The Tibetan Plateau, the largest highland on Earth, formed due to the collision of India-Asia over the past 50−60 m.y., and the evolution of the Tibetan Plateau impacts our knowledge of continental tectonics. Examination of the northernmost margin of the Tibetan Plateau is key to unravelling the deformation mechanisms acting in northern Tibet. The left-slip Altyn Tagh fault system defines the northwest margin of the Tibetan Plateau, separating the Western and Eastern Kunlun Ranges in the southwest. Both Cenozoic and pre-Cenozoic crustal deformation events at this junction between the Altyn Tagh and Kunlun Ranges were responsible for the construction of northwestern Tibet, yet the relative contribution of each phase remains unconstrained. The western domain of the Eastern Kunlun Range is marked by active NE-trending, left-slip deformation of the Altyn Tagh fault and an E-striking Cenozoic thrust system developed in response India-Asia collision. To better constrain the Paleozoic Altyn Tagh and Kunlun orogens and establish the Cenozoic structural framework, we conducted an integrated investigation involving detailed geologic mapping (∼1:50,000 scale), U-Pb zircon geochronology, and synthesis of existing data sets across northwestern Tibet. Our new zircon analyses from Paleoproterozoic−Cretaceous strata constrain stratigraphic age and sediment provenance and highlight Proterozoic−Paleozoic arc activity. We propose a tectonic model for the Neoproterozoic−Mesozoic evolution of northwestern Tibet wherein restoration of an ∼56-km-long balanced cross section across the western domain of the Eastern Kunlun suggests that Cenozoic minimum shortening strain was ∼30% (∼24 km shortening). Field evidence suggests this shortening commenced after ca. 25−20 Ma, which yields an average long-term shortening rate of 1.2−0.9 mm yr−1 and strain rates of 4.7 × 10−16 s−1 to 2.3 × 10−16 s−1. Geometric considerations demonstrate that this contractional deformation did not significantly contribute to left-slip offset on the Altyn Tagh fault, which has ∼10 mm/yr slip rates.

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