Good building stones get reused. Sometimes the only traces of very old buildings are their stones, built into more modern ones. It’s the same with rocks and mountain belts. Stone that now forms parts of the Himalaya was once part of a now-vanished mountain range.
The Himalaya were formed by the collision between the Indian and Asian plates. For 50 million years, the Indian plate has been pushed down into the Himalayas where it is squashed, mangled and changed by heat and pressure. Working out the details of this process of mountain building has taken decades of careful study. Modern isotopic techniques are now so powerful that researchers studying Himalayan rocks can peer through beyond the effects of the recent mountain building to see traces of older events.
A recent open access paper by Catherine Mottram, Tom Argles and others looks at rocks in the Sikkim Himalaya, around the Main Central Thrust (MCT). As you can guess from the name (and the Use Of Capitals) this is an important structure; it can be traced over 1000km across the Himalaya and separates two distinct packages of rock known as the Lesser and Greater Himalayan Series.
As the rocks of the Indian plate were stuffed into the moutain belt, much of the movement of rock was along near-flat faults, known as thrusts. These stack up layers of rock, shortening and thickening the crust. Thrusts near the surface may be a single fault plane, but at greater depths rocks flow rather than snap and a thick thrust zone of deformed rocks is formed. This makes drawing a line on a map and calling it the Main Central Thrust rather difficult. Should the line be placed where the rock types change, or where they are most deformed, or where there is a break in metamorphism? Each approach has its advocates.
Our authors took an isotopic approach, measuring Neodymium isotopes for the whole rock and Uranium-Lead in useful crystals called Zircon. Their analysis shows that the two packages of rock separated by the MCT can be distinguished using isotopes. The actual boundary is not sharp: they prove interlayering of the two rock packages within the thrust zone, rather than a single boundary. This is not surprising given that thrusting is a gradual process and thrust surfaces are not flat. Deformation seems to have started at the boundary between the Lesser and Greater Himalaya and gradually moved down over time.
The patterns of isotope measurements that can be used to distinguish between the Greater and Lesser Himalayan Series also tell us about what happened before India met Asia.
The zircons whose isotopes were measured are of two types, detrital and igneous. The first are grains that were eroded from old rocks and settled into a sedimentary basin. The second crystallised from molten rock: their ages record significant events. Together these sets of dates give a view of a long and complicated pre-Himalayan history.
Our authors attempt to reconstruct the leading edge of the Indian plate, as it might have looked before it crashed into Asia.
The Greater Himalayan Sequence had already been heated and deformed in the roots of a mountain belt long before the Himalayas existed. This a relatively common situation. Polyorogenic rocks such as these1 need to be treated with care, otherwise we might mix up events separated by millions of years. A single garnet crystal may contain different areas that formed in totally separate mountain building events
One of the detrital zircon grains dated in this study was 3,600,000,000 years old. We can only guess how many cycles of erosion and burial, how many splittings and couplings of continents this mineral has ‘seen’. As it was buried and heated once again maybe, like the bowl of petunias in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy it thought to itself: “Oh no, not again”.
Mottram C.M., Argles T.W., Harris N.B.W., Parrish R.R., Horstwood M.S.A., Warren C.J. & Gupta S. (2014). Tectonic interleaving along the Main Central Thrust, Sikkim Himalaya, Journal of the Geological Society, 171 (2) 255-268. DOI: 10.1144/jgs2013-064
Argles T.W., Prince C.I., Foster G.L. & Vance D. (1999). New garnets for old? Cautionary tales from young mountain belts, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 172 (3-4) 301-309. DOI: 10.1016/S0012-821X(99)00209-5