Mountain belts are one of the most conspicuous examples of plate tectonics on Earth. Their presence disrupts migration patterns, controls the flow and distribution of water, affects atmospheric circulation, and can even influence global climate. Our understanding of how they form provides critical insight for large subset of interrelated natural systems. Recent advances in the quality of scientific data we have been able to collect and our ability to incorporate it into sophisticated computer models of how mountains form have challenged how we think about mountain belt formation. Where traditional thinking sees the earth’s crust as a series of rigid plates and mountain belts forming as a result of stacking of those plates, the new ideas put forth view the earth’s crust more like a ‘jelly-sandwich’ where the middle portion is so hot that it is actually partially molten and can flow laterally due to differences in the weight of crust above it.
Both types of mountain building make specific predictions about the conditions (temperatures and pressures) rocks that make up the mountains would have experienced. Perhaps more importantly they make testable predictions about the timing of when those conditions were reached. The aim of this project is to test the two mountain building models by examining rocks from the eastern Nepalese Himalaya and extracting isotopic ages from the minerals that occur within them.
The Himalaya are looked at as the modern day type-example of a collisional mountain belt. Our understanding of other ancient mountain belts around the world is based, in part, on the ideas generated, developed, and tested in the Himalaya. It is, therefore, essential that we understand the processes that have led to the formation of the highest mountains on Earth. Moreover, the complexities and interactions of the biosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere with mountain systems means that we must first understand the formation of the mountains before we can truly appreciate what is happening in the connected spheres. This project represents an opportunity to contribute to the fundamental understanding of our planet in a profound way that extends beyond the basic field of geology or earth sciences and impacts the science of many other researchers.
The contributions made through Petridish.org will be used to pay for state-of-the-art radiometric isotopic analyses to determine the age of specific minerals within collected rock specimens. (Any funds over and above the project goal will allow additional rocks to be analyzed.) These specimens will be collected as part of an expedition to the Kanchenjunga region of eastern Nepal in the fall of 2012. New advances in mineral dating will allow us to analyze the crystal of interest in situ such that the textural relationship between the mineral analyzed and the rock as a whole is preserved. This allows us to determine exactly what the extracted age means. Does it tell us when the rocks were heated up or does it tell us when the rocks were deformed? Distinguishing between the two is critical to testing the traditional mountain building model against new ideas.
The findings of this project will further our understanding of the processes behind the formation of the highest mountains on our planet. They will help distinguish between two different but competing ideas and perhaps help lead to a paradigm shift in our thinking about how the earth’s crust reacts during the collision of tectonic plates.
I am an assistant professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan. I grew up on the west coast of British Columbia with a view of a volcano (Mt. Baker) from my back yard. My fascination with the natural world, and love of the outdoors, led me to geology and eventually to graduate school at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada where I completed my Ph.D.
My geologic research has been primarily based on examining what happens when tectonic plates collide. To that end I’ve studied rocks in the southern Canadian Rockies, northern British Columbia, Yukon Territory, and southern Tibet. My current research, and that of my graduate students, is focused on understanding the Nepalese Himalaya and the Hindu Kush of northwestern Pakistan. The goal of this work is to try to outline the processes that operate when plates move toward one another, how the convergence between those plates is accommodated, and what we see as a result of those processes at the earth’s surface.