Scientists have long recognized that the collision of the earth’s great crustal plates generates mountain ranges and other features of the Earth’s surface. Yet the link between mountain uplift and river drainage patterns has been uncertain. Now scientists have used laboratory techniques and sediment cores from the ocean to help explain the how rivers have changed course over millions of years.
Shaded relief map of the Arabian Sea and surrounding land masses, showing the location of the drill sites and seismic profiles used in the study and major tributaries of the Indus River. (Figure by Peter Clift and Jerzy Blusztajn)
Proposed drainage pattern of the Indus River before 5 million years ago (right) and during modern times (left). Drainage capture, or diversion of a river pattern, occurs when a river captures or intercepts other rivers. (Figure by Peter Clift and Jerzy Blusztajn)
In a report published in the December 15 issue of Nature, scientists Peter Clift of the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom and Jerzy Blusztajn of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution reconstructed the erosional discharge from the Indus River over the past 30 million years and found that the source of those sediments changed five million years ago. Until then, Indus River sediments were produced by erosion of mountains to the north of the collision zone between India and Asia, but five million years ago much more sediment starting coming from the southern Himalayas, part of the deformed Indian plate.
Clift and Blusztajn believe the change is caused by a rerouting of the major rivers of the Punjab region into the Indus River, where they flow into the Arabian Sea west of India. Previously these rivers flowed east and joined the Ganges River before reaching the Bay of Bengal, east of India.
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