Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Links: Human Evolution

Sharing links to interesting articles I have read in the past few months. Better understanding of human evolution is being driven by a) New fossil finds giving valuable insights into morphologic variation and geography, b) DNA analysis of both modern and extinct populations giving us an understanding of genealogical relationships and migration histories and c) better absolute dating of fossils that constraint evolutionary scenarios.

1) What Are Our Best Clues To The Evolution Of Fire-Making? Anthropologist Barbara J King examines the physical evidence of fire making by ancient hominins and presents speculations on how natural fires may have played a role in hominin cultural evolution.

2) A world map of Neanderthal and Denisovan ancestry in modern humans- Phys.Org. " There are certain classes of genes that modern humans inherited from the archaic humans with whom they interbred, which may have helped the modern humans to adapt to the new environments in which they arrived," says senior author David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute. "On the flip side, there was negative selection to systematically remove ancestry that may have been problematic from modern humans. We can document this removal over the 40,000 years since these admixtures occurred."

3) Three new discoveries in a month rock our African origins- Prof. John Hawks on new fossil dating of hominin fossils from Morocco and evidence from archaic DNA from S. Africa that complicates the African story of the origins of Homo sapiens. The scenario suggested here is that Homo sapiens did not evolve due to changes in a population which was genetically isolated from other Pleistocene African hominin groups. Rather there was a pan-African gene flow. This is multi-regionalism within Africa.

4) Out of North Africa- Dienekes argues the exact opposite.. that the Morocco fossils imply that Homo sapiens evolved in north Africa from a reproductively isolated population and that multi-regionalism is wrong.

5) Features of the Grecian ape raise questions about early hominins- Did the hominin clade evolve in Europe and not Africa? Prof. John Hawk's critique of a recent paper suggesting that view. He cautions that convergent evolution is common among different hominin lineages. A single feature, such as the mandible used in this paper, cannot indicate relationships.

6) Early modern humans in Sumatra before the Toba eruption- Steve Drury in Earth Pages summarizes new evidence that indicates early ( more than 70,000 years ago) migration of Homo sapiens into SE Asia. .." Together with the dating of the earliest Australians the Sumatran evidence is at odds with the view, widely held by palaeoanthropologists, that the ‘Out of Africa’ exodus began by crossing the Straits of Bab el Mandab between 74 and 58 ka when global sea-level fell markedly during marine oxygen-isotope Stage 4 (MIS4). A problem with that hypothesis has been that climatic and ecological conditions in southern Asia during MIS4 were unfavourable. But is seems that modern humans were already there and capable of adapting to both the climate shift and to the devastation undoubtedly caused by Toba."

Thursday, August 10, 2017

China Hydraulic Engineering - Yellow River And The Grand Canal

I am reading Philip Ball's excellent book The Water Kingdom: A Secret History Of China. It describes the epic problems of river flow management that China has grappled with over millennia. Enormous floods have always ravaged China. At the site of a large dam at Sanmenxia on the Yellow River is an inscription in honor of the Great Yu ( ~ 2200- 2100 B.C), who as the story goes,  conquered a flood. The inscription says " When the Yellow River is at Peace, the Nation is at Peace". Flood control required enormous civic resources and cooperation and the ability to tame river waters gave political and moral legitimacy to the ruling class.The taming of nature using cooperative people power and as a sign of a strong united society has deep roots in Chinese political thinking.

One particular vexing problem was the very high rates of silt load carried by the Yellow River. A vast area of the Yellow River watershed drains the Loess deposits of north central China. This is a plateau made up of loose friable sand and silt blown in from the Gobi desert of Mongolia. Erosion of Loess fills the river with sediment. There is 300 grams of sediment for every kilogram of Yellow River water giving the river a reddish golden color. Erosion has carved the Loess Plateau in to a landscape of ravines and gorges. The American journalist Edgar Snow in the 1930's described it thus:

" an infinite variety of queer, embattled shapes - hills, like great castles, like ranges torn by some giant hand, leaving  behind the imprint of angry fingers. Fantastic, incredible and sometimes frightening shapes, a world configurated by a mad God - and sometimes a world of strange surrealist beauty. "

High rates of sedimentation meant that the Yellow River bed could aggrade or rise, increasing the risk of the river breaking its banks and flooding the countryside. Dyke building to constraint the river channel began as early as the seventh century B.C. by the state of Qi.

Constant dredging of the Yellow River and the associated tributaries and canal systems ( the Grand Canal) was also required to maintain a channel deep enough for navigation to move armies and grains from south to north.  River channel and canal maintenance acquired a new urgency when Zhu Di known as the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty moved the capital north from Nanjing in the eastern province of Jiansu to Beijing in the early 1400's. The rational was probably to keep the political center closer to the armies amassed on the northern frontier where the Ming faced a threat from the Mongol and Manchurian steppe people. Later in the 1600's, the Manchurians overthrew the Ming and established the Qing Dynasty. Although over time, the Qing assimilated into the larger Han cultural milieu, they felt more at home in the north of the country. That meant the Yellow River and the Grand Canal system had to kept in top navigable order.

Desperation to unclog  the river channel spurred technological innovation. 

An extract:

Removing silt from the Yellow River demanded some impressive technology, not to mention serious organization. The Song government set up a Yellow River Dredging Commission in 1073 which began to deploy boats equipped with dredging tools. The vividly named  "iron dragon-claw silt dispersing machine" was a great rake pulled along the riverbed to agitate the silt and return it to the flow. This principle was extended with the 'river-deepening harrow', a 2.5 metre-long rotating beam fitted with iron spikes, like a thresher for riverine mud. The Ming imperial censor Chen Bangke introduced new techniques in the late sixteenth century, such as wooden machines set rolling and vibrating by the current to constantly stir up the sediment. In the dry season Chen proposed simply digging out the silt manually.

