Glacially driven formation of high-elevation, low-relief landscapes in eastern Tibet

Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 5:30 PM
Huiping Zhang1, Michael E Oskin2, Jing Liu-Zeng1, Peizhen Zhang1, Peter W Reiners3 and Ping Xiao1, (1)Institute of Geology, China Earthquake Administration, Beijing, China, (2)Univ. of California, Davis, Davis, CA, United States, (3)University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, United States
Low-relief landscapes in central and eastern Tibet have been interpreted as relicts formed by lowland fluvial erosion before being uplifted to elevations exceeding 4 km a.s.l. The timing and amount of surface uplift indicated by these surfaces in Tibet and other orogens provide important constraints on geodynamic processes of crustal thickening and plateau formation. Low-temperature thermochronology and catchment-average 10Be concentrations indicate limited and low rates of long- and short-term erosion of these landscapes. But it is their morphology, dominated by gentle stream gradients, that drives the interpretation that these landscapes formed at much lower elevations than at present. Here we show for the plateau landscape of eastern Tibet that glacial erosion is ubiquitous along drainage divides that separate low-relief areas from deeply incised river gorges. The extent of late Pleistocene glaciation increases along a gradient of late Cenozoic exhumation from ~1 to >4 km indicated by apatite- and zircon-helium cooling ages. We interpret that glacial erosion effectively limits ridgeline elevations and promotes formation of low-relief landscapes in arid plateau interiors undergoing modest (<50 m Myr-1) exhumation rates. More intensive glacial erosion, associated with higher (>200 m Myr-1) exhumation rates nearer to plateau margins, produces bimodal topography, with low-relief cirques at high elevation and gentle, U-shape valleys below the equilibrium line altitudes (ELA). This yields similar mean elevations as nearby plateau surfaces, but with more rugged local relief. As rock uplift rate declines, these nascent plateau surfaces inherit low-gradient glaciated valley networks pinned by glacial erosion at their headwaters and smoothed by periglacial hillslope processes and transport-limited streams. Glacially driven formation of low-relief plateau landscapes within high-elevation eastern Tibet occurs in tandem with external drainage, and does not require uplift of a low-elevation peneplain.