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NMSU scientists climb Tibetan Plateau to collect seismic data from tectonics project

What grows at an elevation of 15,000 feet?

A team of researchers from New Mexico State University, and other universities internationally, will collect seismometer stations imbedded in the ground in Tibet to gather and analyze data to try to determine what is happening beneath the Earth's crust. (Photo provided by Tom Hearn)

"Very little," says Tom Hearn, associate professor of physics at New Mexico State University's College of Arts and Sciences. However, beneath the sparse grass and outcroppings there is remarkable movement beneath the Earth's crust.

Hearn is one faculty member from NMSU taking part in the fourth phase of the International Deep Profiling of Tibet and Himalaya (INDEPTH) project in northern Tibet at 15,000 feet above sea level. He has returned to Tibet for one month to extract 62 seismic stations from the ground. The stations were installed by NMSU, University of Missouri at Columbia and Peking University scientists. The stations in the Qinghai region are in the northeastern part of Tibet along the plateau in a 600-mile by 400-mile area, or the span of New Mexico, western Texas and the southern part of Colorado combined.

"We want to figure out how the Tibetan Plateau is evolving," Hearn said of the entire plateau land area, about four times the size of Texas. He and other researchers from universities in the U.S. and China will collect seismic data and return to their home universities to analyze it over the next few years. The information will then be published in scientific journals and shared among science enthusiasts through international, national and local presentations and in classrooms.

The way in which the Indian and Eurasian plates collide forming the Himalayan Mountain Range and the Tibetan Plateau is extreme, Hearn said. Two continental plates come together, while India slides underneath Asia, piling up rocks and generating the highest and largest continental plateau in central Tibet.

"The crust is thickening differently in Eastern Tibet, like clay being squished from all sides," said James Ni, professor of physics at NMSU. Ni has also been one of the lead scientists and part of the INDEPTH project since 1994 and has involved physics graduate students to further enhance their educational experience while at NMSU. He has studied the plateau for more than 30 years, and said it is an area considered by many as the prime place to study continents colliding.

Scientists at NMSU have been involved in a series of seismic experiments to look at the internal Earth structure of the plateau in order to unravel its origins. The NMSU portion of the INDEPTH-IV project, supported by a $755,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, has allowed for NMSU professors and graduate students to be involved in the research since 1994.

Other higher education institutions involved in this phase of the project include University of Missouri-Columbia, Cornell University, Stanford University, GFZ Potsdam, Cambridge University and Peking University.

Videos from this trip will be posted on the NMSU YouTube channel this summer and can be found by searching the keyword "Tibet" at http://www.youtube.com/NewMexicoStateU.

For more information about the physics program and other faculty members at NMSU visit and browse http://www.nmsu.edu.