Mongolian Hangay Uplift Recorded in Vesicular Basalts
Abstract:Epeirogenic histories of highland areas have confounded geophysicists for decades, as there are few records of paleoelevation in eroding highlands. However, preserved basaltic lava flows record paleoelevation in the size distributions of vesicles at the tops and bottoms of flow units. Although the bubbles have identical mass distributions at top and base, they are subject to different total pressures (sizes) due to differences in overburden. Two factors control the size of bubbles at the base of the flow: atmospheric pressure and lava weight. Thus, the atmospheric pressure-dependence of vesicle size can be expressed by the ratio of vesicle size modes at the top and bottom of a flow. The atmosphere’s paleopressure can thus be determined and a paleoelevation can then be calculated. Knowing the elevation at which the rock formed, its age, and its present elevation, the amount of uplift or subsidence can be determined, providing a history of tectonic uplift or subsidence of the locality. The total error bounds of the method are estimated to be ±400 m, which is sufficient only for major epeirogenic trends, such as that seen previously on the Colorado Plateau, and now in Mongolia.
The mechanisms that led to the high elevations of the Hangay Plateau in central Mongolia are not clear. As part of a broader collaborative project to better understand the tectonics of this part of Asia, we collected samples from several flows from throughout the Hangay Plateau. Results suggest that the Hangay Plateau experienced uplift of over 1 km in the last 10 Ma., corresponding to an average uplift rate of about 140 m/Ma (see graph below, with intercept within error bounds of 0,0). A flow sampled from the adjacent northern Gobi Desert indicates a paleoelevation of only a few hundred meters (no significant recent uplift), suggesting that the Gobi has experienced a different recent tectonic history from the Hangay Plateau. The uplift history of the Hangay, in addition to the composition of its lavas, geomorphology of the region, drainage pattern history, and other proxies, bears on possible mechanisms for uplift of this part of central Asia, which we are now evaluating.