Neotectonics of the Min Shan, China: Implications for mechanisms driving Quaternary deformation along the eastern margin of the Tibetan Plateau

E. Kirby, K. X. Whipple, B. C. Burchfiel, W. Tang, G. Berger, Z. Sun, Z. Chen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

197 Scopus citations


The Min Shan region, located along the eastern margin of the Tibetan Plateau north of the Sichuan Basin, provides an important natural laboratory in which to study the rates and patterns of deformation and their relationship to mountain building at the margin of the plateau. The topographic margin of the plateau is coincident with a north-trending mountain range, the Min Shan, that stands nearly 2 km above the mean elevation of the plateau (~3500 m in this region). We exploit the preservation of a series of variably deformed Quaternary sediments along the western flank of the range to investigate the Pleistocene-Holocene deformation field within the Min Shan region. Mapping and field observations of remnant alluvial fans of late Pleistocene age indicate that deformation within the Min Shan involved substantial (~10°), rapid, down-to-the-northwest tilting. The geometry of the deposits and the partial preservation of an erosion surface beneath the basin suggest that much of the modern relief of the Min Shan relative to the Tibetan Plateau is a consequence of this late Pleistocene tilting. Rates of tilting inferred from luminescence dating of interbedded loess have been remarkably rapid (~10 -8 rad/yr). Similarly rapid rates of Holocene differential rock uplift are inferred from tilted lacustrine sediments in the southwestern part of the range. The range is bounded on the west by the Min Jiang fault zone, an east-vergent reverse fault. However, Holocene alluvial terraces in headwaters nf the Min River are preserved across the fault in several places, indicating that displacement rates on the Min Jiang fault are <1 mm/yr. Active faulting only occurs along the eastern foot of the range (Huya fault) for a short distance (~60 km), despite 3 km of relief on the eastern range front. The relationship between these structures and the tilting observed in the Min Jiang basin is enigmatic; the faults do not appear to exert a strong control on the rates and pattern of deformation within the basin. A simple flexural model demonstrates that rates of tilting on the western flank of the Min Shan are too high to be simply attributed to an isostatic response to surficial loading and unloading of the lithosphere. Present-day horizontal shortening across the Min Shan is geodetically determined to be less than 2-3 mm/yr, suggesting that only a small part of the observed tilting can be attributed to horizontal shortening. Thus, tilting and concomitant differential rock uplift in the Min Shan appear to require an additional driving component. We suggest that Quaternary deformation along the western Min Shan may reflect the surface response to thickening of a weak lower crust at the margin of the Tibetan Plateau.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)375-393
Number of pages19
JournalBulletin of the Geological Society of America
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2000
Externally publishedYes


  • Flexure
  • Lower crust
  • Mountain building
  • Neotectonics
  • Sichuan Basin
  • Tibetan Plateau

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geology


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