Geologists to test theory that Asia is being 'stuffed' under Tibetan Plateau

May 4, 2007
Geologists to test theory that Asia is being 'stuffed' under Tibetan Plateau
A map of Tibet that shows the progression of Project INDEPTH, a seismic surveying expedition. Credit: Larry Brown

For nearly a decade and a half, Cornell geologist Larry Brown has been leading an international seismic profiling effort in Tibet, using explosions to probe the deep earth and discover how continents formed millions of years ago.

The project, called INDEPTH -- for International Deep Profiling of Tibet and the Himalayas -- has gone through several stages and now is a major international collaboration among scientists from the United States, China, Germany, Canada and, most recently, Ireland.

The National Science Foundation recently renewed funding for the project with a grant of $1.3 million to Cornell to finish the survey. Brown, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, has been leading the project across the Tibetan plateau, located in the southwestern corner of China, since its inception in the early 1990s.

Tibet is one of the world's best examples of what happens when continents smash together, Brown explained, because of its famously high elevation and sprawling terrain. The Himalayas are thought to be have formed when the Indian continent slammed into Asia beginning about 50 million years ago.

The ultimate goal, according to Brown, is to piece together what happens when continents collide to form supercontinents like Eurasia. A common theory is that the Tibetan Plateau formed when India was pushed under Asia from the south.

"We'll be testing the hypothesis that, in fact, Asia is also being stuffed under the northern part of the plateau," Brown said.

In order to do that, scientists must understand the geometry of rock layers under the Earth's surface.

The researchers use echo sounding, which is the same basic technology used to map the ocean bottom and explore for oil and gas. In Tibet, the scientists set up explosions that generate sound waves, whose echoes off the deep rock layers are recorded and analyzed.

This allows an "acoustic photograph" to be taken as deep as 100 miles, but typically between 20 and 30 miles deep, said Brown, whose current work also involves deep imaging of major earthquake faults in Taiwan and an active volcano on the Caribbean island of Montserrat.

Future targets of Brown's work include sites in Brazil, Africa, Madagascar and India.

Source: Cornell University

Explore further: First comprehensive analysis of the woolly mammoth genome completed

Related Stories

Drones and dogs deployed in battle to save the guacamole

April 28, 2015

With the killers hiding in the trees, heat-sensing drones are launched into the air. When their whereabouts are narrowed, the dogs are sent in. When it comes to protecting the world's supply of guacamole, no weapon can be ...

Water forms common thread in diverse rainforest ecosystems

April 21, 2015

Rainforests, which are so critical to the earth's climate that they are frequently called the planet's lungs, are often thought of as a single collection of ecosystems. But researchers at Princeton University and other institutions ...

The midge that eats more kale

November 13, 2014

Three years ago, Tony Lehouillier began to worry about some of his purple kale. "It was just weird looking," he says, cupping his hands around a tall stalk on his farm near Johnson, Vt. "Then the top would start to die. Plants ...

Recommended for you

'Carbon sink' detected underneath world's deserts

July 28, 2015

The world's deserts may be storing some of the climate-changing carbon dioxide emitted by human activities, a new study suggests. Massive aquifers underneath deserts could hold more carbon than all the plants on land, according ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.