The timing and magnitude of the early Cenozoic surface uplift of the Tibetan Plateau is controversial due to a scarcity of unaltered terrestrial sediments required for palaeoaltimetry techniques. Such information is critical, however, for constraining the geodynamic and palaeoclimatic evolution of the Indian and Eurasian continents and for interpreting global climate, biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles since the Cenozoic. We find that substantial uplift occurred by 63 to 61 million years ago, before the collision of the Indian and Eurasian continental plates, based on comparison of triple oxygen isotopes of modern meteoric waters with epithermal Ag–Pb–Zn deposit quartz veins from the Palaeocene Gangdese Arc in southern Lhasa. Low δ18O and δ17O quartz values are consistent with precipitation from meteoric waters influenced by a large degree of topographic rainout. We show that by 63 to 61 Ma, the Gangdese Arc reached an elevation of ~3.5 km, suggesting that the Gangdese Arc achieved >60% of its current elevation before continent–continent collision. This uplift was probably caused by crustal shortening in response to low-angle subduction of Neo-Tethyan oceanic lithosphere. This early high palaeoelevation estimate for the Himalaya–Tibetan system challenges previous assumptions that southern Tibet uplift required continent–continent collision to achieve substantial topography.
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Code reproducing the regressions and calculations carried out in this work is available on Zenodo: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.7948625.
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This research was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (nos. 41888101, 41790450, 41872105, 42222207) grants to C.W., H.C., J.D. and Y.G., Heising Simons grant to C.P.C. and the Second Tibetan Plateau Scientific Expedition and Research Program (2019QZKK0204) grant to J.D. and C.W. D.E.I. was supported by the UC Berkley Miller Institute for Basic Research and UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellowships, and K.M. was supported by the Feodor-Lynen-Fellowship of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. We thank P. Blisniuk and M. K. Lloyd for help with the silicate triple oxygen isotope measurements at the Stanford University Stable Isotope Biogeochemistry Laboratory and T. Kukla for detailed discussions on palaeoelevation reconstructions and relevant modern datasets.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Extended Data Fig. 1 Topographic map of the Tibetan Plateau showing quantitative paleoaltimetry studies and their major conclusions.
These results indicate that the Eocene high elevation of the proto-Tibetan Plateau covers most of the Lhasa and Qiangtang terranes, except for the central Tibetan valley where was lowland; while the Himalyas was also lowland during the Eocene. Abbreviations: YZSZ, Yarlung Zangbo Suture zone; BNSZ, Banggong Nujiang Suture zone; JSSZ, Jinshajiang Suture zone; AKSZ, Ayimaqin Kunlun Suture zone. References are listed in the Supplementary Information Table S2.
a, The Gangdese Arc. b, The northern Lhasa and the BNSZ. c, The YZSZ and Himalayas. In plot a, dark blue and purple curves are extracted from b and c, respectively. Data points are presented as mean values for mean palaeoelevation ± 1σ, along with the mean age and its total range.
a. Meteoric water relationships showing the Tibetan meteoric water line (MWL, dashed blue line) for δ18O versus δD values relative to the global meteoric water line (GMWL, black line), δ18O versus d-excess values, and the triple oxygen Tibetan MWL (dashed blue line) compared to the GMWL (black line) in δ′18O versus δ′17O space. The GMWL is from Aron et al.27 and is indistinguishable from the Tibetan MWL, though in δ18O versus Δ′17O space the differences in slope and intercept are noticeable (see Extended Data Fig. 6). Horizontal lines in the second panel is for an intercept of 10 for the GMWL. b. δ18O values versus elevation, latitude, and longitude. Note that the data in the first panel is equivalent to Fig. 2b but including all precipitation as well as stream, river and snowpack data. c. Δ′17O values versus elevation, latitude and longitude. On all panels data from Kukla et al.50 are the small circles, and data from this study and Tian et al.25,70 are the large blue diamonds.
