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Uplift of the Longmen Shan and Tibetan plateau, and the 2008 Wenchuan (M = 7.9) earthquake


The Longmen Shan mountain range, site of the devastating 12 May 2008 Wenchuan (M =  7.9) earthquake, defines the eastern margin of the Himalayan orogen and exhibits greater topographic relief than anywhere else in the Tibetan plateau. However, before the earthquake, geodetic and geologic surveys measured little shortening across the range front1,2,3, inspiring a vigorous debate about the process by which the topography of the mountain belt is produced and maintained. Two endmember models have been proposed: (1) brittle crustal thickening, in which thrust faults with large amounts of slip that are rooted in the lithosphere cause uplift4, and (2) crustal flow, in which low-viscosity material in the lower crust extrudes outward from the Tibetan plateau and inflates the crust north and east of the Himalayas5,6,7. Here we use balanced geologic cross-sections to show that crustal shortening, structural relief, and topography are strongly correlated in the range front. This suggests that crustal shortening is a primary driver for uplift and topography of the Longmen Shan on the flanks of the plateau. The 2008 Wenchuan (M =  7.9) earthquake, which ruptured a large thrust fault along the range front causing tens of thousands of fatalities and widespread damage, is an active manifestation of this shortening process.

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Figure 1: Map of the Longmen Shan and western Sichuan basin, showing the epicentre and focal mechanism of the 2008 Wenchuan ( M = 7.9) earthquake, aftershocks, and major faults.
Figure 2: Alternative conceptual models for the uplift of the Tibetan plateau and development of the Longmen Shan range front.
Figure 3: Comparison of crustal shortening and topography along line A–A′.
Figure 4: Geologic cross-section B–B′ across the location of the 2008 Wenchuan ( M = 7.9) earthquake.

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We thank the reviewers, E. Kirby and J. Dolan, for their comments and suggestions. Texaco and the China National Petroleum Corporation provided the seismic data used in this project.

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Correspondence to Judith Hubbard.

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Hubbard, J., Shaw, J. Uplift of the Longmen Shan and Tibetan plateau, and the 2008 Wenchuan (M = 7.9) earthquake. Nature 458, 194–197 (2009).

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