The uplift of orogenic plateaus has been assumed to be coincident with the fluvial incision of the gorges that commonly cut plateau margins. The Mekong River, which drains the eastern Qiangtang Terrane and southeastern Tibetan Plateau, is one of the ten largest rivers in the world by water and sediment discharge. When the Mekong River was established remains highly debated—with estimates that range from more than 55 to less than 5 million years ago—despite being a key constraint on the elevation history of the Tibetan Plateau. Here we report low-temperature thermochronology data from river bedrock samples that reveal a phase of rapid downward incision (>700 m) of the Mekong River during the middle Miocene about 17 million years ago, long after the uplift of the central and southeastern Tibetan Plateau. However, this coincides with a period of enhanced East Asian summer monsoon precipitation over the region compared with the early Miocene. Using stream profile modelling, we demonstrate that such an increase in precipitation could have produced the observed incision in the Mekong River. In the absence of an obvious tectonic contribution, we suggest that the rapid incision of the Tibetan Plateau and the establishment of the Mekong River in the middle Miocene may be attributed to increased erosion during a period of high monsoon precipitation.
This is a preview of subscription content
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
The authors declare that all data supporting the findings of this study are available within the article and its Supplementary Information.
Li, J. et al. Magnetostratigraphic dating of river terraces: rapid and intermittent incision by the Yellow River of the northeastern margin of the Tibetan Plateau during the Quaternary. J. Geophys. Res. 102, 10121–10132 (1997).
Clark, M. K. et al. Late Cenozoic uplift of southeastern Tibet. Geology 33, 525–528 (2005).
Pan, B. et al. A 900 ky record of strath terrace formation during glacial-interglacial transitions in northwest China. Geology 31, 957–960 (2003).
Clift, P. D. Controls on the erosion of Cenozoic Asia and the flux of clastic sediment to the ocean. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 241, 571–580 (2006).
Wang, X. et al. Climate-dependent fluvial architecture and processes on a suborbital timescale in areas of rapid tectonic uplift: an example from the NE Tibetan Plateau. Global Planet. Change 133, 318–329 (2015).
Nie, J. et al. Loess Plateau storage of Northeastern Tibetan Plateau-derived Yellow River sediment. Nat. Commun. 6, 8511 (2015).
Zeitler, P. K. et al. Erosion, Himalayan geodynamics, and the geomorphology of metamorphism. GSA Today 11, 4–9 (2001).
Craddock, W. H. et al. Rapid fluvial incision along the Yellow River during headward basin integration. Nat. Geosci. 3, 209–213 (2010).
Lease, R. O. & Ehlers, T. A. Incision into the eastern Andean plateau during Pliocene cooling. Science 341, 774–776 (2013).
Whipple, K. X., DiBase, R. A., Ouimet, D. B. & Forte, A. M. Preservation or piracy: diagnosing low-relief, high-elevation surface formation mechanisms. Geology 45, 91–94 (2017).
Yang, R., Willett, S. D. & Goren, L. In situ low-relief landscape formation as a result of river network disruption. Nature 520, 526–529 (2015).
Clark, M. K. & Royden, L. H. Topographic ooze: building the eastern margin of Tibet by lower crustal flow. Geology 28, 703–706 (2000).
Tremblay, M. M. et al. Erosion in southern Tibet shut down at ~10 Ma due to enhanced rock uplift within the Himalaya. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 12030–12035 (2015).
Zachos, J., Pagani, M., Sloan, L., Thomas, E. & Billups, K. Trends, rhythms, and aberrations in global climate 65 Ma to present. Science 292, 686–693 (2001).
Tripati, A. K., Roberts, C. D. & Eagle, R. A. Coupling of CO2 and ice sheet stability over major climate transitions of the last 20 million years. Science 326, 1394–1397 (2009).
Guo, Z. T. et al. Onset of Asian desertification by 22 Myr ago inferred from loess deposits in China. Nature 416, 159–163 (2002).
Guo, Z. T. et al. A major reorganization of Asian climate by the early Miocene. Clim. Past 4, 153–174 (2008).
Hoke, G. D., Liu-Zeng, J., Hren, M. T., Wissink, G. K. & Garzione, C. N. Stable isotopes reveal high southeast Tibetan Plateau margin since the Paleogene. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 394, 270–278 (2014).
Li, S., Currie, B. S., Rowley, D. B. & Ingalls, M. Cenozoic paleoaltimetry of the SE margin of the Tibetan Plateau: constraints on the tectonic evolution of the region. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 432, 415–424 (2015).
Rohrmann, A. et al. Thermochronologic evidence for plateau formation in central Tibet by 45 Ma. Geology 40, 187–190 (2012).
Horton, B. K., Yin, A., Spurlin, M. S., Zhou, J. & Wang, J. Paleocene–Eocene syncontractional sedimentation in narrow, lacustrine-dominated basins of east–central Tibet. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 114, 771–786 (2002).
