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Late Quaternary landscape evolution in the Kunlun Mountains and Qaidam Basin, Northern Tibet: A framework for examining the links between glaciation, lake level changes and alluvial fan formation

January 1, 2006

The Qaidam Basin in Northern Tibet is one of the largest hyper-arid intermontane basins on Earth. Alluvial fans, pediment surfaces, shorelines and a thick succession of sediments within the basin, coupled with moraines and associated landforms in the adjacent high mountain catchments of the Kunlun Mountains, record a complex history of Late Quaternary paleoenvironmental change and landscape evolution. The region provides an ideal natural laboratory to examine the interaction between tectonics and climate within a continent-continent collision zone, and to quantify rates of landscape evolution as controlled by climate and the associated glacial and hydrological changes in hyper-arid and adjacent high-altitude environments. Geomorphic mapping, analysis of landforms and sediments, and terrestrial cosmogenic radionuclide surface exposure and optically stimulated luminescence dating serve to define the timing of formation of Late Quaternary landforms along the southern and northwestern margins of the Qaidam Basin, and in the Burhan Budai Shan of the Kunlun Mountains adjacent to the basin on the south. These dates provide a framework that suggests links between climatic amelioration, deglaciation, lake desiccation and alluvial fan evolution. At least three glacial advances are defined in the Burham Budai Shan of the Kunlun Mountains. On the northern side of this range these occurred in the penultimate glacial cycle or early in the last glacial cycle, during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM)/Lateglacial and during the Holocene. On the south side of the range, advances occurred during the penultimate glacial cycle, MIS-3, and possibly the LGM, Lateglacial or Holocene. Several distinct phases of alluvial fan sedimentation are likewise defined. Alluvial fans formed on the southern side of the Kunlun Mountains prior to 200 ka. Ice-contact alluvial fans formed during the penultimate glacial and during MIS-3. Extensive incised alluvial fans that form the main valley fills north of the Burham Budai and extend into the Qaidam Basin are dated to ???30 ka. These ages suggest that there was a period of alluvial fan aggradation and valley filling that persisted until desiccation of the large lakes in the Qaidam Basin post ???30 ka led to base level lowering and active incision of streams into the valley fills. The continued Lateglacial and Holocene desiccation likely led to further degradation of the valley fills. Ice wedge casts in the Qaidam Basin date to ???15 ka, indicating significant Lateglacial climatic amelioration, while Holocene loess deposits north of the Burham Bdudai suggest that aridity has increased in the region since the early Holocene. From these observations, we infer that the major landscape changes within high glaciated mountains and their adjacent hyper-arid intermontane basins, such as the Kunlun Mountains and Qaidam Basin, occur rapidly over millennial timescales during periods of climatic instability. ?? 2006 Elsevier Ltd and INQUA.