The Permian marks an important, yet poorly understood, tectonic transition in the Tian Shan region of northwestern China between Devonian–Carboniferous continental amalgamation and recurrent Mesozoic–Cenozoic intracontinental orogenic reactivation. The Turpan-Hami basin accommodated up to 3000 m of sediment and is ideally positioned to provide constraints on this transition. New stratigraphic data and mapping indicate that extension dominated Early Permian tectonics in the region, whereas flexural, foreland subsidence controlled Late Permian basin evolution.
Lower Permian strata in the northwestern Turpan-Hami basin consist of coarse- grained debris-flow and alluvial-fan deposits interbedded with mafic to intermediate volcanic sills and flows. In contrast, Lower Permian rocks in the north-central and northeastern Turpan-Hami basin unconformably overlie a Late Carboniferous volcanic arc sequence. These Lower Permian strata include possible shallow-marine carbonate rocks and thick volcanic and volcaniclastic rocks that are in turn overlain by littoral- to profundal-lacustrine facies. Above a regional Lower Permian/Upper Permian unconformity, regional sedimentation patterns record the development of a more integrated sedimentary basin. The Upper Permian is entirely nonmarine and can be correlated east-west along the depositional strike of the basin. The lower Upper Permian consists of a broad belt of braided fluvial deposits shed northward. These strata are overlain by fluctuating littoral- and profundal-lacustrine facies and associated fluvial facies. The uppermost Permian is characterized by shallow lake- plain and fluvial environments.
The Early Permian association of diffuse volcanism and partitioning of subbasins by normal faulting is consistent with an early phase of lithospheric extension. Local relationships indicate west-east extension in the Turpan-Hami basin along faults oriented normal to Late Devonian–Carboniferous collisional sutures within the Tian Shan. The cause of extension in the wake of Carboniferous orogenesis remains enigmatic. However, the temporal and spatial relationships of the two strain regimes suggest that they are genetically related. Upper Permian stratigraphy and unconformities and local Late Permian–Triassic contractional deformation record foreland-basin development when the Turpan-Hami region became a wedge-top basin with respect to the north Tian Shan fold-and-thrust belt. Flexurally induced Late Permian subsidence is also manifested in the larger Junggar basin to the north, where >4000 m of strata are preserved in the foredeep region. The Turpan- Hami and Junggar basins were depositionally connected for much of the Late Permian when a vast lacustrine system developed across northwestern China. This lacustrine paleogeography was only occasionally interrupted, possibly by structural damming during uplift of the orogenic wedge.