Snails tell of the rise and fall of the Tibetan plateau

August 29, 2014

The rise of the Tibetan plateau—the largest topographic anomaly above sea level on Earth—is important for both its profound effect on climate and its reflection of continental dynamics. In this study published in GSA Bulletin, Katharine Huntington and colleagues employ a cutting-edge geochemical tool—"clumped" isotope thermometry—using modern and fossil snail shells to investigate the uplift history of the Zhada basin in southwestern Tibet.

Views range widely on the timing of surface uplift of the Tibetan Plateau to its current high (~4.5 km) over more than 2.5 square kilometers. Specifically, interpretations differ on whether the modern high elevations were recently developed or are largely a continuation of high elevations developed prior to Indo-Asian collision in the Eocene.

Clumped isotope temperatures of modern and fossil snail shells record changing lake water temperatures over the last nine million years. This is a reflection of changes in surface temperature as a function of climate and elevation change. A key to their Zhada Basin paleo-elevation reconstructions is that Huntington and colleagues were able to contextualize them with sampling of modern and Holocene-age tufa and shells from a range of aquatic environments.

Huntington and colleagues find that the Zhada basin was significantly colder from three to nine million years ago, implying a loss of elevation of more than one kilometer since the Pliocene. While surprising given the extreme (~4 km) elevation of the basin today, the higher paleo-elevation helps explain paleontological evidence of cold-adapted mammals living in a high-elevation climate, and is probably the local expression of east-west extension across much of the southern Tibetan Plateau at this time.

Huntington and colleagues note that future studies could improve on their own initial "calibration" work with year-round monitoring of water temperature and a focus on specific taxa and their micro-habitat preferences.

Explore further: Geologists search for prehistoric high

More information: "High Late Miocene-Pliocene elevation of the Zhada basin, SW Tibetan plateau, from carbonate clumped isotope thermometry." K.W. Huntington et al., Dept. of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA. Published online 7 Aug. 2014; dx.doi.org/10.1130/B31000.1.

Related Stories

Geologists search for prehistoric high

August 20, 2007

Not all areas of the Tibetan Plateau rose at the same time, according to researchers who are determining the past elevation of plateau locations by studying the remains of terrestrial plants that once grew there.

Fossils found in Tibet revise history of elevation, climate

June 11, 2008

About 15,000 feet up on Tibet's desolate Himalayan-Tibetan Plateau, an international research team led by Florida State University geologist Yang Wang was surprised to find thick layers of ancient lake sediment filled with ...

New research helps to identify ancient droughts in China

March 7, 2012

Drought events are largely unknown in Earth's history, because reconstruction of ancient hydrological conditions remains difficult due to lack of proxy. New GEOLOGY research supported by China's NNSF and MS&T uses a microbial ...

Taking the pulse of mountain formation in the Andes

April 21, 2014

Scientists have long been trying to understand how the Andes and other broad, high-elevation mountain ranges were formed. New research by Carmala Garzione, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University ...

Recommended for you

Historical records miss a fifth of global warming: NASA

July 22, 2016

A new NASA-led study finds that almost one-fifth of the global warming that has occurred in the past 150 years has been missed by historical records due to quirks in how global temperatures were recorded. The study explains ...

2016 climate trends continue to break records

July 19, 2016

Two key climate change indicators—global surface temperatures and Arctic sea ice extent—have broken numerous records through the first half of 2016, according to NASA analyses of ground-based observations and satellite ...

Warmer Mediterranean turns the Sahel green

July 21, 2016

Climate change can have mixed consequences: It would appear that the warming of the Mediterranean region, which has brought greater heat and drought to the countries there for around 20 years, is behind an increase in rainfall ...

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.