• Cenozoic;
  • NE Tibetan Plateau;
  • balanced cross sections;
  • crustal shortening

[1] Two of the most popular mechanisms for thickening the crust beneath the Tibetan Plateau are (1) pure shear with faulting and folding in the upper crust and horizontal shortening below and (2) flow of lower or middle crust without significant shortening of the upper crust. To help discriminate between the relative contributions of these two mechanisms, well-constrained estimates of upper crustal shortening are needed. Here we document the Cenozoic shortening budget across the northeastern Tibetan Plateau margin with several balanced cross sections that exploit thermochronological and magnetostratigraphic constraints. These sections indicate 11 +2/−1% east-west shortening since middle Miocene time and ∼9 +2/−3% NNE-SSW shortening between middle Eocene and middle Miocene times with little subsequent shortening of this orientation. Shortening rates accelerate fivefold after middle Miocene time. Given the present-day crustal thickness of 56 ± 4 km in northeastern Tibet, crustal restorations that remove Cenozoic shortening suggest that the northeastern Tibetan crust was 45 ± 5 km thick prior to the India-Asia continental collision. This precollision thickness estimate is equivalent to average continental crustal thicknesses both adjacent to the Tibetan Plateau (44 ± 4 km) and globally (41 ± 6 km) and suggests that pure shear alone may account for Cenozoic crustal thickening in northeastern Tibet. In contrast to eastern Tibet where, in the absence of significant shortening structures, crustal flow has been invoked to explain the addition of crustal material since middle Miocene time, our results may obviate lower crustal flow as a necessary crustal thickening agent in northeastern Tibet.