Kapp, P., Yin, A., Harrison, T. M. & Ding, L. Cretaceous–Tertiary shortening, basin development, and volcanism in central Tibet. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 117, 865–878 (2005).
Murphy, M. A. et al. Did the Indo-Asian collision alone create the Tibetan plateau? Geology 25, 719–722 (1997).
Wang, C. et al. Constraints on the early uplift history of the Tibetan Plateau. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 4987–4992 (2008).
Wang, E. & Burchfiel, B. Interpretation of Cenozoic tectonics in the right–lateral accommodation zone between the Ailao Shan shear zone and the eastern Himalayan syntaxis. Int. Geol. Rev. 39, 191–219 (1997).
Leloup, P. H. et al. The Ailao Shan–Red River shear zone (Yunnan, China), Tertiary transform boundary of Indochina. Tectonophysics 251, 3–84 (1995).
Gilley, L. D. et al. Direct dating of left–lateral deformation along the Red River shear zone, China and Vietnam. J. Geophys. Res. 108, 2127 (2003).
Métivier, F., Gaudemer, Y., Tapponnier, P. & Klein, M. Mass accumulation rates in Asia during the Cenozoic. Geophys. J. Int. 137, 280–318 (1999).
Hallet, B. & Molnar, P. Distorted drainage basins as markers of crustal strain east of the Himalaya. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 13697–13709 (2001).
Clark, M. et al. Surface uplift, tectonics, and erosion of eastern Tibet from large-scale drainage patterns. Tectonics 23, TC1006 (2004).
Shi, X., Qiu, X. L., Liu, H. L., Chu, Z. Y. & Xia, B. Cenozoic cooling history of Lincang granitoid batholith, western Yunnan: evidence from Fission track data. Chinese J. Geophys. 49, 135–142 (2006).
Fitzgerald, P. G., Stump, E. & Redfield, T. F. Late Cenozoic uplift of Denali and its relation to relative plate motion and fault morphology. Science 259, 497–499 (1993).
Dai, J., Wang, C., Hourigan, J. & Santosh, M. Insights into the early Tibetan Plateau from (U–Th)/He thermochronology. J. Geol. Soc. Lond. 170, 917–927 (2013).
Liu-Zeng, J. et al. Multiple episodes of fast exhumation since Cretaceous in southeast Tibet, revealed by low-temperature thermochronology. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 490, 62–76 (2018).
Yang, R. et al. Spatial and temporal pattern of erosion in the Three Rivers Region, southeastern Tibet. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 433, 10–20 (2016).
Roering, J. J., Kirchner, J. W. & Dietrich, W. E. Hillslope evolution by nonlinear, slope-dependent transport: steady state morphology and equilibrium adjustment timescales. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 16499–16513 (2001).
Ouimet, W. B., Whipple, K. X. & Granger, D. E. Beyond threshold hillslopes: channel adjustment to base-level fall in tectonically active mountain ranges. Geology 37, 579–582 (2009).
Gourbet, L. et al. Reappraisal of the Jianchuan Cenozoic basin stratigraphy and its implications on the SE Tibetan plateau evolution. Tectonophysics 700-701, 162–179 (2017).
Nie, J. et al. Dominant 100,000-year precipitation cyclicity in a late Miocene lake from Northeast Tibet. Sci. Adv. 3, e1600762 (2017).
Xu, X. et al. Pattern of latest tectonic motion and its dynamics for active blocks in Sichuan–Yunnan region, China. Sci. China D 46, 210–226 (2003).
Rowley, D. B. & Currie, B. S. Palaeo-altimetry of the late Eocene to Miocene Lunpola Basin, central Tibet. Nature 439, 677–681 (2006).
DeCelles, P. G. et al. High and dry in central Tibet during the Late Oligocene. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 253, 389–401 (2007).
Polissar, P. J., Freeman, K. H., Rowley, D. B., McInerney, F. A. & Currie, B. S. Paleoaltimetry of the Tibetan Plateau from D/H ratios of lipid biomarkers. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 287, 64–76 (2009).
Xu, Q. et al. Paleogene high elevations in the Qiangtang Terrane, central Tibetan Plateau. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 362, 31–42 (2013).
Wei, Y. et al. Low palaeoelevation of the northern Lhasa terrane during late Eocene: fossil foraminifera and stable isotope evidence from the Gerze Basin. Sci. Rep. 6, 27508 (2016).
Staisch, L. M., Niemi, N. A., Clark, M. K. & Chang, H. Eocene to late Oligocene history of crustal shortening within the Hoh Xil Basin and implications for the uplift history of the northern Tibetan Plateau. Tectonics 35, 862–895 (2016).
Yin, A. & Harrison, T. M. Geologic evolution of the Himalayan–Tibetan orogen. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 28, 211–280 (2000).
Beek, P. V. D., Summerfield, M. A., Braun, J., Brown, R. W. & Fleming, A. Modeling postbreakup landscape development and denudational history across the southeast African (Drakensberg Escarpment) margin. J. Geophys. Res. 107, 2351 (2002).
