Although the Cenozoic Indo-Asian collision is largely responsible for the formation of the Tibetan plateau, the role of pre-Cenozoic structures in controlling the timing and development of Cenozoic deformation remains poorly understood. In this study we address this problem by conducting an integrated investigation in the northern foreland of the Tibetan plateau, north of the Qilian Shan-Nan Shan thrust belt, NW China. The work involves field mapping, U-Pb detrital-zircon dating of Cretaceous strata in the northern foreland of the Tibetan plateau, examination of growth-strata relationships, and construction and restoration of balanced cross sections. Our field mapping reveals multiple phases of deformation in the area since the Early Cretaceous, which was expressed by northwest-trending folding and northwest-striking thrusting that occurred in the early stages of the Early Cretaceous. The compressional event was followed immediately by extension and kinematically linked right-slip faulting in the later stage of the Early Cretaceous. The area underwent gentle northwest-trending folding since the late Miocene. We estimate the magnitude of the Early Cretaceous crustal shortening to be ~35%, which we interpret to have resulted from a far-field response to the collision between the Lhasa and the Qiangtang terranes in the south. We suggest that the subsequent extension in the Early Cretaceous was induced by orogenic collapse. U-Pb dating of detrital zircons, sourced from Lower Cretaceous sedimentary clasts from the north and the south, implies that the current foreland region of the Tibetan plateau was a topographic depression between two highland regions in the Early Cretaceous. Our work also shows that the Miocene strata in the foreland region of the northern Tibetan plateau was dominantly sourced from the north, which implies that the rise of the Qilian Shan did not impact the sediment dispersal in the current foreland region of the Tibetan plateau where this study was conducted.

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