Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Extreme Fieldwork In The Karakoram Mountains

This remarkable passage from Colliding Continents by Mike Searle:

"After two weeks of acclimatizing on the Lobsang Spire and Cathedral granite cliffs above camp and establishing our attack camp full of supplies we were ready to go for the summit. I was keen to climb a line up through the granite cliffs in order to map out and sample a vertical profile through the granite batholith. These Karakoram granite spires provide a unique opportunity to map and sample over 3 kilometers deep into such a batholith. We left once again at 3 a.m. for the dangerous plod through the icefall, and arrived at the ice-shelf camp at about 10 a.m. As soon as the sun came on to the glacier, freezing night-time temperatures soared up to incredibly high hot temperatures above 350C. Frozen icicles dripping off the rock face turned into trickles of water and then into torrents. Huge avalanches of powder snow exploded down the steep granite faces all around us. This was nature in the raw: powerful, frightening, but at the same time immensely beautiful.

Next morning we left at the usual 3 a.m., roped up, and started climbing the steep ice face on the south face of Biale. Very soon the ice petered out and we were on vertical solid granite. Climbing vertical granite walls with a 20 kg rucksack, a rack full of slings and nuts and big plastic double boots was not easy. I was trying to record geological observations in the granites and put those onto a map at the same time; the sample collection was to be done on the way down. After two days of this steep and scary climbing we finally broke out of the cliffs onto a  large snowfield that led up to a knife-edge ridge. As we approached the ridge the most spectacular mountain panorama I have ever seen unfolded in front of us. We were in the middle of the Karakoram, with huge glaciers flowing all around us, separating ridiculously steep cliffs of pure granite".

The Himalaya ranges are the northern edge of the Indian continental crust which was deformed during the India-Asia collision. Similarly, the Karakoram ranges are the southern margin of the Asian continent which was deformed during the India-Asia collision. Mike Searle and his colleagues were trying to work out their deformation, metamorphic and uplift history.

In the satellite imagery below, I have overlain the major lithologic and structural elements of the India-Asia collision zone. The imagery covers the central and eastern Karakoram ranges.

The southern margin of the Asian plate is made up of two amalgamated terrains. In the mid Cretaceous (~110 million years ago) a separate terrain/microplate known as the Kohistan-Ladakh block existed south of the Asian continental mainland. As the Indian plate pushed northwards, oceanic crust which made up its leading edge dove under the Kohistan-Ladakh terrain. As the dense crust subducted, it heated up, releasing water trapped in the sediment cover. This water migrated upwards, lowering the melting point of rocks in the lower part of the Asian plate (mantle) and triggering melting. Magmatism and volcanism formed an intra-oceanic island arc system above the subduction zone. The Dras Arc Volcanics are part of this island arc, which continues westwards into Kohistan. The Ladakh batholith represents the root of this arc system, made up of granitic and granodioritic magma congealed in the deep subsurface. Volcanic rocks at the famous Khardung-La Pass are the surficial expression of the Ladakh magmatic system.

Between 70-80 million years ago, the Kohistan-Ladakh arc collided with the Asian mainland forming a composite terrain. The Main Karakoram Thrust-Shyok Suture marks the zone of collision between these two terrains. The Indian plate continued subducting under the Asian plate. Magmatic growth of the Kohistan-Ladakh batholith continued until about 50 million years ago. By this time, the Indian oceanic crust had been consumed and as a result the Indian continental crust collided with Asia. This collision zone is marked by the Indus-Tsangpo Suture.

The pre-collision tectonic setting of the Kohistan-Ladakh arc is depicted in the graphic posted below.

Source: Searle et. al. 1999

There is another model which proposes that the Kohistan-Ladakh arc first collided with the Indian plate around 85 million years ago. Collision of this combined plate with Asia then took place around 50 million years ago. I am ignoring this debate in this post.

Continental collision lead to crustal thickening on both sides of the suture zone. In the Karakoram region, high temperatures and pressures in the lower parts of the thickened crust resulted in metamorphism of buried rocks (Karakoram Metamorphic Complex). Eventually, temperatures in the buried crust exceeded the melting point of rocks, triggering magma generation. These post-collisional crustal melts intruded the surrounding metamorphic rocks forming sills (intrusions parallel to the layering) and dikes (intrusions cutting across the layering). Granites formed in this manner are most conspicuously exposed in the region around the Baltoro Glacier. These granites form many of the jagged spires and pinnacles that Mike Searle describes so vividly in his book. They are part of the Karakoram batholith.

