Volcanoes and mass extinctions – tracking a killer

Look in a bookshop and see how many shelves are taken up with murder mysteries. There’s little that is as compelling as the idea of a dead body on the ground and a search to find the culprit. I’m going to try out the genre here today. I can promise you the deaths of entire species, a glamorous prime suspect with spectacular methods and an overlooked serial killer who has poisoned many different victims. I can’t promise you detectives who are troubled mavericks who break the rules, but there are geologists who sometimes feel like they are underdogs.

The dinosaurs were killed by a giant impact. There’s little debate in the public mind about that and the role of extraterrestrial impacts on earth’s history is now inarguable (I’ve written about it myself). Sometimes though it irritates me how much focus is put on speculation about extra-terrestrial causes for mass extinctions. The worst example I’ve seen is speculation that dark matter (that we don’t understand) has caused past extinctions. Glamorous ideas about Death From Space, which (with the exception of the Cretaceous-Palaeogene) event have little supporting geological evidence always seem to get attention.

This makes me grumpy because geologists have a perfectly good explanation already. A serial killer stalks earth’s history. It doesn’t kill by flaming impact (or however dark matter is meant to work) but by poisoning, choking the life out of countless plants and animals. Death From Above is spectacular but Death From Below, a murderous force rising slowly and unstoppably from the Earth’s core is much creepier.

Forensic evidence

Mass extinctions leave an unusual sort of murder scene. Instead of there being a single dead body, there is a sudden lack of them, as fossils of particular species disappear from the geological record. For a normal murder, you would study the body for any clues, any evidence of what killed it. Same with a mass extinction, only you look in the layers of rock round about where the fossils run out.

These need to be places with a continuous sedimentary record, where we have sediments from the age of the extinction. Often these are marine sediments, which can contain relatively large volumes of small fossils. Chemistry is the best form of forensic evidence as it gives us an insight into the state of the ocean over time. Carbon isotopes track the ebb and flow of the Carbon cycle and often the extinction horizon is associated with a sudden change in them. This means that rocks from the time of the extinction event can be found even in layers with few fossils.

The K-Pg event (RIP non-avian dinosaurs, plesiosaurs, ammonites), is famously associated with a layer rich in Iridium, an element rare on the earth’s surface but much more common in material in space. Similar connections are found between other extinctions and Zinc. The P-Tr event (RIP trilobites, nearly everything else) shows a spike of Zinc in marine sediments immediately before the extinction. A recent study (Liu et. al 2017) also shows how the isotopes of Zinc change over time. Zinc is an important nutrient for marine phytoplanktons, meaning their growth changes the isotopic ratio of Zinc in marine sediments. Using this they demonstrate not only that more Zinc is found, but that it came from volcanic or igneous material entering the ocean. This happened abruptly around 35 thousand years before the extinction event. Soon after, the ratio shifts back in a way consistent with phytoplankton activity returning to normal within 360 thousand years.

Liu figure 2a


Figure 2b from Liu et al. Showing Figure 2b from Liu et al. Showing changes in Zinc concentrations and isotopic ratios immediately before the Carbon isotope changes associated with the extinction event.

Other studies show anomalous peaks of Nickel abundance just before the P-Tr event in many sections across the world. Once again the source is inferred to be volcanic activity. Different sets of forensic evidence point to an obvious suspect – the Siberian Traps – an enormous area of volcanic rocks covering a huge area of Russia that was formed across the P-Tr boundary.

The Murder weapon

Volcanic eruptions are dangerous to be near. It’s obvious why life suddenly swamped by lava will not survive, but a mass extinction is a global phenomena. How can a volcanic area kill animals or plants on the other side of the world?

Jerram figure 1

Figure 1 from Jerram et al.

Figure 1 from Jerram et al. showing extent of Siberian Traps, highlighting sill intrusions, coal and explosion pipes.

One clue comes from odd structures found around the Siberian Traps, for example within the Tunguska Basin1. These structures are pipes called diatremes, formed by gaseous explosions.

Some diatremes are formed by gas ready mixed within the magma, but with these Siberian pipes the gas came from heating of the sedimentary rocks that were already there. Buried below the many lava flows, are flat sheets of rock called sills that pushed between existing sedimentary layers. These sills heat up the surrounding rocks, which in the Tunguska basin include much coal and evaporite rocks. This heating produced vast volumes of CO2 and CH4 that poured out of the pipes into the atmosphere.

Figure 2 from Polozov et al. Showing portions of basaltic pipes, exposed within mining works.

