Imaggeo on Mondays: Probing the Pliocene

Imaggeo on Mondays: Probing the Pliocene

The heights we go to for science…

This photograph shows a member of our team preparing to abseil down a cliff in the Charyn Canyon, in the Ili River basin of southeast Kazakhstan. The Charyn River and its tributaries, a branch of the Ili River north of the Tien Shan Mountains, have cut canyons up to 300 metres deep, carving through rocks of different geologic ages, some as old as 540 million years.

The name “Charyn” may derive from local Uighur or Turkic words for “ash tree” or “precipice” respectively, both of which are common in the area.

Charyn Canyon is presently characterized by a cold semi-arid climate, with dry summers and cold winters. However, these conditions are likely to have varied through time, becoming wetter, drier, warmer and cooler in response to major climate systems’ changing intensity and influence over the region.

Our research team investigates the past and present climate systems of the Cenozoic era, our current geological era which began 66 million years ago; the most recent 2.6 million years have been characterised by alternating ice ages and warmer so-called “interglacial” phases, and saw the evolution of humans. More specifically, we study climate systems in one of the most remote regions of Central Asia, known as the Eurasian Continental Pole of Inaccessibility. The area is a challenging place for climate research since it has no marine or ice core records, the most common calendars of ancient climate.

This region is poorly understood yet important within the global climate system, since it lies at the boundaries of the major northern hemispheric climate systems. These systems, such as the Siberian high pressure system and Asian monsoons, are likely to have shifted, expanded and contracted over time. These changes occur in response to factors like mountain uplift, and changes in the Earth’s orbital patterns and incoming solar radiation.

The aim of our study is to reconstruct climatic change over this period. By analysing various chemical and physical characteristics of the sediments, such as their age, magnetism, grain size and chemistry, we can reconstruct quantitative palaeoclimatic variability through time.

Here we focus on an 80-metre thick layer of sediment, which alternates between layers of river-transported gravels and wind-blown dust deposits, known as loess. Younger sedimentary layers have thicker dust deposits, reflecting a long-term aridification trend in the Ili Basin and, more broadly, Central Asia.

Our preliminary results from our fieldwork indicate that the canyon’s sediments represent an uninterrupted representation of the region’s climate from the Pliocene to early Pleistocene (from approximately 4.5 to 1 million years ago).

Achieving a comprehensive geological sampling of the Charyn Canyon was only possible by abseil. Our fieldwork, undertaken from May to June 2017, was a hot and dusty business, but ultimately a lot of fun. Definitely not for those with a fear of heights!

By Kathryn Fitzsimmons, Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Germany and Giancarlo Scardia, São Paulo State University, Brazil

GeoSciences Column: When could humans last walk, on land, between Asia & America?

GeoSciences Column: When could humans last walk, on land, between Asia & America?

Though now submerged under 53 m of ocean waters, there once was a land bridge which connected North America with Asia, allowing the passage of species, including early humans, between the two continents. A new study, published in the EGU’s open access journal Climate of the Past, explores when the land bridge was last inundated, cutting off the link between the two landmasses.

The Bering Strait, a narrow passage of water, connects the Arctic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. Located slightly south of the Arctic Circle, the shallow, navigable, 85 km wide waterway is all that separates the U.S.A and Russia. There is strong evidence to suggest that, not so long ago, it was possible to walk between the two*.

The Paleolithic people of the Americas. Evidence suggests big-animal hunters crossed the Bering Strait from Eurasia into North America over a land and ice bridge (Beringia). Image: The American Indian by Clark Wissler (1917). Distributed via Wikipedia.

In fact, though the subject of a heated, ongoing debate, this route is thought to be one of the ones taken by some of the very first human colonisers of the Americas, some 16, 500 years ago.

Finding out exactly when the Bering Strait last flooded is important, not only because it ends the last period when animals and humans could cross between North America and northeast Asia, but because an open strait affects the two oceans it connects. It plays a role in how waters move around in the Arctic Ocean, as well as how masses of water with different properties (oxygen and/or salt concentrations and temperatures, for example) arrange themselves. The implications are significant: currently, the heat transported to Arctic waters (from the Pacific) via the Bering Strait determines the extend of Arctic sea ice.

As a result, a closed strait has global climatic implications, which adds to the importance of knowing when the strait last flooded.

The new study uses geophysical data which allowed the team of authors to create a 3D image of the Herald Canyon (within the Bering Strait). They combined this map with data acquired from cylindrical sections of sediment drilled from the ocean floor to build a picture of how the environments in the region of the Bering Strait changed towards the end of the last glaciation (at the start of a time known as the Holocene, approximately 11,700 years ago, when the last ‘ice age’ ended).

At depths between 412 and 400 cm in the cores, the sediment experiences changes in physical and chemical properties which, the researchers argue, represent the time when Pacific water began to enter the Arctic Ocean via the Bearing strait. Radiocarbon dating puts the age of this transition at approximately 11, 000 years ago.

Above this transition in the core, the scientist identified high concentrations of biogenic silica (which comes from the skeletons of marine creatures such as diatoms – a type of algae – and sponges); a characteristic signature of Pacific waters. Elevated concentrations of a carbon isotope called delta carbon thirteen (δ 13Corg), are further evidence that marine waters were present at that time, as they indicate larger contributions from phytoplankton.

The sediments below the transition consist of sandy clayey silts, which the team interpret as deposited near to the shore with the input of terrestrial materials. Above the transition, the sediments become olive-grey in colour and are exclusively made up of silt. Combined with the evidence from the chemical data, the team argue, these sediments were deposited in an exclusively marine environment, likely influenced by Pacific waters.

