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Tibetan plateau river incision inhibited by glacial stabilization of the Tsangpo gorge


A considerable amount of research has focused on how and when the Tibetan plateau formed in the wake of tectonic convergence between India and Asia1. Although far less enquiry has addressed the controls on river incision into the plateau itself2, widely accepted theory3 predicts that steep fluvial knick points (river reaches with very steep gradients) in the eastern Himalayan syntaxis at the southeastern plateau margin should erode rapidly4, driving a wave of incision back into the plateau. Preservation of the plateau edge thus presents something of a conundrum that may be resolved by invoking either differential rock uplift matching erosional decay5,6,7, or other mechanisms for retarding bedrock river incision8,9 in this region where high stream power excludes the potential for aridity as a simple limit to dissection of the plateau10. Here we report morphologic evidence showing that Quaternary depression of the regional equilibrium line altitude, where long-term glacier mass gain equals mass loss, was sufficient to repeatedly form moraine dams on major rivers: such damming substantially impeded river incision into the southeastern edge of the Tibetan plateau through the coupled effects of upstream impoundment and interglacial aggradation. Such glacial stabilization of the resulting highly focused river incision centred on the Tsangpo gorge could further contribute to initiating and accentuating a locus of rapid exhumation, known as tectonic anaeurysm6.

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Figure 1: Locations of 303 natural dams in the eastern Nyainqentanglha mountains and the Namche Barwa syntaxis, southeastern Tibetan plateau margin.
Figure 2: Box-and-whisker plots of equilibrium line altitudes (ELAs) for Yigong and Parlung Tsangpo.
Figure 3: Long profiles (lines) and active channel width (grey shaded areas) of Yigong Tsangpo and Parlung Tsangpo.
Figure 4: Cooling ages (open symbols) and longitudinal profiles (dark lines) of the Parlung and Yarlung Tsangpo across the southeastern Tibetan plateau margin.

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O.K. was partly supported by EU-FP6 contract 081412 IRASMOS. D.R.M. acknowledges support from the Continental Dynamics Program of the US National Science Foundation (EAR-0003561). We thank H. Greenberg for assistance in figure drafting. Reviews by D. Burbank and L. Owen helped improve an earlier manuscript.

Author Contributions Both authors contributed equally to this work.

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Correspondence to Oliver Korup.

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Korup, O., Montgomery, D. Tibetan plateau river incision inhibited by glacial stabilization of the Tsangpo gorge. Nature 455, 786–789 (2008).

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