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One of the biggest countries is starting to split into two, a new study discovers

'We didn’t know continents could behave this way and that is (...) fundamental,' says geodynamicist.

One of the biggest countries is starting to split into two, a new study discovers
Representative Cover Image Source: Pexels | Nothing Ahead

The Himalayas, one of the most majestic mountain ranges on Earth, rise so high that they make humans feel like mere dots. Beyond their breathtaking beauty, the Himalayas are crucial for geological studies. Recent research in 2023 suggests that the Indian tectonic plate, which forms the base of the Himalayas, may be splitting in two due to an unusual process.

Image Source: Winter activities in the mountain, Ladakh, Zoji La pass, India on June 15, 2023 in Zoji La Pass, India. (Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images)
Image Source: Winter activities in the mountain, Ladakh, Zoji La Pass, India on June 15, 2023, in Zoji La Pass, India. (Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Great Himalayas Range, with its steep, jagged peaks, includes hundreds of mountains, the tallest being Mount Everest at 29,035 feet. About 40-50 million years ago, the Indian Plate collided with the Eurasian Plate, causing the Earth's surface to buckle and form these towering structures. Because both plates had similar thickness, they clumped together instead of crashing, creating the colossal rocky formations we see today.

Stanford University geologist Simon L. Klemperer, along with his team of geodynamicists, traveled to Bhutan's Himalayan region to study helium levels in Tibetan springs. While the Himalayas are rich in elements like gold and silver, unusual helium levels suggested a potential dormant volcano beneath the surface.

Image Source: Aerial view of the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers, Ladakh, Leh, India on June 16, 2023 in Leh, India. (Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images)
Image Source: Aerial view of the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers, Ladakh, Leh, India on June 16, 2023 in Leh, India. (Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images)

The study considered two existing theories: the Indian Plate colliding horizontally with the Eurasian Plate, and the Indian Plate dipping beneath it, melting into magma and releasing helium. Klemperer's team found higher helium levels in southern Tibet compared to northern Tibet. This led to the conclusion that the Indian tectonic plate is splitting into two fragments beneath the Tibetan plateau, a process called "delamination."

Image Source: The Tibetan Plateau, often called
Image Source: The Tibetan Plateau, often called "the Roof of the World," is the world's highest and largest plateau. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Klemperer considered both theories and proposed a third theory, where he said that the processes mentioned in the first two were occurring simultaneously. While the top part of the Indian Plate was rubbing with the Eurasian Plate, the bottom part of the Indian Plate was diverging (subducting) into the mantle. The researchers originally presented their findings in December 2023 at the American Geophysical Union conference. “We didn’t know continents could behave this way and that is, for solid earth science, pretty fundamental,” Douwe van Hinsbergen, a geodynamicist from Utrecht University, told Science.



 

To carry out the study, Klemperer used a series of isotope instruments to measure helium bubbling in the mountain springs. They collected samples from about 200 springs across 621 miles and found the stark line where mantle rocks linked with the crust rocks. They discovered a group of three springs where the Indian Plate appeared to be peeling like the two yellow peels of a banana.

The layers of a tectonic plate are designed like a layered cake. The bottom-most layer is dense and thicker than the upper layers. But when two plates crash into each other, there is a possibility that the weaker layers may surrender and start to become fractured. So, before this research, scientists were aware that tectonic plates could peel away like this. But this process was mostly observed in the thick continental plates and simulated in computer models, “This is the first time that … it’s been caught in the act in a downgoing plate,” van Hinsbergen said.

Image Source: 8,850-meter (29,035-foot) summit of Mount Everest, the World's tallest mountain May 29, 2003. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
Image Source: 8,850-meter (29,035-foot) summit of Mount Everest, the World's tallest mountain May 29, 2003. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

This wobbling configuration of the tectonic plates poses a threat to the great mountain range, while also suggesting the danger of unexpected earthquakes and tremors. Though the study revealed precious data, the results depicted the contradictory forces of nature in dance with each other.

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