"I was extremely surprised when my colleagues, Jing Liu-Zeng and Dirk Scherler, showed me the evidence for this canyon in southern Tibet," says Jean-Philippe Avouac, the Earle C. Anthony Professor of Geology at Caltech. "When I first saw the data, I said, 'Wow!' It was amazing to see that the river once cut quite deeply into the Tibetan Plateau because it does not today. That was a big discovery, in my opinion."
Geologists like Avouac and his colleagues, who are interested in tectonics—the study of the earth's surface and the way it changes—can use tools such as GPS and seismology to study crustal deformation that is taking place today. But if they are interested in studying changes that occurred millions of years ago, such tools are not useful because the activity has already happened. In those cases, rivers become a main source of information because they leave behind geomorphic signatures that geologists can interrogate to learn about the way those rivers once interacted with the land—helping them to pin down when the land changed and by how much, for example.
"In tectonics, we are always trying to use rivers to say something about uplift," Avouac says. "In this case, we used a paleocanyon that was carved by a river. It's a nice example where by recovering the geometry of the bottom of the canyon, we were able to say how much the range has moved up and when it started moving."
The team reports its findings in the current issue of Science.
Last year, civil engineers from the China Earthquake Administration collected cores by drilling into the valley floor at five locations along the Yarlung Tsangpo River. Shortly after, former Caltech graduate student Jing Liu-Zeng, who now works for that administration, returned to Caltech as a visiting associate and shared the core data with Avouac and Dirk Scherler, then a postdoc in Avouac's group. Scherler had previously worked in the far western Himalayas, where the Indus River has cut deeply into the Tibetan Plateau, and immediately recognized that the new data suggested the presence of a paleocanyon.
Liu-Zeng and Scherler analyzed the core data and found that at several locations there were sedimentary conglomerates, rounded gravel and larger rocks cemented together, that are associated with flowing rivers, until a depth of 800 meters or so, at which point the record clearly indicated bedrock. This suggested that the river once carved deeply into the plateau.