Washington D.C: A new Yellow River sediment research has revealed some unexpected information about Earth's climate history.
By meticulously examining sediments in China's Yellow River, a Swedish-Chinese research group is showing that the history of tectonic and climate evolution on Earth may need to be rewritten.
To reconstruct how the global climate and topography of the Earth's surface have developed over millions of years, deposits of eroded land sediment transported by rivers to ocean depths are often used. This process is assumed to have been rapid and, by the same token, not to have resulted in any major storages of this sediment as large deposits along the way.
The researchers, from Uppsala University (led by Thomas Stevens) and Lanzhou University (led by Junsheng Nie), China, analysed Yellow River sediment from source to sink and determined its mineral composition. They also determined the age of mineral grains of zircon, a very hard silicate mineral that is highly resistant to weathering.
The scientists found that the composition of sediment from the Yellow River underwent radical change after passing the Chinese Loess Plateau. Contrary to their expectations, however, the windborne loess was not the main source of the sediment. Instead, they found that the Loess Plateau acts as a sink for Yellow River material eroded from the uplifting Tibetan plateau.
This finding completely changes our understanding of the origin of the Chinese Loess Plateau. It also demonstrates large scale sediment storage on land, which explains the previously contradictory findings in this area.
The results suggest that a major change in the monsoon around 3.6 million years ago caused the onset of Yellow River drainage, accelerated erosion of the Tibetan plateau and drove loess deposition, Stevens wrote.
Weathering of this eroded material also constitutes a further mechanism that may explain the reduced levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide at the beginning of the Ice Age. The researchers' next step will be to compare terrestrial and marine records of erosion to gauge how far sediment storage on land has impacted the marine record.
The study is published in journal Nature Communications.