Figure 2 from Polozov et al. Showing portions of basaltic pipes, exposed within mining works.

These gases of course affect the climate. A huge outpouring of CO2 and methane, plus also nasty gases such as SO2 represent a pretty convincing murder weapon. A brand new paper demonstrates malformed parts of terrestrial plants about this time, attributed to pollution. Sudden ocean acidification and climate change followed by a collapse in planktonic growth leading to the the death of the dependent food webs is a uncontroversial story. It may be a story we are beginning to retell as gas forms mysterious holes in the ground in Siberia once more.

Killed and killed and will kill again

The Siberian Traps are just one of many Large Igneous Provinces (LIPs). Other ones are also associated with extinctions. The pleasingly named CAMP province, found in Atlantic facing areas of Africa, Europe and the Americas, overlaps in time with end-Triassic mass extinction event (RIP conodonts and various reptiles & amphibians).  An open-access paper from mid 2017 demonstrates a link between sills intruding into organic-rich sediments and the extinction event – exactly as proposed for the P-Tr event.

Figure 1 from Davies et al

Figure 1 from Davies et al

The bodies are piling up. The Late Ordovician extinction event (RIP 85% marine species, no big groups) has been linked to Mercury enrichment in marine sediments. The authors link this to a LIP, even though one of this age has not yet been found.

What do we know about this serial killer? LIPs are thought to be formed by huge plumes of rock, rising from the edges of odd features on the very floor of the mantle. Their ability to kill may depend on the nature of the crust they rise into. Both the P-Tr and Tr-J events see sills intruded into sediments. The Deccan Traps, active across the extinction of the dinosaurs (K-Pg) rose through basement rocks, so there were no sediments to heat, meaning they pumped out only volcanic gases. Maybe this is why the extinction event required an impact to finish the job.

Case for the prosecution

“So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I suggest to you that the accused is a serial killer. The mighty plesiosaur, the ever-busy scuttling trilobite, even the wriggly conodont, all were killed by the monster sitting before you. It killed, not by showy eruptions and square miles of lava, but by the silent injection of sheets of magma deep underground. This devilish act then poured huge quantities of poison into the air, bringing the very earth to its knees.”

We’re not quite ready for a trial. Some of the evidence is circumstantial and we certainly don’t have a full roster of victims. But LIPs should be high on the list of anyone’s list of suspects for the greatest murders the world has ever seen.

Categories: impacts, sediments

Ultrafast eclogitisation through overpressure

My blogging torpor has been ended by a super-interesting new paper that links together many of my favourite topics. It includes eclogites, metamorphic petrology, ultra-fast metamorphism, determining timescales via diffusion profiles, tectonic overpressure and even the Grampian-Taconic orogeny and opens up new avenues of research. What more could I ask for from a scientific paper?

The Rocks

The paper, “Ultrafast eclogite formation via melting-induced overpressure” by Chu et al. has just been published. It’s based on a very close study of a set of rocks from Connecticut in the USA. They are part of the Taconic orogeny, (also seen in Connemara, Ireland, my old field area) which was caused by an Arc colliding with a continent.

The particular location is within a tectonic slice and consists of felsic paragneisses (metamorphosed muds and sandstones) containing lenses of mafic and ultramafic rock (metamorphosed gabbro). The gneisses are migmatitic – they were partially melted. The whole area of high-grade rocks is bounded by mica schists, within 50m, suggesting the heating of the rocks was localised.

The mafic lenses are eclogitic – they contain an eclogite facies assemblage of minerals that formed under high pressure.  As is common in eclogites, some of the peak minerals have retrogressed (changed) back into fine mixtures of lower pressure minerals called symplectites. The phengite and omphacite are now symplectite pseudomorphs but garnet (Twitter’s 5th most popular mineral) remains itself and contains some invaluable information.

The chemical analysis

The paper describes estimates of the conditions of metamorphism, derived from various forms of analysis. The garnets are the key to this, as they show a wide range of different compositions. Since they grow outwards, the change of compositions from the core captures changing metamorphic conditions as the garnet grew. The image below is a map of the amount of particular chemical elements within the garnet. The different colours represent different amounts and since the chemistry of the garnet depends on the pressure and temperature while it grew, this gives us a lot of information.

Part of figure 4 showing sharp and complex chemical zoning in garnet

Part of figure 4 showing sharp and complex chemical zoning in garnet

As marked on the image above, parts A-C record heating at around 8 kbar (typical crustal depths) from 660 to 790°C, then D represents eclogitic conditions of 14 kbar and E a return back to 8 kbar.