Combining geophysical data with information gathered from sediment cores allowed the researchers to establish when the Bering Strait closed. This image is a 3-D view of the bathymetry of Herald Canyon and the chirp sonar profiles acquired along crossing transects. Locations of the coring sites are shown by black bars. Figure taken from M. Jakobsson et al. 2017.

The timing of the sudden flooding of the Bering Strait and the submergence of the land bridge which connected North America with northeast Asia, coincides with a period of time characterised by Meltwater pulse 1B, when sea levels were rising rapidly as a result of meltwater input to the oceans from the collapse of continental ice sheets at the end of the last glaciation.

The reestablishment of the Pacific-Arctic water connection, say the researchers, would have had a big impact on the circulation of water in the Arctic Ocean, sea ice, ecology and potentially the Earth’s climate during the early Holocene. Know that we are more certain about when the Bering Strait reflooded, scientist can work towards quantifying these impacts in more detail.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer


*Authors’s note: In fact, during the winter months, when sea ice covers the strait, it is still possible to cross from Russia to the U.S.A (and vice versa) on foot. Eight people have accomplished the feat throughout the 20th Century. Links to some recent attempts can be found at the end of this post.

References and resources:

Jakobsson, M., Pearce, C., Cronin, T. M., Backman, J., Anderson, L. G., Barrientos, N., Björk, G., Coxall, H., de Boer, A., Mayer, L. A., Mörth, C.-M., Nilsson, J., Rattray, J. E., Stranne, C., Semiletov, I., and O’Regan, M.: Post-glacial flooding of the Bering Land Bridge dated to 11 cal ka BP based on new geophysical and sediment records, Clim. Past, 13, 991-1005,, 2017.

Barton, C. M., Clark, G. A., Yesner, D. R., and Pearson, G. A.: The Settlement of the American Continents: A Multidisciplinay Approach to Human Biogeography, The University of Arizona Press, Tuscon, 2004.

Goebel, T., Waters, M. R., and Rourke, D. H.: The Late Pleistocene Dispersal of Modern Humans in the Americas, Science, 319,1497–1502,, 2008

Epic explorer crossed frozen sea (BBC):

Korean team crossed Bering Strait (The Korean Herald):

Imaggeo on Mondays: Flying over flysch

In this week’s Imaggeo on Mondays, Ian Watkinson transports us to the Sulaiman Mountain Range and shows why it’s always worth bringing a camera in your hand luggage…  

“Plunge” by Ian Watkinson, distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence.

“Plunge” by Ian Watkinson, distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence.

This image is the view from the window of a plane crossing the Pakistan-Afghanistan border close to Zhob. I took it just before the weather closed in on a clear crossing of the Indus valley foreland and the entire Sulaiman Mountain Range. The Sulaiman ranges are a spectacularly lobate fold and thrust belt that is slowly being transported south-eastward over the Indian Plate as it collides with Eurasia.

The Katawaz Basin is sandwiched between an active foreland fold and thrust belt, which  accommodates oblique shortening, and the sinistral Chaman Fault, which accommodates lateral motion. The basin is filled with marine sedimentary rocks that formed during the Eocene-Miocene, known as the Khojak flysch. The flysch are a thick package of marine sandstones and shales that overlay ophiolites – areas of oceanic plate that have been thrust onto the edge of a continental one, and mark the suture between India and Eurasia. Gently plunging fault-related folds deform the flysch – and you can see a number of these folds in my photo.

The Katawatz Basin ophiolites and the Sulaiman fold and thrust belt are important because they record the final closure of Neo-Tethyan ocean basins around the western margin of India, and its subsequent and ongoing collision with Eurasia. Fold and thrust belts, such as the Himalayas and the Indo-Myanmar ranges, fringe much of the northern Indian Plate, but the Sulaiman ranges are perhaps the most clearly exposed from the air.

Part of the Sulaiman mountain range as seen from space. (Credit: NASA/USGS EROS Data Center)

Part of the Sulaiman Mountain Range as seen from space. (Credit: NASA/USGS EROS Data Center)

Finally, here’s how I took the photo: I had to increase the contrast of this image to remove thick haze in the lower atmosphere. At the time I had also been experimenting with applying narrow depth of field effects to digital elevation models to enhance the impression of distance, so I applied the technique to this image as it looks a little like a digital elevation model.

By Ian Watkinson, Royal Holloway University of London


Jadoon, I. A. K., Lawrence, R. D. and Lillie, R. J.: Seismic Data, Geometry, Evolution, and Shortening in the Active Sulaiman Fold-and-Thrust Belt of Pakistan, Southwest of the Himalayas. AAPG Bulletin, 78, 758-774, 1994

Gnos, E., Immenhauser, A. and Peters, T.: Late Cretaceous/early Tertiary convergence between the Indian and Arabian plates recorded in ophiolites and related sediments. Tectonophysics, 271, 1–19, 1997

The EGU’s open access geoscience image repository has a new and improved home at! We’ve redesigned the website to give the database a more modern, image-based layout and have implemented a fully responsive page design. This means the new website adapts to the visitor’s screen size and looks good whether you’re using a smartphone, tablet or laptop.

Photos uploaded to Imaggeo are licensed under Creative Commons, meaning they can be used by scientists, the public, and even the press, provided the original author is credited. Further, you can now choose how you would like to licence your work. Users can also connect to Imaggeo through their social media accounts too! Find out more about the relaunch on the EGU website.