits an alternative collision scenario in which the continental margin arc along southern Asia (the Gangdese arc) was split by extension beginning at ∼90 Ma, and along with its forearc to the south (the Xigaze forearc), rifted southward and opened a backarc ocean basin. The rifted arc collided with India at ∼60 Ma whereas the hypothetical backarc ocean basin may not have been consumed until ∼45 Ma. A compilation of igneous age data from Tibet shows that the most recent phase of Gangdese arc magmatism in the southern Lhasa terrane initiated at ∼70 Ma, peaked at ∼51 Ma, and terminated at ∼38 Ma. Cenozoic potassic-adakitic magmatism initiated at ∼45 Ma within a ∼200-km-wide elliptical area within the northern Qiangtang terrane, after which it swept westward and southward with time across central Tibet until ∼26 Ma. At 26 to 23 Ma, potassic-adakitic magmatism swept southward across the Lhasa terrane, a narrow (∼20 km width), orogen-parallel basin developed at low elevation along the axis of the India – Asia suture zone (the Kailas basin), and Greater Himalayan Sequence rocks began extruding southward between the South Tibetan Detachment and Main Central Thrust. The Kailas basin was then uplifted to >4 km elevation by ∼20 Ma, after which parts of the India – Asia suture zone and Gangdese arc experienced >6 km of exhumation (between ∼20 and 16 Ma). Between ∼16 and 12 Ma, slip along the South Tibetan Detachment terminated and east-west extension initiated in the northern Himalaya and Tibet. Potassic-adakitic magmatism in the Lhasa terrane shows a northward younging trend in the age of its termination, beginning at 20 to 18 Ma until volcanism ended at 8 Ma. We interpret the post-45 Ma geological evolution in the context of the subduction dynamics of Indian continental lithosphere and its interplay with delamination of Asian mantle lithosphere.

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Map of the Himalaya, Tibet, and adjacent regions showing the locations of major terranes and their bounding suture zones (purple lines with gray filled regions including subduction-complex rocks), basins (stippled pattern), rivers, cities, and geographic features and localities noted in the text. Abbreviations as follows: Mts., mountains; R., River. A and A' indicate ends of topographic and cross-section profiles in figure 2.

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doi: 10.2475/03.2019.01