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Journal of Creation 36(3):13–16, December 2022

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Uniformitarian paleoaltimetry estimates questionable


Conclusions about paleoenvironments, based on the rocks and fossils, are often tenuous. Scientists frequently use terms like ‘lacustrine’, ‘marine’, ‘fluvial’, ‘deep water’, or ‘shallow water’ to describe local/ regional paleoenvironments. They also claim they can determine the paleoclimate. All these paleoenvironmental deductions are almost universally dependent upon strict uniformitarianism. While some paleoenvironmental deductions are likely correct, such as that a marine fossil implies it came from a marine environment, others require awareness of the scientists’ assumptions, and we need to evaluate their deductions accordingly.1 Analysis often reveals contradictions among uniformitarian paleoenvironmental deductions, surprisingly even when assuming present processes.2 One of these paleoenvironmental deductions is the paleoaltitude.

Paleoaltitude can answer other questions

One of the main reasons that uniformitarian scientists desire to determine the paleoaltitude is because they believe a multitude of deductions can flow from those estimates. From them, scientists claim they can calculate many things, such as:

  • the timing, mechanisms, and dynamics of uplift
  • changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide as a result of weathering
  • how high elevations can be sustained for millions of years
  • how elevations affect climate
  • whether planation surfaces were carved at sea level or above sea level, and
  • the origin of deep gorges.

Researchers especially like to apply paleoaltimetry to the Tibetan Plateau, the Andes of South America, and the Rocky Mountains and Colorado Plateau in the southwestern United States. They seek to understand when the Colorado Plateau uplifted so that they can time the origin of Grand Canyon, still unexplained by uniformitarian geology.3

Many methods for estimating paleoaltitude

Scientists have used many different methods to estimate paleoaltitudes. They are all questionable and give ranges of 0–5 km for the mid- Cenozoic, assuming the geological column: “A diverse suite of techniques, each with their own biases and uncertainties, yield discrepant mid-Cenozoic elevations estimates (0–5 km).”4 Biases include incomplete or selective sampling: “Finally, we posit that interpretations of proxy data can be incomplete or selective sampling.”4

The chaos of suggested paleoaltitudes, based on the diversity of approaches, is especially obvious in the discussions trying to explain the uplift of the Tibetan Plateau.

Uplift of the Tibetan Plateau

The major question is: when did the Tibetan Plateau uplift in the Cenozoic? Ingalls et al. apply several methods to the history of uplift and peneplanation (the forming of a rolling planation surface) of the Tibetan Plateau.5 They obtain early- to mid-Cenozoic high elevations for the Lhasa Terrane of the Tibet Plateau (figure 1). The Tibetan Plateau is believed to have been formed by the accretion of several generally east–west continental terranes to southern Asia. This they say happened during the Mesozoic collision of the Indian Plate before India itself supposedly slammed into the terranes in the early Cenozoic. The Lhasa Terrane is the first terrane north of the Himalaya Mountains. However, some studies claim that the Lhasa Terrane was already high before the Cenozoic and the continental collisions.5

Image: Darekk2, Wikimedia / CC-BY-SA-4.0 (modified) Tibetan Plateau map
Figure 1. The Tibetan Plateau colour-coded to altitude with the Lhasa Terrane drawn in

Researchers often use the strata in basins on the top of the Lhasa Terrane to make paleoaltitude estimates. These basins contain ‘fluvial-lacustrine’ sedimentary rocks. Researchers have used paleontology, palynology (pollen abundances), and geochemistry of these basins to determine paleoaltitude. The Lunpola basin has 4 km of strata they claimed was deposited from the Eocene to Pliocene.6

Paleontological and palynological methods

One method is to use the environments and altitudes occupied by the nearest living relatives (NLRs) of the basin fossils, assuming present climate conditions. This method gives low to intermediate altitudes ranging from sea level to 3 km in the Oligocene.7 The NLR method is questionable, especially because secular scientists claim a supposedly warmer and drier paleoclimate at that time, and the area was at a different paleolatitude.

