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May 21, 2002

Professor finds in the Himalayas,
what goes up must come down

In a remarkable form of mountain metabolism, the Earth's highest peaks seem to be washing away at the same rate they are growing, says a geologist at California State University, Sacramento.

Geology professor Kevin Cornwell collected data from stream drainages around Nanga Parbat, one of the highest peaks in the Himalayas, as part of a 10-year effort in northern Pakistan to study the concept of balance in the Earth's crust. Using computer models, Cornwell and colleagues Richard Marston from Oklahoma State University and Doug Norsby of the Kansas Department of Public Works, found that the mountain surface is lowering as much as six millimeters per year.

When they compared that lowering rate with the uplift rate it turned out to be very similar. "The insight we get is that the rate it is wearing away is pretty evenly balanced with the rate it is going up," Cornwell says.

He has presented the findings at scientific meetings and at the most recent Binghamton International Geomorphology Symposium.

Balance is an old concept, similar to icebergs in the ocean, Cornwell says. "When you see a large rock mass, such as a mountain, sticking out of the ground, there is even more of it below the surface. The Himalayas are five miles high which suggests a lot more under the surface."

The lofty laboratory of the Himalayas provides a unique look at geological processes. The Himalayas are very young geologically, and they are extreme, offering the chance to watch development as it is happening, he says. While he cautions that he was looking at relatively small amounts of data at select localities, he notes conclusions can still be made. "We don't have the luxury of watching these processes happen over time. Our work is a snapshot of a brief piece of time that documents the conditions that are going on now," he says. "We then evaluate the conditions and extrapolate to the past."

His findings not only provide insight into how mountains are formed, but offer glimpses into the causes and effects of climate change.

As fresh rock is "unroofed" and exposed to weathering carbon dioxide is consumed by the atmosphere, which decreases the atmosphere's ability to trap heat, Cornwell says. Over the last two million years, the Earth's climates have been cooler, perhaps because of the unroofing of the Himalayas. Climate change can affect the precipitation in area seas as well as the erosion potential in rivers and streams and how much sediment they produce.

Cornwell began working in the Himalayas in 1991 as part of his dissertation research. He spent the following year on a Fulbright scholarship to University of Peshawar in Peshawar, Pakistan. He returned for three months in 1997 on a National Science Foundation-sponsored expedition to look at the amount of sediment coming off the mountain through river actions.

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