Speed

Garnets that have spent a long time at high temperatures lose their chemical zoning due to diffusion. Since we understand the speed at which diffusion works, we can use chemical zoning in minerals to estimate the speed of metamorphic processes. Look at the images above and you’ll notice that the boundaries between the different domains are quite sharp. Using two sets of forward modelling (one of the diffusion profiles and another of the garnet growth) they conclude that the pressure increase (C-D above) took only 500 years. The pressure decrease (D-E above) also took only 500 years. These are not the sort of timescales geologists are used to dealing with. I’ve been to educational establishments that have lasted longer than 500 years – it’s no time at all.

These dates cannot be explained by normal models of eclogite formation, which involve subduction of material and eventual return to shallower depths. Rates of subduction are measured in cm per year, but to explain the rate of pressure increase this way would require rates of 30m per year.

How does pressure change so fast?

The usual assumption in metamorphic petrology is that the pressure recording by the minerals is lithostatic pressure – that caused by the weight of rocks above. This is useful as it allows you to track the rocks passage into and out of a subduction zone or mountain belt and so link metamorphic P-T estimates to tectonic models. A number of recent papers have started to challenge this assumption. Their approach varies, but all suggest that rocks can experience high pressures without being buried to great depth.

What’s so great about Chu et al. is that is provides direct evidence of this happening and offers an explanation as to how it happened.

Burying rocks at 30m a year is not credible, so if we accept their estimates for the speed and amount of pressure increase (it persuades me, but more knowledge people than me may disagree) we must look for ways of generating high pressure without piling up more rocks on top.

Chu et al.’s explanation takes us back to the unusual location of these rocks, within a narrow active shear zone surrounded by colder rocks. They see rocks as being rapidly heated due to strain heating along the shear zone. This one of the mechanisms invoked by those arguing that localised and rapid metamorphism is more common that we thought. The narrow zone of hot rocks is surrounded by colder more rigid walls. As the rocks start to melt, the sudden volume increase causes an ‘autoclave’ effect, a sudden local deviation above lithostatic pressure. This causes the rapid growth of eclogitic minerals with the mafic pods. Soon the melt escapes or crystallises, reducing the pressure back to normal.

Part of figure 9, showing the model of transient overpressure due to partial melting

Part of figure 9, showing the model of transient overpressure due to partial melting

What does it all mean?

This paper adds a fascinating petrological argument supporting the theoretical studies suggest that overpressure within metamorphic rocks is possible. No longer can the mere presence of high-pressure minerals necessarily indicate the rocks was buried to great depths.

As the authors say, it does not invalidate most of what we know about eclogites. The mechanism described does not apply to the many ultra-high pressure terranes like Western Norway where large volumes of eclogitic rocks exist – these surely did get stuffed deep into a subduction zone.

My first thought was of the Glenelg eclogites in Scotland. This is a small area of eclogite within a high strain zone which makes very little tectonic sense. Perhaps this is a candidate for being formed by local overpressure? As far as I can tell they aren’t associated with migmatites, which makes them not directly analogous. But the point is that there is a new possible interpretation for them, new avenues of research. That’s what makes this paper so interesting to me.

Please read it, and if you think it’s wrong, let me know.

Chu, Xu, et al. “Ultrafast eclogite formation via melting-induced overpressure.” Earth and Planetary Science Letters 479 (2017): 1-17.

Update: another possible candidate for this effect in Scottish rocks is within the Central Highlands Migmatite Complex. See brief description and my write-up of a discussion of the significance of these rocks.

Categories: eclogites, metamorphism, tectonics

The Himalayan mountains: flow and fracture

Earth science departments are home to three styles of working, each of which tries to answer similar questions, but from very different perspectives. First we have the field geologists. Armed with field gear and a hammer, they gather data from actual rocks in the form of photos, diagrams and above all maps. Next we have those who live in the lab studying rock samples using mysterious machines to gain startling insights. Finally those who seek to recreate the world in a computer, building models to understand the underlying equations that can explain how the earth works.

In some departments the very different cultures and mental models that these approaches require can lead to conflict. But the best science is done when they are combined, in a department, research group or even a single brain. A recent paper by lead-author Andrew Parsons weaves together different techniques to provide a coherent model of how rocks flow to build huge ranges of mountains.