Late Eocene marine foraminifera have been found in a basin on the northern Lhasa Terrane.8 Since foraminifera are marine, and the fossils are presently high altitude, far from the ocean, Wei et al. suggest that ancient oceans were close to the Tibetan Plateau in the late Eocene. So, they postulate the nearby ‘Himalaya and Pamir Seas’ with the foraminifera blown inland by storms when the paleoaltitude was low. Because many studies indicate a high altitude near the ‘time’ the foraminifera supposedly lived, the discoverers claim that the paleoaltitude started low and rapidly uplifted.

The use of palynology also yields different results.7 Pollen data can be gleaned from the paleoaltitude or the paleoclimate. Thus, palynological and paleontological data can be equivocal.

Geochemical methods

Oxygen and hydrogen isotopes are often used for paleoaltitude estimates but are based on present-day relationships, such as an isotopic decrease with the altitude, but this likely would not apply to the past. Wei et al. claim that more positive oxygen isotope ratios can support a low altitude of the Tibetan Plateau in the late Eocene, reinforcing the evidence from foraminifera. However, it is known that evaporation and diagenetic changes can alter the primary isotope signals.9 Furthermore, even today several variables affect the isotope measurements.10 So, different paleoaltitudes of the Tibetan planation surface have resulted from the oxygen isotope ratios.11

One recent report claimed oxygen isotope ratios gave a low Eocene elevation (< 500 m above sea level) for the plateau, in line with paleontological and paleobotanical proxy data.12 Supporting low elevations are tropical paleoflora, such as palms, golden rain trees, and climbing vines found and dated to the Oligocene.13 Other oxygen isotope results had given a present-day elevation for the Tibetan Plateau in the Eocene.

Botsyun et al. countered that these results are in error because the usual decrease in δ18O with height did not apply, and the ratio actually increased with altitude during the Eocene. This would falsify all the previous isotopic paleoelevation results that gave high elevations. Botsyun et al. also contended that the complexity of all the paleoenvironmental changes requires a ‘climate simulation’ to interpret the data:

“The complexity of atmospheric processes within greenhouse climates, combined with differing paleogeographies, highlight the necessity of using dedicated climate simulations for interpreting δ18Oc data.”14

Of course, climate simulations can also be subjective, especially when setting the initial conditions. In this case, Botsyun et al. postulate a ‘Paratethys Sea’ near the location of the Lhasa Terrane and northward that would greatly affect oxygen isotope ratios in the mid Cenozoic. Others have challenged the Botsyun et al. results, stating: “However, we contend that their conclusions are flawed as the result of a number of failings of both the modeling and the data comparison.”15

Ingalls et al. also challenge the results of Botsyun et al. and compute a high Tibetan Plateau in the Eocene. Ingalls et al. not only used carbon and oxygen isotopes, but also the newer temperature proxy of carbonate clumped isotopes. They get Eocene paleoaltitudes of 3.1–4.7 km, much higher than those of Botsyun et al. But their analysis also depends upon many assumptions with complex proxies.

So, on it goes with contradictory conclusions. Like previous researchers, Ingalls et al. are dogmatic about their high paleoaltitudes for the Tibetan Plateau in the Eocene:

“Using carbonate clumped isotopes and stable isotope paleoaltimetry, we determined that the mean elevation of the northern Lhasa terrane has been in excess of 3.1 km above sea level since at least the Eocene.”16

But one thing is certain, at least some paleoaltitude proxies conflict and produce variable results.

What does a high Cenozoic Tibetan Plateau mean for peneplanation?

The paleoaltitude of the Tibetan Plateau has consequences for the planation of the Tibetan Plateau. This planation surface is about 2.5 million km2 in area and has been subsequently dissected by gorges kilometres deep. At the large scale, the Tibetan Plateau is extremely flat: “Concerning the first factor, at moderate to long wavelengths from tens to hundreds of kilometers, central Tibet is extremely flat.”17 It is interesting that Ingalls et al. use the old rejected terminology of William Morris Davis and call the Tibetan Plateau a peneplain. I have noticed other researchers have also been using this same old terminology when writing about planation surfaces.