The Ming official Pan Jixun in 1565 or so came up with a solution that has made him one of China's water heroes. He pointed out that if one confines the water flow to a narrow channel, it will have enough strength to scour the sediment off the river bed. There would be minimal need for laborious manual dredging. He may have borrowed the  idea from a Confucian text of the Han era (~200 B.C - 220 A.D) called Zhou li (Rites of Zhou) which stated "A good canal is scoured by its own water"

Chinese philosophical tradition impacted river management strategies. Daoists argued that the river be given room to spread and build wide floodplains in concert with the principle of wu wei which could be read to mean "do nothing" or "having a yielding attitude".  Confucians on the other hand wanted the river to be managed by human  engineering and recommended the construction of high dykes to keep the river channel narrow and constrained.

Joseph Needham, the noted historian of China writes that 'during twenty centuries the two schools contented'.. 'and neither proved wholly successful'.

Highly Recommended.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Lost Rivers Of The Harappan Civilization- Remote Sensing Analysis

A lot of ink has been spent of this topic, both in the scientific literature as well as in popular books about the Harappan Civilization. The focus of many of these efforts has been on locating the "Vedic Saraswati", a river mentioned in the Rig -Ved. It is described as occupying the region between the Yamuna and the Sutlej and has been identified by many workers as the present day Ghaggar-Hakra.

Settlements of the Harappan Civilization were spread out over quite a large area in northwest India. Hence, it is necessary to map in detail the broader once existing hydrologic networks to assess the relationship between settlements and patterns of water availability and water use. This study uses remote sensing data and image processing techniques to unearth some of the buried paleo-river networks of this region of northwest India.

Twenty eight years of Landsat 5 imagery totaling 1711 multi-spectral images was bulk processed. This use of data covering multiple dates in a year allowed the investigators to reduce visibility issues related to shifting land use and cultivation, changing moisture patterns and variable cloud cover. 8000 km of paleo-river channels were mapped, some identified in previous studies, but many recognized anew.

The paper describes the various image processing techniques used to tease out the spectral signatures of the buried rivers. Don't be alarmed by words like Normalized Difference Vegetation Seasonality Index (NDVSI), Principal Component Analysis and the Tasselled Cap Transform.  One can understand the final interpretations without getting into the details of these techniques. Let me give a brief idea though.

These are techniques has increase the contrast between vegetation, soils with different moisture levels and bare terrain. For example, due to stronger water flow the river channel itself and the levees it builds contain coarser sediment as compared with the adjoining floodplains. These coarser sediment contain less organic matter and are less fertile. Less vegetation grows on the buried channels and levees than on the more fertile fine grained floodplain sediment. This contrast shows up well on data processed using NDVSI which essentially maps the vigor of vegetation. This technique was useful in delineating channels in the northern part of the study area.

The southeast part of the study area is more arid and has less changes in vegetation across the landscape. Here, the Tasselled Cap Transform was more useful in identifying river channels. This techniques organizes the spectral information into several (usually three) main axis or bands of information. One axis contains data variability of reflectance of bare terrain (mineral mixtures). The second contains variability in greeness (vegetation), and the third contains variability of wetness (water and soil moisture). Again, to give an example, this southeast region is fed by rivers draining Aravalli limestones. The calcium carbonate leached away from the rock is precipitated along river channels as a chalky mineral deposit. Buried channels show up as ribbons of  bright reflectance in  the Tasseled Cap Transform brightness band. Imagery of the dry months shows these channels more clearly, since in the wet months, increased soil moisture reduces the contrast of calcium carbonate rich sediment.

A judicious use of such techniques thus enabled the researchers to identify buried networks with different vegetation, soil moisture and mineral brightness properties. 

A map of the interpreted buried rivers is posted below.


Source: Hector A. Orengo and Cameron A. Petrie 2017

Of importance is a critique of some previous studies which attempted to highlight the spatial relationship between river channels and archaeological sites (emphasis mine):

The data provided by these analyses are also important in contextualising previous studies in which palaeo-rivers have been dated using the distribution of known archaeological sites. Notwithstanding the positional accuracy of these locations (see [10,63,64]), which would severely hamper their use for validation purposes, the results for the northern sector of the study area (Figure 3) suggest that proximity to the river might not be a good indication of contemporaneity as the fields close to the river channel might not have been the most productive in agricultural terms. Sites with an agricultural orientation might have preferred to occupy elevations above flooding level in the finer sediment accumulation area. Flooding events and changing river courses could also have had an important effect in the preservation of archaeological sites eroding and burying those that were locatedin the path of new courses or in their sediment accumulation areas.

In addition to these factors, the scale at which these correlations between specific palaeo-channels and settlement locations have usually been published (e.g., [30] (pp. 359–387), [31] (Figure 4.2)]) do not allow the accurate correlation between the two elements. The use of large area (small scale in a geographic sense) site distribution maps for these correlations results in a visual association between the shape of the palaeo-river and the line formed by the grouping of sites, but at these scales the sites could be aligned to a number of palaeo-channels given the number of rivers and the parallel morphology of the drainage in the Sutlej-Yamuna interfluve revealed here. This analysis thus suggests that at these scales it is not possible to co-relate lineal distribution of archaeological sites to any particular palaeo-river that we have documented. The results from previous studies reconstructing the chronology of the hydrological system using the position of archaeological sites and vice versa(e.g., [24,25], [30] (pp. 359–384), and [31]) are, therefore, considered unreliable.


