Sedimentologic and provenance analyses for the Qaidam Basin in the northern Tibetan Plateau help to elucidate the stratigraphic signatures of initial deformation and exhumation in basin-bounding ranges. The basin recorded sedimentary transitions in response to uplift and unroofing of several distinctive source regions. Along the NE basin margin, a detrital record of exhumation and basin isolation is preserved in the 6200-m-thick Cenozoic succession at the Dahonggou anticline. An up-section shift from axial fluvial and marginal lacustrine deposition to transverse fluvial sedimentation suggests progradation and increasingly proximal sediment sources, reflecting activation and advance of crustal deformation. Provenance results from sandstone petrology, U-Pb geochronology, and heavy mineral analyses indicate initial late Paleocene-early Eocene derivation from igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary sources, consistent with Permian-Triassic arc rocks dominating the southern (Kunlun Shan) or southwestern (Qimen Tagh) basin margins. Up-section variations in sediment composition and detrital zircon U-Pb age distributions are attributed to Eocene-Oligocene derivation from lower Paleozoic and Mesozoic igneous and metamorphic rocks of the central to northern Qilian Shan-Nan Shan. Disappearance of igneous sources and persistence of metamorphic sources are consistent with derivation from the southern Qilian Shan-Nan Shan during early-middle Miocene shortening along the frontal Nan Shan-North Qaidam thrust belt. These results are supported by paleocurrent analyses revealing an Eocene shift from roughly E-directed (axial) to SW-directed (transverse) dispersal of sediment. Variations in lithofacies, composition, U-Pb ages, and paleoflow are consistent with late Paleocene-early Eocene exhumation in the Kunlun Shan followed by middle Eocene-middle Miocene exhumation in the Qilian Shan-Nan Shan. The up-section disappearance and reappearance of diagnostic U-Pb age populations can be associated with progressive unroofing of multiple thrust sheets, successive input of sedimentary and magmatic sources, and southward encroachment of Qilian Shan-Nan Shan shortening into the Qaidam Basin. The sedimentary record presented here indicates that during the Paleogene, the unified Qaidam-Tarim Basin was partitioned and uplifted as it was incorporated into the growing Tibetan Plateau. Comparison with basins on and surrounding the Tibetan Plateau suggests that basement strength and lateral homogeneity, and formation of syndepositional structural dams are among the primary controls on formation of giant sedimentary basins.
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