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NSF Grant Puts Geology Chair in Himalayas

Geology Department Head Lewis Owen studies the geomorphology of mountain belts in Tibet.

Date: 9/8/2009
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Provided by Lewis Owen
Lewis Owen, professor and department head in UC’s Department of Geology, was recently awarded a $228,354 grant by the National Science Foundation for his collaborative effort to understand the dynamics and nature of landscape evolution at the western end of the Himalayan-Tibetan mountain belt. The project, “Continuation and Termination of Karakorum and Karakax Faults in Western Tibet: Implications for the Role of Regional Strike-Slip Faults in Orogenic Belts,” extends his long-term interest in the tectonics and geomorphology of tectonically active mountain belts and their forelands. 
Lewis Owen.
Lewis Owen (right) spent this past summer in Tibet studying mountain belts and landscape evolution.

Tell us a bit about your research.

I am particularly concerned with quantifying the timing, and rates and magnitudes of landscape evolution in tectonically active mountain belts to understand the dynamics and interactions between tectonics, Earth surfaces processes and climate. I study these regions using remote sensing, field mapping, geomorphic and sedimentological analysis of landforms, and geochronology.

You just received an NSF grant to look at strike-slip faults in Tibet. Why do you focus your research in this area?

I mainly concentrate on two major geographic-tectonic regions: the Himalayan-Tibetan orogen (mountain belt) and the Cordilleras of North and South America. These regions provide the best natural laboratories for understanding the dynamics of and the interaction between geomorphic, tectonic and climatic processes along active mountain belts. Ultimately, these studies provide analogs for understanding and modeling the evolution of ancient mountains such as the Appalachians. I’ve also undertaken research in other tectonically active regions, including the Red Sea margin in Yemen, and the Atlas and Anti-Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

The Himalaya and Tibet are interesting because the area is the most glaciated realm outside of the Polar Region – with the longest mountain glaciers in the world. The water sources for the world’s greatest populations depend on the dynamics of these glacial systems that provide water via rivers such as the Ganges, Indus, Huang (Yellow), Irrawaddy and Yangste. Clearly understanding the nature of glaciation and hydrology has important socio-economic and political consequences, and it helps drive landscape evolution.

Lewis Owen.
Owen's research will be featured on a future episode of 'How the Earth was Made,' a series on the History Channel.

What are your goals for this project?

This project extends my focus on how tectonics help drive the evolution of the Himalayan and Tibetan landscapes, which are ultimately the result of the collision of the Indian and Asian continents and subsequence erosion. In the study region, I—along with my colleagues from Houston University (Professor Alex Robinson), University of Toronto (Professor Lindsay Schoenbohm) and Chinese Academy of Science (Professor Chen Jie)—will be helping to define how much of the collision between the Indian and Asian continents are accommodated along two major strike-slip faults: the Karakoram and Karakax faults. These faults are continental in scale, stretching well over 1,000 kilometers and similar in size and form to the San Andreas Fault.

How exactly do you collect data to learn about ancient geomorphology?

What we do is map out faults and landforms, and collect samples to date the landforms to determine when they formed and when faulting deformed them. This enables us to determine how fast the faults are moving and which fault is most important in accommodating deformation. It will ultimately aid in seismic hazard mitigation, and developing and testing models for mountain building. The samples collected for dating will be analyzed in the geochronology laboratories at UC using two relatively new dating techniques: optically stimulated luminescence and cosmogenic radionuclide surface exposure dating.

I understand you and your research will be featured on the History Channel. Tell us a bit about that.

My team and I have recently completed a major project funded by the National Geographic Society to reconstruct the timing and extent of glaciation across Mt. Everest. Some of this work will be featured on the History Channel in the coming months on “How the Earth was Made – Mount Everest.” We’ve also just been awarded a grant to study the glaciation of Nanda Devi, the highest mountain in the India Himalaya, which will involve fieldwork on Nanda Devi in 2010 with colleagues and students from UC, Purdue University, Bayreuth University in Germany and Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in India.

So what exactly are you trying to contribute to the field of geology?

Along with my colleagues and students, I am working to provide a quantitative framework for testing new paradigms such as whether denudational unloading by glaciers and/or rivers can result in higher mountains, and whether the major landscape changes occurring over very short periods of climatic instability/change. We ultimately aim to define rates of Earth surface processes and tectonics to fully understand the dynamics of mountain building and to use these studies to help define the expected severe geomorphic and geologic changes that will occurring the coming years as a result of human-induced climate and environmental change.

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