Mantle dynamics, uplift of the Tibetan Plateau, and the Indian Monsoon


  • Peter Molnar,

  • Philip England,

  • Joseph Martinod


Convective removal of lower lithosphere beneath the Tibetan Plateau can account for a rapid increase in the mean elevation of the Tibetan Plateau of 1000 m or more in a few million years. Such uplift seems to be required by abrupt tectonic and environmental changes in Asia and the Indian Ocean in late Cenozoic time. The composition of basaltic volcanism in northern Tibet, which apparently began at about 13 Ma, implies melting of lithosphere, not asthenosphere. The most plausible mechanism for rapid heat transfer to the midlithosphere is by convective removal of deeper lithosphere and its replacement by hotter asthenosphere. The initiation of normal faulting in Tibet at about 8 (± 3) Ma suggests that the plateau underwent an appreciable increase in elevation at that time. An increase due solely to the isostatic response to crustal thickening caused by India's penetration into Eurasia should have been slow and could not have triggered normal faulting. Another process, such as removal of relatively cold, dense lower lithosphere, must have caused a supplemental uplift of the surface. Folding and faulting of the Indo-Australian plate south of India, the most prominent oceanic intraplate deformation on Earth, began between about 7.5 and 8 Ma and indicates an increased north-south compressional stress within the Indo-Australian plate. A Tibetan uplift of only 1000 m, if the result of removal of lower lithosphere, should have increased the compressional stress that the plateau applies to India and that resists India's northward movement, from an amount too small to fold oceanic lithosphere, to one sufficient to do so. The climate of the equatorial Indian Ocean and southern Asia changed at about 6–9 Ma: monsoonal winds apparently strengthened, northern Pakistan became more arid, but weathering of rock in the eastern Himalaya apparently increased. Because of its high altitude and lateral extent, the Tibetan Plateau provides a heat source at midlatitudes that should oppose classical (symmetric) Hadley circulation between the equator and temperate latitudes and that should help to drive an essentially opposite circulation characteristic of summer monsoons. For the simple case of axisymmetric heating (no dependence on longitude) of an atmosphere without dissipation, theoretical analyses by Hou, Lindzen, and Plumb show that an axisymmetric heat source displaced from the equator can drive a much stronger meridianal (monsoonlike) circulation than such a source centered on the equator, but only if heating exceeds a threshold whose level increases with the latitude of the heat source. Because heating of the atmosphere over Tibet should increase monotonically with elevation of the plateau, a modest uplift (1000–2500 m) of Tibet, already of substantial extent and height, might have been sufficient to exceed a threshold necessary for a strong monsoon. The virtual simultaneity of these phenomena suggests that uplift was rapid: approximately 1000 m to 2500 m in a few million years. Moreover, nearly simultaneously with the late Miocene strengthening of the monsoon, the calcite compensation depth in the oceans dropped, plants using the relatively efficient C4 pathway for photosynthesis evolved rapidly, and atmospheric CO2 seems to have decreased, suggesting causal relationships and positive feedbacks among these phenomena. Both a supplemental uplift of the Himalaya, the southern edge of Tibet, and a strengthened monsoon may have accelerated erosion and weathering of silicate rock in the Himalaya that, in turn, enhanced extraction of CO2 from the atmosphere. Thus these correlations offer some support for links between plateau uplift, a downdrawing of CO2 from the atmosphere, and global climate change, as proposed by Raymo, Ruddiman, and Froehlich. Mantle dynamics beneath mountain belts not only may profoundly affect tectonic processes near and far from the belts, but might also play an important role in altering regional and global climates.