Different ways to build a mountain range

The Himalayan mountain range is the best place to study how mountains form. Sixty million years ago the Tethys ocean sat between the Indian plate and the Asian. Soon the Tethys oceanic crust vanished down into the mantle beneath Asia and the Indian plate collided with Asia. At the site of that collision now sits the highest mountains on earth, plus the huge and high Tibetan Plateau.

Geologically the Himalaya are long (over 2000km), thin and consistent. From Kashmir and Ladakh on the Indo-Pakistan border, through all of Nepal and further East through the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan the same sequence of rocks is seen. Starting from the undeformed Indian Plain and walking up, we pass through the sub-Himalayan zone, through the Lesser Himalayan Sequence (LHS), the Greater Himalayan Sequence (GHS) and finally the Tethyan Himalayan Sequence (THS).

These distinctive packages of rock are separated by major faults. Sudden movements on these faults cause the major earthquakes that regularly affect the people who live in this beautiful part of the world. Early models for how the mountains formed focused on these thrust faults. We saw mountains as thick piles of slabs of rock, separated by brittle faults.

Thrust faults stack up layers of rock. Image from Wikipedia

Thrust faults stack up layers of rock. Image from Wikipedia

In these models deformation is focused on the thrust surfaces and the rocks in between are relatively strong and rigid. This is a reasonably good description of the rocks of the LHS. However studies of the GHS rocks showed them to have been strongly deformed at high temperatures. Intrusions of granite are common and appeared to form while the GHS rocks were deforming and moving rapidly towards the surface. Also the fault between the GHS and the barely deformed sediments of the THS is a normal fault, one with an opposite sense of movement to the thrust faults.

View of Mount Everest, with

View of Mount Everest, with sediments of the Tetyhan Himalayan Sequence forming the summit and metamorphic rocks of the Greater Himalayan Sequence below

To explain these features, the concept of ‘channel flow‘ was borrowed from fluid dynamics. This describes how viscous fluids flow when trapped in a channel between two rigid surfaces (think of jam/jelly squeezed out of an overfilled sandwich). We know that hot rocks deep in the earth can flow (slowly!) even while remaining solid. The channel flow concept saw the GHS rocks as flowing out from underneath the Tibetan Plateau towards the surface, perhaps moving into the space created by rapid erosion of the high Himalayan mountains.

An alternative model for explaining the hot and deformed GHS rocks is called wedge extrusion, where deformation on thrust faults brought it to the surface, rather than channel flow.

These three models are often seen as being mutually exclusive. But what if all were true?

Going with the flow

Andrew Parsons work is based upon his PhD studies at the University of Leeds in England. He’s published a map of the Annapurna region of Nepal, covering all the main sequences of rock and so is at home in the fieldwork tradition of the Earth sciences. No doubt he has pictures of himself in field gear, looking sun-burnt and grinning in front of some amazing scenery. At the core of his prize-winning paper is hours and hours of lab-work. After wielding his hammer to collect over 100 samples in a transect across the Himalayas, he had them cut by a diamond saw into thin sections to have their secrets probed.

His studies used an optical microscope (to get a sense of this, check out #thinsectionThursday on Twitter) and also a scanning electron microscope. The goal was to identify precisely how the minerals in the sample were squashed.

Rocks are made of minerals and the way they flow is by deforming those minerals. We know a great deal about the many ways common rock forming minerals (like quartz, feldspar, calcite) deform. There are a range of different ways in which the minerals deform. Minerals are crystalline; the atoms within are aligned in consistent repeated patterns. Slow movement of atoms along particular slip-planes or the propagation of defects change the shape of the mineral and so deform the rock. The mineral structure is complicated and different planes of slip are favoured depending on the temperature. Careful study of subtle patterns in the minerals, plus measurement of the average orientation of the atomic structure in each grain tells a great deal.

A portion of figure 6, showing different microscope images of rock samples, with different features highlighted.

A portion of figure 6, showing different microscope images of rock samples, with different features highlighted.

For each sample, the authors were able to estimate the temperature at which the rocks were deformed. Also they got a sense of the style of deformation. Imagine a perfect sphere in a rock that is then deformed. Rocks can be flattened turning the sphere into a cow-pat or M&M shape or maybe stretched into a cigar shape. As well as this, the deforming sphere can also be rotated. A combination of field observations, thin section studies and the scanning electron microscope work together gives a view of how the rocks were squashed.