..and

Given the complexity of the hydrological system, the variety in the climatic and weather system of this region, and the diversity of ways that ancient populations are likely to have obtained water, it is unwise to use the date of occupation at specific settlements to date when specific channels carried water. It is essential to date the different palaeo-courses independently to properly reconstruct the evolution of hydrological networks over long periods. The chronologically consistent reconstruction of this palaeo-river network would allow the testing of different hypothetical scenarios of water availability through the use of network analysis in combination to hydrological analysis.

Interesting work. Open Access.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Tsunami History Preserved In Indonesian Cave Deposits

How would you know if a coastline had been inundated by a tsunami say 5000 years ago? Well, a tsunami carries sediment stripped from the ocean bed and deposits this material over the flooded coastline, beyond the range of what a regular storm would. The problem is that such deposits have poor preservation potential and over time get eroded away. There are however some environments where such tsunami deposits may get preserved inland. These are estuaries, coastal marshes and lakes. Here, interlayered with normal estuarine, marsh or lacustrine sediment, one may find layers of sand of a distinctly different composition and texture and containing remains of organisms which live in an open marine setting. This implies a sudden incursion of marine waters into these inland coastal settings. The other coastal setting with a good preservation potential are caves. These too get flooded by storm surges and tsunamis and may preserve a record of such events in the form of sand deposits. The picture to the left (Source: Rubin et.al. 2017)  shows sand layers deposited by the 2004 tsunami.

In one such cave on the coast of Aceh, Indonesia a record of the 2004 tsunami along with sand layers deposited by 11 older tsunamis going back to 7400 years ago have been preserved.

Highly variable recurrence of tsunamis in the 7,400 years before the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami-
Charles M. Rubin, Benjamin P. Horton, Kerry Sieh, Jessica E. Pilarczyk, Patrick Daly, Nazli Ismail & Andrew C. Parnell

Extract:

 We identify coastal caves as a new depositional environment for reconstructing tsunami records and present a 5,000 year record of continuous tsunami deposits from a coastal cave in Sumatra, Indonesia (Fig. 1), which shows the irregular recurrence of 11 tsunamis between 7,400 and 2,900 years BP. The sedimentary record in the cave shows that ruptures of the Sunda megathrust vary between large (which generated the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami) and smaller slip failures. The chronology of events suggests the recurrence of multiple smaller tsunamis within relatively short time periods, interrupted by long periods of strain accumulation followed by giant tsunamis. The data demonstrates that the 2004 tsunami was just the latest in a sequence of devastating tsunamis stretching back to at least the early Holocene and suggests a high likelihood for future tsunamis in the Indian Ocean. The sediments preserved in the costal cave provide a unique opportunity to refine our understanding of the behaviour of the Sunda megathrust, as well as study in detail the sedimentology and hydrological characteristics of tsunami deposits.

There is one point that cannot be over stressed. The average recurrence time for earthquakes and tsunamis has been estimated to be on the order of several hundred years. However, there is a great variation in the actual occurrence, with several smaller tsunamis occurring just decades apart. While our understanding of earthquake mechanisms and tsunami generation will go on improving, ultimately what will save lives is better preparedness. This includes adherence to structurally appropriate building codes, functioning tsunami warning systems and well drilled and practiced disaster management plans. South East Asia has long neglected these issues and there needs to be a renewed focus on them.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Olivia Judson On Energy Expansions Of Evolution

Nature Ecology and Evolution has published a fine perspective by evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson on energy availability and evolutionary transitions on earth -

" The history of the life–Earth system can be divided into five ‘energetic’ epochs, each featuring the evolution of life forms that can exploit a new source of energy. These sources are: geochemical energy, sunlight, oxygen, flesh and fire. The first two were present at the start, but oxygen, flesh and fire are all consequences of evolutionary events. Since no category of energy source has disappeared, this has, over time, resulted in an expanding realm of the sources of energy available to living organisms and a concomitant increase in the diversity and complexity of ecosystems. These energy expansions have also mediated the transformation of key aspects of the planetary environment, which have in turn mediated the future course of evolutionary change.Using energy as a lens thus illuminates patterns in the entwined histories of life and Earth, and may also provide a framework for considering the potential trajectories of life–planet systems elsewhere."

Coincidentally, I just finished reading Nick Lane's book The Vital Question, which covers the first three sources of energy discussed in this article. Nick Lane writes about energy currencies of the cell and the constraints it places on the early evolution of life on earth. Why don't bacteria become morphologically larger and more complex?... because there are intrinsic constraints on the energy available for ATP synthesis.  You'll have to read Nick Lane's book for a detailed account but Olivia Judson's essay mentions this and more. The other two, animals and fire, encompass the evolution of complex multicellular life and their impact on evolutionary arms races and ecosystem changes.

..and what about life on other planets?..

"As this is the only life–planet system we currently know of, it is impossible to know how representative it is of life–planet systems in general. But if the development of other life–planet systems requires a similar series of energy expansions, the framework presented here suggests a way to anticipate the paths that such systems might take. For instance, if a planet has only geochemical energy— perhaps because it is far from its star, or because it is a nomad and has no star at all—any life present may have “a limited future in terms of the heights it could achieve”. Or suppose a planet is unable to accumulate oxygen. This could happen if living organisms never evolve a way of splitting water to produce the gas in the first place, but even if they do, the planet itself may have characteristics that prevent oxygen from ever building up. Without oxygen, the geological, ecological and evolutionary potential of a life–planet system is likely to be constrained, even if life forms analogous to eukaryotes in their energy-harnessing power (Box 2) were to evolve. Conversely, some planets might be able to accumulate new forms of energy, and life forms able to take advantage of them, much fasterthan Earth has."

Open Access.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Field Photo: A Bend In The Rocks

I saw this textbook example of a fold in the Lassar Yankti valley, about 2 kilometers south of Tidang village in the Kumaon Himalaya.


