24 February 2010

Snowy décollement

Posted by Callan Bentley

Earlier in the month, during the big snowstorms, my window got plastered with snow. This snow formed a vertical layer which then deformed under the influence of gravity. Looking at it through the glass, I was struck by how it could serve as a miniature analogue for the deformation typical of a mountain belt.

Let’s start our discussion by taking a look at an iPhone photograph of the snow:

So here’s what I notice about this (vertically-oriented) photo:

The big sheet of snow is sliding downward over the face of the glass. This surface of slip is thus analogous to a low-angle thrust fault. Here, the maximum principal stress (known as σ1 to structural geologists) is gravity. The minimum principal stress (σ3) is perpendicular to the window, and the intermediate principal stress (σ2) is horizontal, parallel to the bottom edge of the window (i.e., left-to-right). As deformation proceeds, the snow slab folds up on itself and pooches outward in the area of least stress (σ3); away from the surface of the window.

As the snow layer moves downward, it creates a major fold which thickens the snow in a big line perpendicular to gravity, parallel to σ2. Along the vertical part of the window frame, the snow sheet has detached in a vertically-oriented fracture (i.e., parallel to σ1). Oblique to both σ1 and σ2 is a series of smaller folds with diagonal axes.

We can see a similar pattern in this map of the Himalayan mountain belt:

Note that the map* is oriented with north at the bottom, and south at the top, so as to be able to better compared it to my window. Note the broad arc of the Himalayan mountain front (~parallel to the Nepali border) which is perpendicular to the motion of India relative to Eurasia. The minimum principal stress direction (σ3) is vertical, which is why the mountains grow upwards (and the crust thickens downwards into the mantle, too, making the Himalayan mountain belt the site of the thickest crust on the planet). Along the edge of the impactor (analogous to our snow sheet), for instance in northern Burma, we see the same “splay” of folds with axes perpendicular to the the India-Eurasia convergence vector. The crust there is not as thickened.

Though a gooey slab of snow on my window isn’t a perfect analogue for Himalayan mountain-building, we can see some similarities in gross morphology — structural similarities that are fundamentally tied to the orientation of the principal stress directions.


* Modified by me from a Google Maps “terrain” view.