Bringing it all together

The core achievement of this award-winning paper is linking the mass of data to the predictions of the various tectonic models.  Channel flow is predicted in the GHS rocks while they were hot and rapidly flowing. The entire channel should flow and rotation only be seen at the edges. This is what the samples from the upper section of the GHS show, plus an indication that this style of deformation ended while they were still at 550°C and changed from being hot and soft to being more rigid.

At this point channel flow ceased and another mechanism, rigid wedge extrusion, came into play. Here the lower portion of the GHS was deforming at a lower temperature. As the model would predict, deformation involves a lot of rotation, consistent with the whole of this sequence of rocks acting as a broad shear zone, bringing the upper GHS rocks  closer to the surface.

The lowest temperature deformation is found in a thin zone of rocks within the lower GHS that were acting as a thrust fault, stacking up different slices of rock.

Figure 12

Figure 12

This diagram emphasises the key insight – that different ways of building up mountains can be active at the same time, within different parts of the mountain belt. The mountain building (orogenic) system is composite, made up of different parts. Studying individual mineral grains helps us understand the structure of a massive mountain range. This is because that is how it grew. Countless millions of mineral grains slowly shuffling their atomic lattices over millions of years: this is what builds mountains.

The system is still active, as India pushes into Asia. We know from geophysics that there are hot rocks under the Tibet – perhaps these are right now flowing to the surface as a channel. As the Himalayas are eroded away they will get nearer the surface and start cooling, causing different styles of deformation to come into play.

The terminology of ‘superstructure/infrastructure’ used in this diagram is taken directly from computer modelling work. Numerical models of how mountain belts might work have directly informed this work. Cold rocks near the surface can be a lot stronger than the hot rocks below. By combining computer modelling with field work and lab studies, geologists are getting a good understanding of how the Himalayan mountains formed and have evolved over time. Many places are built on the roots of ancient mountain ranges and high-quality integrated studies such as this help us understand rocks across the world.

Parsons, A. J., et al. “Thermo‐kinematic evolution of the Annapurna‐Dhaulagiri Himalaya, central Nepal: The Composite Orogenic System.” Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems 17.4 (2016): 1511-1539.

Categories: Himalaya, metamorphism, mountains, tectonics

Speed of metamorphism: cooling down

A while ago, I asked Twitter for suggestions of topics for future posts. A great one came from Brian Romans, a Prof at Virginia Tech and a long-standing pillar of the online geoscience community:

This post follows on from my discussion of how quickly metamorphic rocks heat up which discussed an old conceptual model of metamorphism being caused by slow, gradual processes building mountains and heating the rocks inside. A more modern understanding shows that metamorphic events can be extremely fast, driven not by slow conduction, but rapid (even catastrophic) pulses of hot fluid or pressure.

Let’s think what happens next to the mountains in the old gradual conceptual model. They are slowly but surely brought low by erosion. Grain by grain of quartz or mica bidding farewell to their long-standing neighbours and heading off on an headlong tumbling adventure down a river to the sea. As the hills and mountains are laid low, once deeply buried metamorphic rock slowly emerges, cooling as it heads towards the surface over tens of millions of years.

Turns out, if you actually date the age of metamorphic rocks at the surface in modern mountain belts, they can be a lot younger than expected. Just as it doesn’t necessarily take millions of years to create a metamorphic rock, so they can reach the surface in double quick time.

How to date cooling

How do we know this? If you’re in an active mountain belt such as the Himalayas and you have a metamorphic sample in your hand, that’s already one piece of data – it’s at the surface and cool today. Date the age of the metamorphic event and estimate it’s temperature and you have a second data point. Those two together may be enough to demonstrate rapid cooling. But more data is always good. Luckily radiometric dating can really help us here.

Whenever geologists quote an absolute age1 for something, they are referring ultimately to an estimate derived from our understanding of radioactive decay. Certain elements (most famously Uranium) are unstable and their nucleus can fracture into pieces. Some of these pieces may be small and fast-moving – they make up the radioactivity that can be so dangerous – but there are larger fragments of nucleus too, which tend to stay put and are called ‘daughter elements’. They are the products of natural alchemy and form atoms of new different elements. The rate at which this radioactive decay occurs is steady and unchanging, perfect for a clock. Simply put2 if you measure how much there is of both the radioactive substance and its daughter, you can calculate the age of something. This is geochronology.

For us today, the key concept here is that ‘something’ we are dating the age of. Often we seek to find out the age at which a mineral grain grew, either in a metamorphic rock or crystallising from a magma. This works if the mineral acts as a closed system – once the grain is formed, nothing comes in or out. If instead some of the daughter element has left the system, then the date measured is ‘wrong’ – it doesn’t tell you the real age of the mineral. However, since the mineral becomes a closed system when it cools below a particular temperature3, careful measurements can give you the date when the mineral cooled below that temperature. This is therefore a new independent data point in the rock’s history of cooling. This is the principal behind the technique of thermochronology.

