Continental collision slowing due to viscous mantle lithosphere rather than topography



Because the inertia of tectonic plates is negligible, plate velocities result from the balance of forces acting at plate margins and along their base1. Observations of past plate motion derived from marine magnetic anomalies provide evidence of how continental deformation may contribute to plate driving forces2,3,4,5,6,7,8. A decrease in convergence rate at the inception of continental collision is expected because of the greater buoyancy of continental than oceanic lithosphere2,3, but post-collisional rates are less well understood. Slowing of convergence has generally been attributed to the development of high topography that further resists convergent motion7,8,9,10; however, the role of deforming continental mantle lithosphere on plate motions has not previously been considered. Here I show that the rate of India’s penetration into Eurasia has decreased exponentially since their collision. The exponential decrease in convergence rate suggests that contractional strain across Tibet has been constant throughout the collision at a rate of 7.03 × 10−16 s−1, which matches the current rate. A constant bulk strain rate of the orogen suggests that convergent motion is resisted by constant average stress (constant force) applied to a relatively uniform layer or interface at depth. This finding follows new evidence that the mantle lithosphere beneath Tibet is intact11, which supports the interpretation that the long-term strain history of Tibet reflects deformation of the mantle lithosphere. Under conditions of constant stress and strength, the deforming continental lithosphere creates a type of viscous resistance that affects plate motion irrespective of how topography evolved.

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Figure 1: Plot of Indian plate motion7 (x(t )) with respect to modern topography of the Tibetan orogen and position of major compressional or transpressional faults.
Figure 2: Predicted versus observed positions of India with respect to present position.
Figure 3: Models of crust and mantle lithosphere thickening that produce negligible changes in buoyancy and observed bulk strain rates.


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I thank E. Hetland, N. Lewandowski and P. Molnar for discussions and comments, and P. Molnar and J. Stock for sharing their plate reconstruction data in advance of their publication. I also thank Peizhen Zhang and colleagues for leading our collaborative US–Chinese field efforts and cooperative study. L. Flesch and J. Freymueller provided critical feedback that greatly improved the quality of this manuscript. Support for this research was provided by the National Science Foundation, Continental Dynamics Program (EAR-0549748 and EAR-0908711).

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M.K.C. performed the data analysis, conceived of the proposed model and wrote the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Marin Kristen Clark.

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The author declares no competing financial interests.

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Clark, M. Continental collision slowing due to viscous mantle lithosphere rather than topography. Nature 483, 74–77 (2012).

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