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Durham University

Department of Earth Sciences


Publication details for Professor Yaoling Niu

Song, S.G., Niu, Yaoling, Su, L. & Xia, X.H. (2013). Tectonics of the North Qilian orogen, NW China. Gondwana Research 23(4): 1378-1401.

Author(s) from Durham


The Qilian Orogen at the northern margin of the Tibetan Plateau is a type suture zone that recorded a complete history from continental breakup to ocean basin evolution, and to the ultimate continental collision in the time period from the Neoproterozoic to the Paleozoic. The Qilian Ocean, often interpreted as representing the “Proto-Tethyan Ocean”, may actually be an eastern branch of the worldwide “Iapetus Ocean” between the two continents of Baltica and Laurentia, opened at ≥ 710 Ma as a consequence of breakup of supercontinent Rodinia.

Initiation of the subduction in the Qilian Ocean probably occurred at ~ 520 Ma with the development of an Andean-type active continental margin represented by infant arc magmatism of ~ 517–490 Ma. In the beginning of Ordovician (~ 490 Ma), part of the active margin was split from the continental Alashan block and the Andean-type active margin had thus evolved to western Pacific-type trench–arc–back-arc system represented by the MORB-like crust (i.e., SSZ-type ophiolite belt) formed in a back-arc basin setting in the time period of ~ 490–445 Ma. During this time, the subducting oceanic lithosphere underwent LT-HP metamorphism along a cold geotherm of ~ 6–7 °C/km.

The Qilian Ocean was closed at the end of the Ordovician (~ 445 Ma). Continental blocks started to collide and the northern edge of the Qilian–Qaidam block was underthrust/dragged beneath the Alashan block by the downgoing oceanic lithosphere to depths of ~ 100–200 km at about 435–420 Ma. Intensive orogenic activities occurred in the late Silurian and early Devonian in response to the exhumation of the subducted crustal materials.

Briefly, the Qilian Orogen is conceptually a type example of the workings of plate tectonics from continental breakup to the development and evolution of an ocean basin, to the initiation of oceanic subduction and formation of arc and back-arc system, and to the final continental collision/subduction and exhumation.