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Building the Himalaya from tectonic to earthquake scales

Abstract

Convergence of the Indian Plate towards Eurasia has led to the building of the Himalaya, the highest mountain range on Earth. Active mountain building involves a complex interplay between permanent tectonic processes and transient seismic events, which remain poorly understood. In this Review, we examine the feedbacks between long-term tectonic deformation (over millions of years) and the seismic cycle (years to centuries) in the Himalaya. We discuss how surface morphology of the Himalaya indicates that the convergence is largely accommodated by slip on the Main Himalayan Thrust plate boundary fault, which developed in the roots of the mountain range over millions of years. At shorter (decadal) timescales, tectonic geodesy reveals that elastic strain is periodically released via earthquakes. We use examples from earthquake cycle models to suggest that partial ruptures could primarily occur in the downdip region of the Main Himalayan Thrust. Great (Mw 8+) Himalayan earthquakes are more commonly associated with complete megathrust ruptures, which release accumulated residual strain. By synthesizing numerous observations that co-vary along strike, we highlight that tectonic structures that developed over millions of years can influence stress accumulation, structural segmentation, earthquake rupture extent and location, and, consequently, the growth of the mountain range.

Key points

  • The Himalayan mountain belt is a unique subaerial orogenic wedge characterized by tectonically rapid, ongoing crustal shortening and thickening, intense surface denudation and recurrent great (Mw 8+) earthquakes.

  • The history of the orogen has been investigated from long (million-year) to short (seconds to days) timescales using a variety of geological and geophysical techniques.

  • The magnitude 7.8 Gorkha earthquake and aftershocks were monitored by extensive local geophysical networks, providing a unique set of observations of a major Himalayan earthquake and the Himalayan seismic cycle.

  • Observations across the Himalaya reveal along-strike segmentation patterns at various temporal scales, controlled by inherited tectonic complexities developed over millions of years.

  • Developing a complete understanding of deformation across timescales from seconds to millions of years requires an integrated, interdisciplinary effort.

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Fig. 1: Long-term convergence and collision of India with Eurasia and geometry of the subducting plate.
Fig. 2: Geological map and 3D cross section of the Himalaya.
Fig. 3: Plate convergence velocity field and characteristics of the 2015 Mw 7.8 Gorkha earthquake.
Fig. 4: Crustal-scale duplexing and seismic behaviour of the mid-crustal ramp.
Fig. 5: Segmentation indicators of the Himalaya.
Fig. 6: Cross section across central Nepal showing different proxies for uplift rate.
Fig. 7: Datasets that illuminate the tectonics of the Himalaya.

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Acknowledgements

L.D.Z. was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) (grants P2EZP2_184307 and P400P2_199295) and the Cecil and Sally Drinkward fellowship at Caltech. G.H. acknowledges the SNSF for funding the OROG3NY project (grants PP00P2_157627 and PP00P2_187199). J.H. is supported by the Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS), the National Research Foundation Singapore and the Singapore Ministry of Education under the Research Centres of Excellence initiative. L.B. is supported by the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). This work comprises EOS contribution 344. We thank R. Jolivet, T. Ragon, T. Gerya, S. Barbot, F. Capitanio, J. Ruh, N. Lapusta, M.-A. Meier, S. Michel and A. Gualandi for constructive comments and discussions. We thank J.-P. Avouac for his help in preparing the manuscript. We are grateful to T. Ragon for providing us with data of the Gorkha event, S. Kufner for sharing a raw figure on the lithospheric structure of the Hindu Kush and to A. Webb for providing us with a geological map of the Himalayan arc.

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Glossary

Orogen

A belt of the Earth’s crust involved in the formation of mountains, owing to tectonic plate convergence.

Seismic cycle

Repeating process during which mechanical stress slowly builds up on a fault over a long period (interseismic period, years to centuries), is rapidly released in an earthquake (coseismic period, seconds to tens of seconds) and experiences a period of stress adjustment following coseismic slip (post-seismic relaxation, weeks to months).

Surface denudation

Loss of landscape mass leading to a reduction in elevation and relief of a landscape, driven by erosion and chemical weathering.

Footwall

The body of rock below a non-vertical fault.

Hanging wall

The body of rock above a non-vertical fault.

Blind earthquakes

Earthquakes where fault slip does not reach the Earth’s surface and, hence, do not produce a fault scarp.

Accretion

Process by which material from the lower (subducting) plate is removed and added to the upper plate by tectonic processes, such as imbricate thrusting and/or folding and thrusting.

Interseismic locking

A mechanical term referring to the response of a fault to applied stress during the interseismic period. A fault that is frictionally locked does not slip, despite the application of stress.

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Dal Zilio, L., Hetényi, G., Hubbard, J. et al. Building the Himalaya from tectonic to earthquake scales. Nat Rev Earth Environ 2, 251–268 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-021-00143-1

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