Consider how rocks bend and deform in response to stress. Blue arrows denote the direction of maximum compressive stress perpendicular to the fold axis. As rocks fold, the convex portion of the fold will experience tensile forces and fractures parallel to the axial plane develop. Notice also conjugate stress fractures (black arrow). Since this is a loose boulder I cannot assign actual directions to the stress field.

The graphic below summarizes the typical fracture patterns found in folded rocks. How many of these can you identify in the fold above?


Source: Applied Hydrogeology of Fractured Rocks

My Himalayan treks over the past few years have taken me on a walk across almost the entire thickness of the Greater Himalayan Sequence. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the GHS is bounded at its base by the Main Central Thrust and at the top by the South Tibetan Detachment. It shows an "inverted" metamorphic sequence. This means that the grade of metamorphism increases as one climbs to higher structural levels. Finally, sillimanite and kyanite grade metamorphic rocks transition into a zone of partial melting and leucogranite intrusions. Above this level the grade of metamorphism decreases to biotite grade and then to a finer grained phyllite grade. One conspicuous structural feature of the GHS is that large folds are very rare. Instead, from the base right up to the zone of partial melting the GHS exhibits a homoclinal northerly dip as seen in the picture below.


Within these northerly dipping slabs, small scale ductile folding in high grade gneiss and migmatites can be seen (picture below), but the slabs themselves are not contorted into mountain face scale folds.


Large isoclinal and recumbent folding is present only in the uppermost structural levels of the GHS in the phyllite grade rocks above the zone of partial melting. The picture below shows tightly folded phyllite grade metamorphic rocks north of the village of Baaling in the Darma Valley.

 
And this splendid recumbent fold is exposed at village Dantu.


Why is large scale folding rare to absent over much of the thickness of the GHS? Could the movement of the South Tibetan Detachment cause folding in the underlying phyllites?

These are some of the niggling questions I am struggling with. I still have much to learn about Himalayan geology. I need to go there with a structural geologist!

Finally, a view of the outcrops from which was derived the textbook quality folded phyllite.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Quiz: Spot The Granite Intrusion

I came across this glacially transported boulder in the Duktu village valley near the Panchachuli Glacier in the Kumaon Himalaya.

It is a block of high grade gneiss intruded by a granite. Without scrolling beyond the first photograph, try to work out the contact between the gneiss and the granite.



Answer:

The boulder is encrusted by moss. There is some mineral staining too. And sunlight falling on the rock gives it a speckled appearance.. All this reduces the contrast in color between the gneiss and the granite.

But there is a vital clue in the orientation of structures. Both the gneiss and the granite have a planar fabric imprinted on them.

The fabric of the gneiss is due to the orientation of platy minerals like micas stacked in layers, alternating with layers richer in quartz and feldspars. Assume this is the original disposition of the rock as well. The gneiss layering you see is due to the trace of horizontal planes of separation of different mineral layers. I have outlined some of this planar fabric in brown lines.

The granite has a planar fabric too, but this is due to near vertical fractures. The rock has been broken in to thin slabs  by fractures (red lines) which may have formed during the cooling of the magma. These fractures don't pass into the surrounding host gneiss. Two arms of the granite have penetrated between the gneiss layers forming mini sills.

You can see the contact (black line) between the gneiss and the granite roughly where my wallet is. Here, the horizontal planar fabric of the gneiss abruptly juxtaposes against the vertical planar fabric of the granite.



Thursday, June 15, 2017

Field Photo: Glacial Erratic

Inspired by this xkcd comic:


I saw quite a few of these glacial erratics in the Dhauliganga river valley around the villages of Duktu and Dantu. Here is my friend sitting on one of them.


This boulder is a high grade gneiss. It is an erratic because the surrounding bedrock is all low grade phyllite and slate. The source of the high grade gneiss boulder is the snow capped range you see in the background. These are the Panchachuli peaks and the Panchachuli glacier has eroded, transported and deposited gneiss rocks all the way down the valley onto a different bedrock.

The photo below shows another erratic from this valley. If you look closely it is a mixed rock made up of high grade gneiss intruded by light colored granite. A big patch of dark grey banded gneiss is visible in the lower right corner of the boulder. The cliffs in the background and the substrate on which the boulder rests is low grade phyllite.


And a long view of village Duktu with glacial erratics strewn all over the hill slope (blue arrows).


I have been promising a post on the glacial deposits of the Dhauliganga river valley. That post will come soon. Meanwhile, here is a view of some of the moraines I saw near village Duktu.  Photo taken from near the snout of the glacier facing downstream.


The linear ridge in the center of the photo made up of rust, brown and light colored boulders is a medial moraine. It was formed when two glacial streams carrying debris along their edges joined. As these glaciers receded the debris along their edges (lateral moraines) coalesced and formed a ridge in the center of the valley. You can see the milky white colored Dhauliganga river flowing to the right of the ridge. The blue arrows to the right of the picture high up along the mountain slopes point to older lateral moraines deposited when the Panchachuli glacier was thicker and extended further down in the valley...

more on these deposits later..

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Books: Origins Of Complexity ; China Water History

These just arrived.

Extract:

I hope to persuade you that energy is central to evolution, that we can only understand the properties of life if we bring energy into the equation..... I want to show you that the origin of life was driven by energy flux, that proton gradients were central to the emergence of cells, and that their use constrained the structure of both bacteria and archaea. I want to demonstrate that these constraints dominated the later evolution of cells, keeping the bacteria and archaea forever simple in morphology, despite their biochemical virtuosity. I want to prove that a rare event, an endosymbiosis in which one bacterium got inside an archaeon, broke those constraints, enabling the evolution of vastly more complex cells. .....Finally, I want to convince you that thinking in these energetic terms allows us to predict aspects of our own biology, notably a deep evolutionary trade-off between fertility and fitness in youth, on the one hand, and ageing and disease on the other.

