As the Yalung-Tsangpo River on the northern flank of the Himalaya approaches a bend the rotates its flow by almost 180 degrees to become the Brahmaputra it enters one of the world’s largest canyons. Over the 200 km length of the Tsangpo Gorge the river descends two kilometres between peaks that tower 7 km above sea level. Since the area is rising tectonically and as a result of the unloading that attends erosion, for the Tsangpo to have maintained its eastward flow it has been suggested that an average erosion rate of 3 to 5 km per million years was maintained continuously over the last 3 to 5 Ma. However, new information from the sediments downstream of the gorge suggests that much of the gorge’s depth was cut during a series of sudden episodes (Lang, K.A. et al. 2013. Erosion of the Tsangpo Gorge by megafloods, Eastern Himalaya. Geology, v. 41, p. 1003-1006).
The Yarlung Tsangpo River watershed which drains the north slope of the Himalayas. (credit: Wikipedia)
It has become clear from a series of mountainside terraces that during the Pleistocene glaciers and debris from them often blocked the narrow valleys through which the river flowed along the northern flank of the Himalaya. Each blockage would have impounded enormous lakes upstream of the Tsangpo Gorge, containing up to 800 km3 of water. Failure of the natural dams would have unleashed equally spectacular floods. The researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle examined the valley downstream of the gorge, to find unconsolidated sediments as much as 150 m above the present channel. They have similar grain size distributions to flood deposits laid down some 30 m above the channel by a flood unleashed in 2000 by the failure of a temporary dam caused by a landslide. The difference is that the higher level deposits are densely vegetated and have well-developed soils: they are almost certainly relics of far larger floods in the distant past from the lakes betrayed by the terraces above the Tsangpo Gorge.
By measuring the age of zircons found in the megaflood deposits using the U/Pb methods the team have been able to show that the sediments were derived mainly from 500 Ma crystalline basement in the Tsangpo Gorge itself rather than from the younger terranes in Tibet. There are four such deposits at separate elevations above the modern river below the gorge. Like the 2000 AD flood deposit, each terrace is capped by landslide debris suggesting that flooding and associated erosion destabilised the steep slopes so characteristic of the region. Because the valleys are so narrow (<200 m at the bottom), each flood would have been extremely deep, flows being of the order of a million cubic metres per second. The huge power would have been capable of moving blocks up to 18 m across with 1 m boulders being carried in suspension. It has been estimated that each of the floods would have been capable of removing material that would otherwise have taken up to 4000 years to erode at present rates of flow.
Around 3.6 Ma ago a large extraterrestrial projectile slammed into the far north-east of Siberia forming crater 16 km across. The depression soon filled with water to form Lake El’gygytgyn, on whose bed sediments have accumulated up to the present. A major impact close to the supposed start of Northern Hemisphere glacial conditions was a tempting target for coring: possibly two birds with one stone as the lowest sediments would probably be impact debris and boreal lake sediments of this age are as rare as hens’ teeth. The sedimentary record of Lake El’gygytgyn has proved to be a climate-change treasure trove (Brigham-Grette, J and 15 others 2013. Pliocene warmth, polar amplification, and stepped Pleistocene cooling recorded in NE Arctic Russia. Science, v. 340, p. 1421-1426).
Lake El’gygytgyn impact crater. (credit: Wikipedia)
The team of US, Russian, German and Swedish scientists discovered that the sedimentary record was complete over a depth of 318 m and so promised a high resolution climate record. The striking feature of the sediments is that they show cyclical variation between five different facies, four of which are laminated and so preserve intricate records of varying weathering and sediment delivery to the lake. The sediments also contain pollens and diatom fossils, and yield good magnetic polarity data. The last show up periods of reversed geomagnetic polarity, which provide age calibration independent of relative correlation with marine isotope records.
A host of climate-related proxies, including pollen from diverse tree and shrub genera, variations in silica due to changes in diatom populations and organic carbon content in the cyclically changing sedimentary facies are correlated with global climate records based on marine-sediment stable isotope. These records reveal intricate oscillations between cool mixed forest, cool coniferous forest, taiga and cold deciduous forest, with occasional frigid tundra conditions through the mid- to late Pliocene. Compared with modern conditions NE Siberia was much warmer and wetter at the start of the record. Around the start of the Pleistocene sudden declines to cooler and drier conditions appear, although until 2.2 Ma ago average summer conditions seem to have been higher that at present, despite evidence from marine proxies of the onset of glacial-interglacial cycles in the Northern Hemisphere.
In detail, Lake El’gygytgyn revealed some surprises including rapid onset of a lengthy cold-dry spell of tundra conditions between 3.31 to 3.28 Ma. The first signs that the lake was perennially frozen appear around 2.6 Ma, well before evidence for the first continental glaciation in North America, presaged by signs around 2.7 Ma that winters consistently became colder than present ones. Overall the lake record presents a picture of a stepped shift in climate in the run-up to the Great Ice Age. Lake El’gygytgyn seems set to become the standard against which other, more patchy records around the Arctic Ocean are matched and correlated. Indeed it is the longest and most detailed record of climate for the Earth’s land surface, compared with 120 and 800 ka for the Greenland and Antarctic ice-caps.
Modelling their findings against likely atmospheric CO2 levels the authors provide grist to the media mill which focuses on how the late Pliocene may be a model for a future warm Earth if emissions are not curtailed, with visions of dense polar forests