The Himalayas: Two continents collide

Among the most dramatic and visible creations of plate-tectonic forces are the lofty Himalayas, which stretch 2,900 km along the border between India and Tibet. This immense mountain range began to form between 40 and 50 million years ago, when two large landmasses, India and Eurasia, driven by plate movement, collided. Because both these continental landmasses have about the same rock density, one plate could not be subducted under the other. The pressure of the impinging plates could only be relieved by thrusting skyward, contorting the collision zone, and forming the jagged Himalayan peaks.

About 225 million years ago, India was a large island still situated off the Australian coast, and a vast ocean (called Tethys Sea) separated India from the Asian continent. When Pangaea broke apart about 200 million years ago, India began to forge northward. By studying the history -- and ultimately the closing-- of the Tethys, scientists have reconstructed India's northward journey. About 80 million years ago, India was located roughly 6,400 km south of the Asian continent, moving northward at a rate of about 9 m a century. When India rammed into Asia about 40 to 50 million years ago, its northward advance slowed by about half. The collision and associated decrease in the rate of plate movement are interpreted to mark the beginning of the rapid uplift of the Himalayas.

Artist's conception of the 6,000-km-plus northward journey of the "India" landmass (Indian Plate) before its collision with Asia (Eurasian Plate). Solid lines indicate present-day continents in the Indian Ocean region, but no geologic data exist to determine the exact size and shape of the tectonic plates before their present-day configurations. The dashed outlines for the "India" landmass are given for visual reference only, to show the inferred approximate locations of its interior part in the geologic past. The "India" landmass was once situated well south of the Equator, but its northern margins began to collide against the southward-moving Eurasian Plate about 40 to 50 million years ago (see text).

The Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau to the north have risen very rapidly. In just 50 million years, peaks such as Mt. Everest have risen to heights of more than 9 km. The impinging of the two landmasses has yet to end. The Himalayas continue to rise more than 1 cm a year -- a growth rate of 10 km in a million years! If that is so, why aren't the Himalayas even higher? Scientists believe that the Eurasian Plate may now be stretching out rather than thrusting up, and such stretching would result in some subsidence due to gravity.

Everest gif

Sunset view of towering, snow-capped Mt. Everest, from the village of Lobuche (Solu-khumbu), Nepal. (Photograph by Gimmy Park Li.)

Fifty kilometers north of Lhasa (the capital of Tibet), scientists found layers of pink sandstone containing grains of magnetic minerals (magnetite) that have recorded the pattern of the Earth's flip-flopping magnetic field. These sandstones also contain plant and animal fossils that were deposited when the Tethys Sea periodically flooded the region. The study of these fossils has revealed not only their geologic age but also the type of environment and climate in which they formed. For example, such studies indicate that the fossils lived under a relatively mild, wet environment about 105 million years ago, when Tibet was closer to the equator. Today, Tibet's climate is much more arid, reflecting the region's uplift and northward shift of nearly 2,000 km. Fossils found in the sandstone layers offer dramatic evidence of the climate change in the Tibetan region due to plate movement over the past 100 million years.

At present, the movement of India continues to put enormous pressure on the Asian continent, and Tibet in turn presses on the landmass to the north that is hemming it in. The net effect of plate-tectonics forces acting on this geologically complicated region is to squeeze parts of Asia eastward toward the Pacific Ocean. One serious consequence of these processes is a deadly "domino" effect: tremendous stresses build up within the Earth's crust, which are relieved periodically by earthquakes along the numerous faults that scar the landscape. Some of the world's most destructive earthquakes in history are related to continuing tectonic processes that began some 50 million years ago when the Indian and Eurasian continents first met.
"Understanding plate motions"

Last updated: 05.22.15