The last book I read on the evolution of complexity was Mark Ridley's The Cooperative Gene which described the many evolutionary inventions that suppress genomic conflict and make multicellular bodies workable. Nike Lane writes at a more fundamental level of the energy currency of the cell. Feeling very excited about this book. I am sure to learn a lot.

Extract:

But the ubiquitous and ambivalent relationship that the Chinese people have had with water has made it a powerful and versatile metaphor for philosophical thought and artistic expression, and its political connotations can be subverted and manipulated in subtle ways for the purposes and protest and dissent. These meanings of water are more than metaphorical. Because the lives of everyday folk has always depended on water, the river and canals mediate their relationship to the state. Water -too much of it,or too little - has incited the people to rise up and overthrow their governments and emperors. Burgeoning economic growth now places unprecedented pressure on the integrity and sometimes the very existence of China's waterways and lakes. Not only can China's leaders ill afford to ignore this potential brake on economic growth, but the environmental problems are leading to more political pluralism in a nominally one party state.

Sweeping... from the Qin Dynasty (200 B.C.) to the present..

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Serpents Of Nagling- Granite Intrusions Into Greater Himalayan Sequence Metamorphics

Over chai, elders told us about large serpents invading their village. A curse, they said. Only the correct prayers and purification rituals saved them, forcing the serpents to retreat deep into the forest. Some serpents remain trapped in the rock faces near the village, which was renamed Nagling (Nag means cobra..or more generically serpent).

The picture below are the entombed serpents of Nagling (trekkers for scale).


Geologists recognize them to be granite dykes (intrusions cutting across host rock layering) and sills (intrusions parallel to host rock layering) intruding the high grade metamorphic rocks of the Greater Himalayan Sequence (GHS).

The GHS is a block of the Indian crust bounded between the Main Central Thrust (MCT) at the base and the South Tibetan Detachment System (STDS) at the top. It represents mid crustal material which was metamorphosed and then was extruded and exhumed during Himalayan orogeny between 25 million years ago to about 16 million years ago. These dates vary somewhat along the strike of the Himalaya. Thrusting along the MCT took place earlier in the western Himalaya. Eastern regions like the Sikkim Himalaya record younger dates for the movement of the MCT.

The grade of metamorphic varies within the GHS. The figure below is a schematic section of the Greater Himalayan Sequence. It is from a study on the nature of the MCT by Michael Searle and colleagues from the Nepal Himalaya and is a very useful guide to think about the internal structure of the GHS.


 Source: Searle et. al. 2008

From the base of the MCT the grade of metamorphism increases towards higher structural levels. This is recognized as an "inverted metamorphic gradient", since minerals that are formed at higher and higher temperatures and pressures are occurring at structurally higher and by implication apparently shallower levels of the crust. The inverted gradient is recognized by the successive appearance of  biotite, garnet, sillimanite and finally kyanite. The sillimanite-kyanite zone transitions into the zone of partial melting and granite intrusives. This is the zone where the crust experienced conditions that lead to the formation of in situ melts and their mobilization and intrusion into surrounding rock. Above this zone the grade of metamorphism reduces towards the STDS. In the figure, the granite intrusion zone is directly overlain by the STDS and the Tethyan sequence. However, there is variation in this theme across the Himalaya. In the Kumaon region where I was, the "melt zone" is overlain by a sequence of lower metamorphic grade phyllite rocks.

What caused this melting and production of granitic magma? Many geologist point to the STDS. They suggest that this zone of extentional faulting stretched and thinned the crust, resulting in " decompression-related anatexis". This means that when extentional faulting along the STDS and exhumation reduced the overburden on deeply buried hot rocks, the release in pressure resulted in the lowering of rock melting point. This led to a partial melting of the crust (anatexis). Other geologists disagree with this explanation. They point out that since decompression has a minor effect on melting the likely source rock compositions you would require unreasonably large amounts of denudation along the STDS.  Rather, they suggest that crustal thickening by the continued convergence of India with Asia elevated temperatures in the middle levels of the crust to a range where partial melting began. These melts then moved along weak planes and intruded the surrounding GHS above the sillimanite and kyanite grade gneisses. The main pulses of this magma generation took place between 24 million years and 19 million years ago.

Geologists estimate the temperatures of this melt zone to be around 650 deg C to 750 deg C, corresponding to a  burial depth of about 20-25 km. Yes, the GHS represents crust that has traveled from that depth to the Himalayan heights it now commands by a combination of thrust faulting and erosional unroofing i.e. the stripping away of shallower levels of the crust!

During one of my previous treks in the Kumaon region I had walked across the GHS from the base of the MCT to the sillimanite zone in the Goriganga valley from the town of Munsiari to village Paton. This time, one valley to the east,  we began our trek at village Nagling in the zone of  partially melting. All around us were rock faces intruded by sill complexes and dykes. The picture below shows multiple sills of granite cross cut by dykes.


High up from Nagling village towards Nagling Glacier I saw this granite dyke complex (outlined by red dotted lines ) cutting across metamorphic banding (black lines).


And in the stream near Nagling Glacier I came across this rounded stream boulder showing granite cross-cutting banded migmatitic gneiss.


We traveled north and  reached Duktu. Earlier, somewhere near the village of Baaling, we had crossed the zone of partial melting and were in the uppermost levels of the GHS made up of phyllite grade metamorphic rocks. The phyllites are not intruded by granite.

However, granite was present at Duktu too, but only in the Dhauliganga river bed. This river emerges from the Panchachuli Glacier. The Panchachuli ranges which fall lower in the GHS are made up of high grade gneiss intruded by granite.

