Abstract

A fundamental objective in studies of climate-erosion-tectonics coupling is to document convincing correlation between observable indicators of these processes on the scale of a mountain range. The eastern Himalayas are a unique range to quantify the contribution of tectonics and climate to long-term erosion rates, because uniform and steady tectonics have persisted for several million years, while monsoonal precipitation patterns have varied in space and time. Specifically, the rise of the Shillong plateau, the only orographic barrier in the Himalayan foreland, has reduced the mean annual precipitation downwind in the eastern Bhutan Himalaya at the Miocene-Pliocene transition. Apatite fission-track (AFT) analyses of 45 bedrock samples from an E-W transect along Bhutan indicate faster long-term erosion rates outside of the rain shadow in the west (1.0–1.8 mm/yr) than inside of it in the east (0.55–0.85 mm/yr). Furthermore, an AFT vertical profile in the latter segment reveals a deceleration in erosion rates sometime after 5.9 Ma. In this drier segment of Bhutan, there are remnants of a relict landscape formed under a wetter climate that has not yet equilibrated to the present climatic conditions. Uplift and preservation of the paleolandscape are a result of a climate-induced decrease in erosion rates, rather than of an increase in rock uplift rate. This study documents not only a compelling spatial correlation between long-term erosion and precipitation rates, but also a climatically driven erosion-rate change on the scale of the eastern Himalayas, a change that, in turn, likely influences that region's recent tectonic evolution.

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