Beek, P. V. D. & Braun, J. Controls on post-mid-Cretaceous landscape evolution in the southeastern highlands of Australia: insights from numerical surface process models. J. Geophys. Res. 104, 4945–4966 (1999).
Hoke, G. D. et al. Geomorphic evidence for post-10 Ma uplift of the western flank of the central Andes 18°30′–22°S. Tectonics 26, TC5021 (2007).
Stockli, D. F., Farley, K. A. & Dumitru, T. A. Calibration of the apatite (U–Th)/He thermochronometer on an exhumed fault block, White Mountains, California. Geology 28, 983–986 (2000).
Restrepo-Moreno, S. A., Foster, D. A., Stockli, D. F. & Parra-Sánchez, L. N. Long-term erosion and exhumation of the ‘Altiplano Antioqueño’, Northern Andes (Colombia) from apatite (U-Th)/He thermochronology. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 278, 1–12 (2009).
Evans, N. J., Byrne, J. P., Keegan, J. T. & Dotter, L. E. Determination of uranium and thorium in zircon, apatite, and fluorite: application to laser (U–Th)/He thermochronology. J. Anal. Chem. 60, 1159–1165 (2005).
Tucker, G. E. Drainage basin sensitivity to tectonic and climatic forcing: implications of a stochastic model for the role of entrainment and erosion thresholds. Earth Surf. Proc. Land. 29, 185–205 (2004).
Hobley, D. E. J. et al. Creative computing with Landlab: an open-source toolkit for building, coupling, and exploring two-dimensional numerical models of Earth-surface dynamics. Earth Surf. Dynam. 5, 21–46 (2017).
Whipple, K. X. & Tucker, G. E. Dynamics of the stream-power river incision model: implications for height limits of mountain ranges, landscape response timescales, and research needs. J. Geophys. Res. 104, 17661–17674 (1999).
Snyder, N. P., Whipple, K. X., Tucker, G. E. & Merritts, D. J. Importance of a stochastic distribution of floods and erosion thresholds in the bedrock river incision problem. J. Geophys. Res. 108, 2117 (2003).
Becker, J. J. et al. Global bathymetry and elevation data at 30 arc seconds resolution: SRTM30_PLUS. Mar. Geod. 32, 355–371 (2009).
Scherler, D., Bookhagen, B. & Strecker, M. R. Tectonic control on 10Be-derived erosion rates in the Garhwal Himalaya, India. J. Geophys. Res. 119, 1–23 (2014).
Wilkinson, B. H. Precipitation as meteoric sediment and scaling laws of bedrock incision: assessing the Sadler effect. J. Geol. 123, 95–112 (2015).
Braun, J., Robert, X. & Simon-Labric, T. Eroding dynamic topography. Geophys. Res. Lett. 40, 1494–1499 (2013).
Lague, D. The stream power river incision model: evidence, theory and beyond. Earth Surf. Proc. Land. 39, 38–61 (2014).
Gallagher, K. Transdimensional inverse thermal history modeling for quantitative thermochronology. J. Geophys. Res. 117, B02408 (2012).
Shi, X., Qiu, X. L., Liu, H. L., Chu, Z. Y. & Xia, B. Thermochronological analyses on the cooling history of the Lincang granitoid batholith, Western Yunnan. Acta Petrol. Sin. 22, 465–479 (2006).
Flowers, R. M., Ketcham, R. A., Shuster, D. L. & Farley, K. A. Apatite (U–Th)/He thermochronometry using a radiation damage accumulation and annealing model. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 73, 2347–2365 (2009).
Gautheron, C., Tassan-Got, L., Barbarand, J. & Pagel, M. Effect of alpha-damage annealing on apatite (U–Th)/He thermochronology. Chem. Geol. 266, 157–170 (2009).
We thank J. Dai for clarification of the sample elevations of the upper Mekong in his work, S. Ji for assisting with sampling, Z. Zhang for analytical help, and H. Geng for discussion. This work was financially supported by the National Key Research and Development Program of China (2016YFE0109500), the (973) National Basic Research Program of China (grant no. 2013CB956400), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grant nos 41422204 and 41672157) and the US National Science Foundation (grant nos 1348005 and 1545859). M.D. was supported by Australian Research Council Discovery funding scheme (DP160102427) and Curtin Research Fellowship.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Nie, J., Ruetenik, G., Gallagher, K. et al. Rapid incision of the Mekong River in the middle Miocene linked to monsoonal precipitation. Nature Geosci 11, 944–948 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-018-0244-z
Alpine Botany (2021)
Palaeobiodiversity and Palaeoenvironments (2021)
Scientific Reports (2020)
Spatio-temporal variation in rock exhumation linked to large-scale shear zones in the southeastern Tibetan Plateau
Science China Earth Sciences (2020)
GIS and DEM based analysis of incision and drainage reorganization of the Buyuan River basin in the upper Lancang-Mekong of China since the Late Pleistocene
Journal of Geographical Sciences (2020)