Since Ingalls et al. claim high paleoaltitudes in the early Cenozoic, they would place the formation of the huge planation surface at well above sea level. Other researchers also believe the planation happened at high altitude.18,19 Sea level has normally been called the ‘base level’ for planation surfaces.20 This is reasonable from a deep time point of view, since erosion will ultimately reduce a high terrain to sea level. However, it is still difficult to account for local and regional bevelling of many different lithologies down to a flat surface.

One suggested mechanism for creating a high-altitude planation surface is the glacial buzzsaw or cryoplanation. This is the idea that glaciers and periglacial activity can form flat surfaces. This mechanism can apply for local areas, such as ridge summits, but such low-gradient features are scattered and small.21 Furthermore, glaciation cuts valleys and does not plane laterally.22 Another problem for Tibet is that, except for the mountains, the Tibetan Plateau was never glaciated.23 A recent hypothesis for southeastern Tibet is that stream piracy somehow formed the narrow planation surfaces between three parallel rivers within 3–4 km deep canyons.18,24 This, too, has numerous problems.25

Flood interpretation

Applying a Flood model, the Himalaya Mountains and the Tibetan Plateau rose up out of the floodwater during the Recessive Stage of the Flood.26-28 Sedimentation and erosion of the Tibetan Plateau would have taken place underwater, before uplift. Because of this, we would expect equivocal paleoaltitude proxies. Proxies need to be accurately dated, so part of the problem could be the inaccuracies of the various dating methods.

Planation likely occurred when kilometres of sediment were eroded, during the runoff of the Flood. Uniformitarian scientists estimate 10 km of erosion at one location of eastern Tibet, based on fission track thermochronometry.29 But this method also is loaded with uniformitarian assumptions, such as past subsurface temperatures and deep time. Since the top of the Tibetan Plateau is mostly igneous and metamorphic rocks, the planation could have occurred early in the Flood as part of the Great Unconformity. But I favour planation during Flood runoff because of the great thickness of conglomerate at the base of the Himalayas.30 During uplift and Flood runoff, the planation surface would have been deeply dissected as the flow became more channelized. Block faulting was happening at much the same time, resulting in deep rifts and basins, as well as uplifted mountain ranges that tower above the average elevation of the plateau.

All the geologic activity revealed on the Tibetan Plateau points to a Flood/post-Flood boundary in the late Cenozoic, assuming the geological column. In support of this is 3–6 km of rock claimed eroded from the Tibetan Plateau,19 and deep basins on top of the plateau, one of which has 4 km of Eocene to Pliocene sediments. These features indicate massive erosion and deposition happening into the late Cenozoic, probably under the floodwater, indicating a very fast late Cenozoic uplift, if the dates can be trusted. If the Cenozoic was deposited after the Flood, we are left with explaining how this enormous amount of geomorphological activity could have happened after the Flood.


Many uniformitarian scientists present their results with certainty, while other researchers claim they are flawed. Dogmatism seems to be characteristic of much secular historical science. But that dogmatism can reveal a genuine conflict in the datasets secular investigators are working with that is much simpler to explain in the context of Noah’s Flood. Paleoaltimetry proxies are a case in point.