As a result, the Dhauliganga river bed near Duktu village is choked with boulders of granite and migmatite rocks.


This is a very distinctive  biotite-tourmaline granite. The picture below shows blocks of granite with tabular black tourmaline.


Here is a picture of me looking intently at a block of GHS made up of a granite intruding in to a gneiss.


And another close up of light colored granite intruding dark grey banded gneiss and encircling and enclosing rafts of the metamorphic host rock (red arrows).


And finally, from the sheer rock faces near Nagling Glacier, one of my favorite examples of the granite intrusions. A near vertical dyke (red broken outline) cut and displaced by a fault (yellow broken lines). Metamorphic banding shown in black lines.


... Pleistocene-Holocene glacial deposits of the Panchachuli Glacier area.. coming up next!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

On The Moth's Inordinate Love For Salt

I am reading The Forest Unseen- A Year's Watch In Nature by David George Haskell.

During a vigil in the forest, a moth landed on the author's finger and refused to let go.. why? A passage from the book...

Only males have such an exaggerated antennae. They comb the air for scent released by females and fly upwind, guided to a mate by their enormous feathery noses. But finding a mate is not enough. The male must provide a nuptial offering to his mate. My finger provides him with an essential ingredient for this gift.

Diamonds may be the crystal of choice for wooing humans, but moths seek a different, altogether more practical mineral, salt. When the moth mates he will pass to his partner a package containing a ball of sperm and a packet of food. This food is generously seasoned with sodium, a precious gift that looks forward to the needs of the next generation. The female moth passes the salt to the eggs and thus to the caterpillars. Foliage is deficient in sodium, so the leaf-munching caterpillars need their parents salty bequest. The moth's arduous attachment to my finger prepares him for mating and will help his offspring survive. The salt in my sweat will make up for the deficiencies in caterpillar diets.

Full of nuggets like this... recommended.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Chasing The South Tibetan Detachment- Panchachuli Glacier Area Kumaon Himalaya

This is a geology travelogue of my recent trek to the Panchachuli Glacier. This is the famous Darma Valley trek in the Dhauliganga river valley of the Kumaon Himalaya. For years, the trek began at village Sobla, about an hours drive north of Dharchula. From Sobla, it is a two to three day hike to Duktu, which is the base village to approach the Panchachuli Glacier. However, when we went there in the first week of May 2017, a serviceable road had reached village Nagling. This cut two days of our walk. We began our trek at Nagling. It was a days walk to Duktu. There I got a chance to look at the geology and especially search for an important fault zone I had been wanting to see. I begin this post with some geology background and then my observations during our walks around Duktu.

The South Tibetan Detachment System (STDS) is an important fault zone in the Himalaya, bringing in to structural contact the Tethyan Sedimentary Sequence (TSS) with the underlying metamorphic rocks of the Greater Himalayan Sequence (GHS). It is a northerly dipping extensional or normal fault. This means that the Tethyan sediments which make up the hanging wall of the fault have moved down relative to the footwall made up of the Greater Himalayan Sequence. As the name suggests the STDS is most prominently developed in the southerly Tibet plateau like physiographic province of the Himalaya, north of the great Himalayan summits.

What is the history of the TSS and the STDS? As is the case with Peninsular India,  the northern extent of the Indian plate would have been made up of Archean granite and granite-gneiss terrains representing the earliest stable crust and greenstone belts (metamorphosed and deformed volcano-sedimentary rocks). On this Archean-lowermost Proterozoic foundation were deposited successions of sedimentary packages, some intruded by igneous rocks. These range in age from the Mesoproterozoic to the Eocene.  The Archean and lowermost Proterozoic rocks are not exposed anywhere in the Himalaya. The Lesser Himalaya Sequence and the Greater Himalaya Sequence are slices of crust containing the Mesoproterozoic to Phanerozoic successions which have been metamorphosed to varying degrees during Himalayan orogeny. The Tethyan Sedimentary Sequence represents late Neoproterozoic to Eocene successions which largely escaped metamorphism during Himalayan orogeny.

In the early Cenozoic, when the Indian plate impinged into Asia this Neoproterozoic to Eocene sedimentary "cover" was folded, faulted and scraped off to form an early "Tethyan" mountain range. As collision continued and as lower tiers of the Indian crust subducted under Asia, thrust faults moved slices of deeply buried and metamorphosed crust upwards. These slices are the Greater Himalayan Sequence. They are bounded by the Main Central Thrust at its base and by the STDS at the top. Concurrent with the movement of the Main Central Thrust, fault zones developed at the base of   the Tethyan sedimentary cover, perhaps along the same planes of breakages that had earlier uplifted the Tethyan ranges. This fault zone evolved into the STDS.

There are different hypothesis on how important the STDS is to the evolution of the Himalayan orogen. One school of thought suggests that the extention and thinning of the crust along the detachment zone accelerated the exhumation of the deeply buried GHS and brought these deeper levels of the crust in to structural contact with the Tethyan cover sequence. Alternative scenarios argue that thrust faulting played a more prominent role in the southward propagation and exhumation of the GHS with the STDS playing only a minor role in the exhumation of the footwall GHS.

Whichever scenario is correct, there is no doubt that the South Tibetan Detachment is a major structural boundary separating two distinct lithologic terrains.

The outcrops around me during my trek where all metamorphic rocks of the Greater Himalayan Sequence. I had hypothesized that the South Tibetan Detachment and Tethyan rocks if they indeed were present in the area would be making up the summits of the ranges around Duktu and in the Tidang area.

After days of observation I was proved right about that. I used three types of indicators to infer the  presence of Tethyan sedimentary rocks high up on the summits and to recognize the fault boundary between them and the underlying Greater Himalayan Sequence metamorphic rocks.