Extended Data Fig. 4 Microscopic characteristics of the rhyolite porphyry and crystal tuff from the Sinongduo epithermal Ag-Pb-Zn deposit.
a,d,e, Rhyolite porphyry. b,c,f, Crystal tuff. Q, quartz; Q vein, quartz vein; Py, pyrite; Chal, chalcedony; Chal vein, chalcedony vein; Ser, sericite; Pl, plagioclase.
Extended Data Fig. 5 Sensitivity of results to the choice of formation temperature and Inclusion of additional quartz measurements.
a. Sensitivity of results to choice of formation temperature using the 210 °C fluid inclusion formation temperature rather than the paired galena-sphalerite sulphur isotope temperature (240 °C, Fig. 2a) (both datasets from Li et al.31). b. Inclusion of additional quartz measurements (Extended Data Table 2) from nearby localities in regression (green circles) using the sulphur isotope formation temperature (240 °C) as in Fig. 2a. Data points are presented as mean values ± 1SE of individual measurements. Dashed line with confidence intervals (1σ, gray shading) is the error-weighted York regression.
a. Global meteoric water line from Aron et al.27: δ′17 O = 0.5268 × δ′18 O + 0.015, which is nearly identical to that of Sharp et al.59. b. The original global meteoric water line from Luz and Barkan28. For both plots we assume the a formation temperature of 240 °C, as in Fig. 2a, and the results are indistinguishable from the main text results. Data points are presented as mean values ± 1SE of individual measurements. Dashed line with confidence intervals (1σ, gray shading) is the error-weighted York regression.
Extended Data Fig. 7 Sensivity of meteoric water oxygen isotopic composition to formation temperature across a wide temperature range and the assumed rainfall δ18O value at sea level.
a. Sensivity of meteoric water oxygen isotopic composition to formation temperature across a wide temperature range (125–450 °C). The mean and standard deviation (black line and grey bar) of the two quatz formation temperature datasets from Li et al.31 are shown across the top. Dashed line show the York regression confidence interval’s intercept with the Tibet meteoric water line derived from this work (Fig. 2a). The blue triangle represent our best estimate palaeo-meteoric δ18O value using the galena-sphalerite sulphur isotope temperature (240 °C). b. Sensivitiy of meteoric water oxygen isotopic composition to the assumed rainfall δ18O value at sea level. The mean and errors (black line and grey bar) of rainfall δ18O values used by Ding et al.8 (also used in this study), Ingalls et al.9, and Rowley and Currie7 are shown above, with an alternative higher estimate from Hren et al.26 based on modern data.
Extended Data Fig. 8 Sensitivity of our calculations to the choice of slope and intercept of the Paleocene MWL for Tibet.
a. Contours of the oxygen isotopic composition of the calculated palaeo-meteoric water assuming 240 °C formation temperature (as in Fig. 2a) for plausible range in MWL slopes (λ) and intercepts (γ). The modern MWL slope and intercept estimates from previous work (global and regional) mentioned in the text are shown by grey points (BL10: Luz and Barkan28; PJ19: Passey and Ji30; A20: Aron et al.27). The error bars on the mean values for the Tibet MWL are 1σ as reported in the text (and shown in Extended Data Fig. 1a) and propagated in our calculations. The light blue symbols are the seasonal and annual slope and intercepts from the Tian et al.25,70 dataset from Lhasa and Nyingchi. With seasonal slopes derived for a more extensive region by Tian et al.25 (Qinghai-Tibet Plateau; see their Table 3) shown across the top of the plot. b. Same as panel a but for the mean palaeoelevation estimate using the model of Rowley and Garzione22 as in Fig. 2b. The purple zone illustrates the postive relationship between the seasonal slopes and intercepts derived in this study and the global meteoric water lines reported by previous work24,25,27. Confidence shading is 1σ in both panels.
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Ibarra, D.E., Dai, J., Gao, Y. et al. High-elevation Tibetan Plateau before India–Eurasia collision recorded by triple oxygen isotopes. Nat. Geosci. 16, 810–815 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-023-01243-x