Posted on homepage: 29 December 2023

References and notes

  1. Oard, M.J., Beware of paleoenvironmental deductions, J. Creation 13(2):13, 1999. Return to text.
  2. Oard, M.J., A uniformitarian paleoenvironmental dilemma at Clarkia, Idaho, USA, J. Creation 16(1):3–4, 2002. Return to text.
  3. Oard, M.J., A Grand Origin for Grand Canyon, Creation Research Society, Chino Valley, AZ, 2016. Return to text.
  4. Ingalls, M., Rowley, D.B., Currie, B.S., and Colman, A.S., Reconsidering the uplift history and peneplanation of the northern Lhasa terrane, Tibet, American J. Science 320:479, 2020. Return to text.
  5. Ingalls et al., ref. 4, pp. 479–532. Return to text.
  6. Ingalls et al., ref. 5, p. 487. Return to text.
  7. Ingalls et al., ref. 5, p. 481. Return to text.
  8. Wei, Y., Zhang, K., Garzione, C.N., Xu, Y., Song, B., and Ji, J., Low palaeoelevation of the northern Lhasa terrane during late Eocene: fossil foraminifera and stable isotope evidence from Gerze Basin, Scientific Reports 6(27508):1–9, 2016. Return to text.
  9. Wei et al., ref. 8, p. 4. Return to text.
  10. Oard, M.J., The Frozen Record: Examining the ice core history of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets, Institute for Creation Research, Dallas, TX, pp. 147–158, 2005 (available from print on demand). Return to text.
  11. Ingals et al., ref. 5, p. 582. Return to text.
  12. Botsyun, S., Sepulchre, P., Donnadieu, Y., Risi, C., Licht, A., and Rugenstein, J.K.C., Revised paleoaltimetry data show low Tibetan Plateau elevation during the Eocene, Science 363:1–9, 2019. Return to text.
  13. Ingalls et al., ref. 5, p. 504. Return to text.
  14. Botsyun et al., ref. 12, p. 4. Return to text.
  15. Valdes, P.J., Lin, D., Farnsworth, A., Spicer, R.A., Li, S.-H., and Tao, S., Comment on “Revised paleoaltimetry data show low Tibetan Plateau elevation during the Eocene”, Science doi.org/10.1126/science.aax8474, p. 1, 2019. Return to text.
  16. Ingalls et al., ref. 5, p. 507. Return to text.
  17. Fielding, E., Isacks, B., Barazangi, M., and Duncan, C., How flat is Tibet? Geology 22:168, 1994. Return to text.
  18. Yang, R., Willett, S.D., and Goren, L., In situ low-relief landscape formation as a result of river network disruption, Nature 520:526–529, 2015. Return to text.
  19. Haider, V.L., Dunki, I., von Eynatten, H., Ding, L., Frei, K., and Zhang, L., Cretaceous to Cenozoic evolution of the northern Lhasa Terrane and the early Paleogene development of peneplains at Nam Co, Tibetan Plateau, J. Asian Earth Sciences 70–71:79–98, 2013. Return to text.
  20. Ingalls et al., ref. 5, p. 503. Return to text.
  21. Calvet, M., Gunnell, Y., and Farines, B., Flattopped mountain ranges; their global distribution and value for understanding the evolution of mountain topography, Geomorphology 241:255–291, 2015. Return to text.
  22. Hall, A.M. and Kleman, J., Glacial and periglacial buzzsaws: fitting mechanisms to metaphors, Quaternary Research 81:189–192, 2014. Return to text.
  23. Fielding, E., Isacks, B., Barazangi, M., and Duncan, C., How flat is Tibet? Geology 22(2):163–167, 1994. Return to text.
  24. Lavé, J., Landscape inversion by stream piracy, Nature 520:442–444, 2015. Return to text.
  25. Oard, M.J., Planation surfaces formed by river piracy? J. Creation 32(1):8–9, 2018. Return to text.
  26. Walker, T., A Biblical geological model; in: Walsh, R.E. (Ed.), Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Creationism, technical symposium sessions, Creation Science Fellowship, Pittsburgh, PA, pp. 581–592, 1994; biblicalgeology.net/. Return to text.
  27. Oard, M.J., Flood by Design: Receding water shapes the earth’s surface, Master Books, Green Forest, AR, 2008. Return to text.
  28. Oard, M.J., ebook, Earth’s Surface Shaped by Genesis Flood Runoff, 2013; Michael.oards.net/GenesisFloodRunoff.htm. Return to text.
  29. Oskin, M.E., Reanimating eastern Tibet, Nature Geoscience 5:597–598, 2012. Return to text.
  30. Oard, M.J., Retreating Stage formation of gravel sheets in south-central Asia, J. Creation 25(3):68–73, 2011. Return to text.

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