Crustal melting and granite magma formation occurred in the thickened Indian plate as well, south of the Indus-Tsangpo suture zone. These granites are exposed along the crest of the High Himalaya ranges. The Himalayan post-collisional granites are beautiful to look at.  Faceted crystals of black tourmaline and red garnet, along with gleaming flakes of white mica, are set in a white to pink colored matrix made up of quartz and feldspar. The picture to the left shows a tourmaline bearing leucogranite from the Greater Himalaya Sequence making up the Panchachuli range in Kumaon, Uttarakhand. I collected it from the moraines of the Panchachuli glacier.

The Karakoram Batholith is a composite body made up of magmas formed during different times. Older granitic rocks (150-70 million years ago) in this batholith formed in an Andean type margin setting wherein the Tethyan ocean crust was subducting under the Asian continental plate.

Certain metamorphic minerals like kyanite, sillimanite and garnet are thermobarometers. Their elemental ratios tell us about the temperature and pressure prevalent during mineral growth. Geologists estimate that the sillimanite and kyanite bearing Karakoram metamorphic rocks were formed at 35 km depth. These metamorphic rocks, along with the earlier formed granites of the Karakoram batholith, eventually partially melted to form the Baltoro granites.

Geologists have also been able to work out when metamorphism and melting took place. Using radiogenic uranium isotopes trapped in zircon crystals they find that peak metamorphism took place in several pulses. The oldest metamorphic event occurred around as early as 60-65 million years ago, with the heat source likely being the collison of the Kohistan Arc. Subsequent metamorphic pulses, driven by crustal thickening,  have been dated to about 45 million yeas ago and an even younger event to about 16 million years ago.

Magmas which form the Baltoro granites intruded and crystallized between 20 million to 13 years ago, similar in age to the post collisional leucogranites of the High Himalaya which are 24 million to 15 million years old . Crustal melting and granite formation in the Karakoram continued sporadically until around 9 million years ago.

The deep crustal processes occurring in the Karakoram region were also taking place eastwards in the thickened crust below Tibet. In the Karakoram, metamorphic rocks and granites formed in the lower levels of the crust now lie spectacularly exposed along the steep mountain sides. Erosion over the past 30 million years has removed over 35 km of overburden, exhuming these deep crustal layers. The Tibetan plateau however is made up of sedimentary and volcanic rocks. Only the uppermost parts of the crust are exposed here. Karakoram equivalent high grade metamorphic rocks and crustal melt granites, which undoubtedly exist in this region, still lie deeply buried in the subsurface.

Why is there such a difference between Karakoram and the Tibetan Plateau in the level of crustal exposure?  Take a look at the satellite imagery. Karakoram is covered by snow, while much of the Tibetan Plateau lies bare. Karakoram receives rain and snowfall from both the India summer monsoon as well as the north westerlies bringing winter moisture from the Mediterranean and Caspian areas. Tibet lies in the rain shadow of both these systems.  High rates of stream incision and the enormous erosive power of glaciers has resulted in high rates of exhumation in the Karakoram, eventually exposing deeply buried crust. Low erosion rates in the arid Tibetan region has failed to cut deeply into the crust, resulting in exposure of only the uppermost levels of the crust. Both Karakoram and Tibet have an average elevation of about 5000 meters. In the Karakoram though there is prolific relief, with peaks in the 7000-8000 m range and valleys at 2000-3000 m elevation. Relief in Tibet is subdued.

Climate plays an enormous role in shaping the topography and evolution of mountains.


  1. Great closing line! Was the sea in which Kohistsn Ladakh Rick's formed islands (like Khardungla) the Terhys sea or some other?

  2. thanks! Tethys broadly.. in the graphic, the sea between Kohistan and Karakoram block is referred to as the Shyok 'ocean', although after the Kohistan-Ladakh block collided with the Karakoram block, it was just Tethys.