Different minerals, and different pairs of elements become closed at very different temperatures. Many common minerals are used to determine radiometric dates: biotite; muscovite and other white micas; various feldspars; garnet; calcite; apatite. The spread of closure temperatures is from around 1000°C (for Zircon) down to 70°C (for Calcite)4.

This gives us a very powerful tool kit. Different minerals in the same rock may give different ages, each dating a different stage in the rock’s cooling history.

Irish rocks are cool and once they were really hot.

Let’s move to an example of how thermochronology can give insight into how fast metamorphic rocks cool. It comes from a recent paper by Anke Friedrich and Kip Hodges focusing on Connemara in Ireland, (my old PhD field area). The paper cites my research, which immediately makes me think well of it.

master.img-006

Figure 7 from Friedrich and Hodges (2016), showing the range of thermochronological dates and the contrasting T-t paths across Connemara.

This figure is the core of the paper. Each box is a different thermochronlogical measurement, plotted against time and Temperature.  Different coloured boxes are different types of systems. Even the same colour of box can be at a different temperature because these estimates include also a consideration of the size of the mineral grain. The data is superficially rather noisy, and could be taken to indicate a slow cooling history, but the geology of the area is extremely well known, allowing distinct 3 sets of dates to be identified.

Those defining the dark line – labelled North – show a brief period of heating and then cooling. The south of Connemara was the site of igneous activity for much longer than the north – the later cooling is clear from the data. Data points from the right hand side of the graph are associated with heating from much later granites.

Scream if you want to go faster

Prof. Romans is a sedimentary guy and interested in metamorphic rocks as something that ends up as a layer of sand or mud. Linking metamorphic rocks to sedimentary ones means tracing out one of those great big linked cycles that make earth science so mind-expanding. My favourite example – good evidence for what went on deep in the Himalayas can be found in sediments deep in the Indian Ocean. As an aside, for these Connemara rocks we can also trace the point at which they start being eroded and ending up in a sedimentary basin. As a further aside, the grains that were dated from Irish metamorphic rocks can also be found in modern sediments. These studies (detrital mineral thermochronology) can be used to find out where sediment came from or to estimate the  timescales of sedimentary processes. That’s a topic for another time.

Brian Roman’s original question started with asking how fast metamorphosing rocks can be exhumed. Exhumation means the rocks reaching the surface – like digging up corpses only much much nicer. This is linked to a rock’s cooling history as in order for a metamorphic rock to cool significantly and quickly it needs to get nearer the surface. Metamorphic rocks may form in unusually hot parts of the earth but the fact that the earth gets hotter the deeper you go is the main control. Places where rocks are exhumed quickly must be places where the rock above is removed quickly and one way to do this is to erode it away.

The fastest rates of exhumation known are in the Himalayas. Specifically at the eastern and western ends: Namche Barwa in the eastern Himalaya and near Nanga Parbat in the west. Here rocks are being drawn to the surface so fast that 25km of rock has been eroded in the last 10 million years. Given that the Himalaya are around 50 million years old and on average 5 kilometres high, this is quite amazing.

The likely reason for such rapid exhumation is that these points are where massive rivers, full of glacier melt from the Tibetan plateau and Himalayas, cross the Himalayan mountain range. The rivers cut deep down into the earth and soft hot rocks flow into the space created (more detail here). The Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau cause the Monsoon which drives rain-clouds north from the ocean to feed Himalayan glaciers. Melting glaciers fill the rivers, which cut deep into the earth and drive a flow of rock from kilometres under the ground, up to the surface where it is turned into sand and mud that flows back down into the ocean. There it forms sedimentary rocks, that one day may be buried and be turned back into a metamorphic rock. There are so many cycles in geology and so many links between them.

In the first post in this series we learned that the formation of those beautiful metamorphic minerals paraded on Twitter every #thinsectionThursday is less like the slow transformation of dough baked into bread but instead more like the sudden explosive transfiguration of a hard kernel into tasty pop-corn5.  In this post we’ve learned how we know how quickly rocks cool. This can be slow, like letting a roast chicken rest before carving but other times it’s like popping some morsel straight from the fryer and onto your plate

Categories: Ireland, metamorphism, mountains, tectonics