1) Structural discordance between the Greater Himalayan Sequence and the Tethyan Sedimentary Sequence. This could be clearly seen near the summits of the ranges north and east of Duktu.

2) Boulders of sedimentary rocks like conglomerate and planar and cross bedded sandstones in the streams draining these ranges.

3) Dilation fractures in both the phyllite grade metamorphic rocks of the Greater Himalayan Sequence and in sandstones of the Tethyan Sedimentary Sequence. This indicated the presence of an extensional stress regime. The South Tibetan Detachment is a zone of normal faulting. The crust has been broken and pulled apart by tensional forces. These stresses were felt over a broad zone and impacted the footwall and hanging wall rocks.

As I am writing up these three criteria I have to admit that my thinking about these lines of evidence was not at all clear when I started the trek. Rather, my ideas and understanding of the local geology evolved haphazardly over the days as I walked the valley and started noticing structural orientations, stream rubble and fracture patterns.

We began our trek at Nagling village. Our destination was the village of Duktu (Lat 30.2486, Long 80.5460). We walked northwards. As Himalayan thrust sheets dip north, we were going structurally higher and higher up the Greater Himalayan Sequence. At, and ahead of Nagling, we were in a zone of partial melting and granite intrusions. High grade gneiss and migmatites were intruded by dykes and sills of granite. I'll be posting about this section separately. This high grade gneiss zone was overlain by a sequence of phyllite grade metamorphic rocks. These phyllites show tight isoclinal and recumbent folding. The internal structure of the Greater Himalayan Sequence is interesting. There is an increase in metamorphic grade from the base to the higher levels and then a decrease towards the very top.

Above the phyllite grade rocks separated by the STDS are the Tethyan sediments. I figured I would have traveled north enough, i.e. structurally high enough along the GHS to cross the phyllite zone and into the overlying Tethyans. I had an expectation that at the very least I would notice them capping some of the ranges I was going to encounter between the villages of Duktu and northward towards Sipu.

Here is an interactive map of the area I trekked, which you can use to follow the text and check on the locations of the samples.



Day1 - The northerly walk takes a left turn as we enter the Panchachuli Glacier valley. The river Dhauliganga is a west to east flowing river in this valley near Duktu village. We entered the village of Duktu in pouring rain. Every mountain range was covered in clouds, and in any case the rain was heavy enough to keep us indoors for the evening.

Day 2- More rain! It happened during my last trek in the Munsiari valley too. We go stuck there for two days due to heavy rain and snow. As it happened, the rain stopped by afternoon and we could go for a short walk to the twin village of Dantu across the Dhauliganga river. The river bed was chocked with boulders of a distinct biotite-tourmaline bearing granite (Picture to the right). Both Duktu and Dantu villages are located in phyllite grade rocks. This conspicuous granite does not intrude these rocks. Its source lies in the Panchachuli ranges, lower in the GHS. The Panchachuli Glacier has gouged it from the Panchachuli ranges and transported the debris to this valley. All the summits were still covered by clouds and I was resigned to wait it out for any further observations of the geology.

Day 3- Perfect weather. It was bright and sunny. But I hardly did any geology this day. We took a spectacular 5 kilometer walk westwards to the Panchachuli glacier.  The terrain was covered by forest, shrubs and grass and higher up by ice. We walked along the lateral moraines of glaciers past. The Panchachuli glacier was much bigger during the Pleistocene ice ages and glacial deposits are piled up high in the valley. I'll be posting on these deposits too. If only I had just glanced to the east of Duktu and looked carefully at the ice snow covered ranges!!

Day 4- Great weather again! We took a northerly course towards the village of Tidang. Our original plan was to walk up further north to the village of Sipu. However,  the ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police) were restricting movements of civilians in that area and we got a nod to go only to Tidang on a day trip. This is fantastic terrain. We passed through pine forests and then into a landscape of open woodlands and scrublands. We were now in the Lassar Yankti valley. The picture below shows a north facing view of the Lassar Yankti valley.


 This river joins the Dhauliganga near the village of Duktu. There were enormous mountain ranges on both sides of the valley. Here below is a view of the mountain ranges on the right bank of the Lassar Yankti near the village of Dakad.  The north dipping rock faces in the foreground are Greater Himalayan Sequence phyllites. I had a feeling that if there were Tethyan sediments here they would be making up the summits of the range in the background.   I was keeping my eyes peeled for anything interesting.



And soon I began noticing that phyllite grade rock fragments scattered along scree slopes showed dilation fractures (Pic to the left). These fractures occur when the crust is being subjected to tensile forces. I now strongly suspected that these upper structural levels of the GHS were close enough to the STDS to have experienced extensional stresses. The picture show a phyllite grade rock with foliation displaced along a fault (black line) and showing dilation fractures (above) and another phyllite with parallel sets of dilational fractures (below). The fractures have been filled or healed with secondary quartz.

We passed the village of Dakad (Lat 30.2756, Long 80.5291). A few hundred meters ahead I had the first of the big "aa-haa" moments of the trek. A large boulder of sandstone showing planar and cross bedding lay just a few meters aside of the trail. It must have been transported there either during a rock fall or by glaciers from high up on the ranges on the right bank of the Lassar Yankti. A few minutes ahead we came across a stream draining these ranges and joining the Lassar Yankti. In that stream near the bridge connecting to village Tidang I saw a conglomerate boulder (Lat 30.2822,  Long 80.5262). Sedimentary rocks of the TSS were definitely present high up in that range. Here is a picture of the cross bedded sandstone (above) and the conglomerate (below).


Looking up towards the ranges, I could not identify a lithologic or structural boundary, but the presence of dilation fractures and sedimentary debris pointed to the presence of the STDS and the TSS high in those ranges.

