The collision of Indian tectonic plates could split Tibet, putting millions at risk of earthquakes

The collision of Indian tectonic plates could split Tibet, putting millions at risk of earthquakes

Himalayas

(Sajal Mukherjee/BCCL Delhi)

Because the Earth is completely calm and untouched by humans on the surface, the scene beneath its surface is very different. With fiery magma erupting and flowing between fissures and continental tectonic plates pushing and colliding with each other, we think it’s safe to say that what’s happening inside our planet resembles a violent bloodbath.

Beneath the serene facade of snow-capped Himalayan peaks lies a hidden geological battlefield, sparked by the slow collision between the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates that began some 60 million years ago. When India, then an island, collided with Eurasia, the surface buckled and rushed skyward, forming the highest mountains on our planet.

Scientists have long debated how these continental plates behave when they meet. Some believe that the Indian plate stubbornly refuses to subduct into the mantle, and instead continues to slide horizontally beneath Tibet. Others point out that the more buoyant part of the board curls up like a carpet, allowing the lower half to sink deeper.

Now, a new analysis throws a curveball into the mix, suggesting a scenario that splits the difference. Part of the Indian plate appears to be “split”, with the dense lower part peeling away from the upper part as it slides beneath the Eurasian plate. Think of the top of the plate like the lid of a tin can being opened!

“We didn’t know that continents could behave this way,” says Douwe van Hinsbergen, a geodynamicist at Utrecht University. “This is very fundamental to solid Earth science.”

The study’s findings also have implications for our understanding of how mountain ranges form. The Himalayas are not simply a product of the Indian plate pressing against the Eurasian plate. They are also shaped by forces that tear apart the Indian plate.

Earthquake waves have been used to image damage to the crust of the Indian plate. The researchers found evidence of widespread fractures and tears, extending hundreds of kilometers across the plate. These fractures could be a harbinger of future earthquakes, which could pose a major threat to millions of people living in the area.

This new understanding of the Himalayas could help us better predict earthquakes and other natural hazards in the region. It can also shed light on the processes that shaped other mountain ranges around the world.

However, as Fabio Capitaño, a geodynamicist at Monash University, warns, there are still many unknowns and limited data. “It’s just a snapshot,” he says, but “it’s an important step toward understanding how our modern landscape came to be.”

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