The Qilian Shan, located along the northeastern margin of the Tibetan Plateau, has experienced multiple episodes of tectonic deformation, including Neoproterozoic continental breakup, early Paleozoic subduction and continental collision, Mesozoic extension, and Cenozoic intracontinental orogenesis resulting from the India-Asia collision. In the central Qilian Shan, pre-Mesozoic ophiolite complexes, passive-continental margin sequences, and strongly deformed forearc strata were juxtaposed against arc plutonic/volcanic rocks and ductilely deformed crystalline rocks during the early Paleozoic Qilian orogen. To better constrain this orogen and the resulting closure of the Neoproterozoic−Ordovician Qilian Ocean, we conducted an integrated investigation involving geologic mapping, U-Th-Pb zircon and monazite geochronology, whole-rock geochemistry, thermobarometry, and synthesis of existing data sets across northern Tibet. The central Qilian Shan experienced two phases of arc magmatism at 960−870 Ma and 475−445 Ma that were each followed by periods of protracted continental collision. Integrating our new data with previously published results, we propose the following tectonic model for the Proterozoic−Paleozoic history of northern Tibet. (1) Early Neoproterozoic subduction accommodated the convergence and collision between the South Tarim−Qaidam and North Tarim−North China continents. (2) Late Neoproterozoic rifting partially separated a peninsular Kunlun-Qaidam continent from the southern margin of the linked Tarim−North China craton and opened the Qilian Ocean as an embayed marginal sea; this separation broadly followed the trace of the earlier Neoproterozoic suture zone. (3) South-dipping subduction along the northern margin of the Kunlun-Qaidam continent initiated in the Cambrian, first developing as the Yushigou supra-subduction zone ophiolite and then transitioning into the continental Qilian arc. (4) South-dipping subduction, arc magmatism, and the convergence between Kunlun-Qaidam and North China continued throughout the Ordovician, with a trench-parallel intra-arc strike-slip fault system that is presently represented by high-grade metamorphic rocks that display a pervasive right-lateral shear sense. (5) Counterclockwise rotation of the peninsular Kunlun-Qaidam continent toward North China led to the closure of the Qilian Ocean, which is consistent with the right-lateral kinematics of intra-arc strike-slip faulting observed in the Qilian Shan and the westward tapering map-view geometry of Silurian flysch-basin strata. Continental collision at ca. 445−440 Ma led to widespread plutonism across the Qilian Shan and is recorded by recrystallized monazite (ca. 450−420 Ma) observed in this study. Our tectonic model implies the parallel closure of two oceans of different ages along the trace of the Qilian suture zone since ca. 1.0 Ga. In addition, the Qilian Ocean was neither the Proto- nor Paleo-Tethys (i.e., the earliest ocean separating Gondwana from Laurasia), as previously suggested, but was rather a relatively small embayed sea along the southern margin of the Laurasian continent. We also document >200 km of Cenozoic north-south shortening across the study area. The observed shortening distribution supports models of Tibetan Plateau development that involve distributed crustal shortening and southward underthrusting of Eurasia beneath the plateau. This India-Asia convergence-related deformation is focused along the sites of repeated ocean closure. Major Cenozoic left-slip faults parallel these sutures, and preexisting subduction-mélange channels may have facilitated Cenozoic shortening and continental underthrusting.

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