Day 5- The weather Gods were kind again. We trekked westwards from Duktu along the left bank of the Dhauliganga river towards the terminal moraine of the Panchachuli glacier. The rock walls on the left bank of the river were phyllite grade rocks. Again, I found dilation fractures in them. And in a small stream draining those ranges... another conglomerate (Pic to the right) ! (Lat 30.2471, Long 80.5181). I looked up to the summits carefully. Perhaps my viewing angle was just right or perhaps my mind was now better prepared but... there it was... a clear structural discordance between steep northwesterly-dipping rocks and the overlying more gently northeasterly-dipping rocks. I was looking at the South Tibetan Detachment Fault that had placed Tethyan sediments over the Greater Himalayan Sequence (picture below; join the tips of the arrows to trace the detachment fault).


I then looked through the valley straight towards the ranges to the east of Duktu. Again, that same structural discordance was clearly visible in the snow capped summits. The picture below (photo credit: Swati Pednekar )  shows this eastern range, the detachment fault (join the tips of the arrows to trace the fault) and the lithologic units.


Day 6- A trek to villages of Goe, Philam and Bon. We walked north from Duktu, crossed the Lassar Yankti river a little ahead of Dantu village and entered village Goe (Lat 30.2602, Long 80.5411) and then walked southwards. That morning I had confidently predicted that we would find sedimentary rock with dilation fractures on this trail. These villages are at the base of the ranges shown in the picture above. Although not diagnostic, there was another strong hint that these ranges had sedimentary rocks at the summits. The summit rocks have weathered into a blocky square edged pattern typical of jointed sandstones and quartzites.

And I was right! Sandstones along with low grade phyllite rocks (from the lower levels of the mountain) were being used to build walls and pavements in all the three villages. Picture on the left (above) shows a cross bedded sandstone block making up part of a wall in village Goe. And a cross bedded sandstone slab (left, below) is being used as a pavement stone for a village trail between Goe and Philam. Further south ahead of village Bon, a large stream draining these mountains contained boulders of bedded sandstones. And at a small bridge at the bottom of the valley  (Lat 30.2370, Long 80.5450) I came across a sandstone block (picture below) with slickensides (black arrows) and dilation fractures (red arrows). Slickensides are striations on rock surfaces formed by frictional movement of rocks along a fault. This was a strong indicator that these sandstones were sourced from an extentional fault zone high up near the summit.


We continued walking southwards, into lower levels of the GHS. Soon, we were back in the Nagling area, in the zone of partial melting and granite intrusions.

This ended our trek in the Panchachuli Glacier area. To date, it was the most satisfying trek I had done in the Himalaya. Although the STDS was high up and I could not actually walk across it, I had hypothesized, made observations and validated my expectations of the presence of the detachment faults and Tethyan sedimentary rocks. This would be a good field exercise for students! And I am hoping this post will be used by trekkers wanting to explore and understand the geology of this area.

Day 7- We trekked to the Nagling Glacier which has carved a perfect U shaped valley. Certainly one of the most beautiful sites I have been to.


... more geology posts on glacial deposits and granite intrusions... coming soon.. !

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Landscapes: Panchachuli Glacier And Lassar Yankti River Valley Kumaon Himalaya

I'm back. It was epic. There was geology. I saw the South Tibetan Detachment fault zone. I saw rock deformation. I saw Pleistocene -Holocene glacial deposits. I saw glaciers... I trekked, I photographed, I lived with the local nomads and farmers.

I need a little time to write more on the geology. Meanwhile, here is a glimpse of the absolutely wonderful landscape I wandered through for the past couple of weeks.

Here is an interactive map of the area I traveled through.



and these lands...

1) The crown jewels of the region- The Panchachuli Range seen from village Dantu. There are five peaks. From this angle, the fifth is hidden behind the peak on the left.


2) Sunrise at the village of Nagling.


3) Himalayan valleys, forested slopes and snowy peaks. En route from Nagling to Duktu. View looking south towards Nagling.


4) Village Baaling with northerly dipping metamorphic rocks of the Greater Himalayan Crystalline Sequence

 
5) Climbing towards the Panchachuli Glacier. This is a superb 2 hour walk from village Duktu passing through birch and pine forests, scrubland, meadows and finally glacial moraines and ice.


6) On the Glacier! About 13,500 feet ASL.


7) Terminal Moraine and the place of origin of the river Dhauliganga.


 8) The Dhauliganga river with biotite-tourmanline granite boulders sourced from the Panchachuli massifs. This is a Miocene granite intrusive into the Greater Himalayan Crystalline Sequence metamorphics.


9) The Lassar Yankti river valley with village Goe at a distance.


10) View from village Tidang of the surrounding rock massifs. The northerly dipping rock slabs are phyllite to medium grade metamorphic rocks of the Greater Himalayan Crystalline Sequence.


11) Another view of the Lassar Yankti river from village Tidang


12) View from village Philam looking east towards some impressive mountains. These are mostly made up of phyllite grade metamorphic rocks of the Greater Himalayan Crystalline Sequence... but with mystery rocks at the very top! 


13) A little piece of heaven. Nagling Glacier over the Pleistocene ice ages has carved a perfect U shaped valley


 14) Village Duktu. We were close to ten and half thousand feet ASL here. Most of these villages were still uninhabited. People who had migrated to lower altitudes the previous November had locked up by placing wooden shafts and thorny scrub branches against their doors to ward of evil spirits...  and I suspect the occasional Himalayan bear who might fancy hibernating in their home. When we reached here, villagers were just beginning to return with their livestock for their summer stay.


 15)  Relaxing at village Dantu with my friends.


 16) Mystery solved. That's me pointing to the South Tibetan Detachment Zone.


How did I figure that out? What were the geological indicators?.. Coming soon!