The 1.6-km-deep Gorge of the Nile, a rival of the Grand Canyon, resulted from the deep incision of the Blue Nile drainage into the uplifted Ethiopian Plateau. Understanding the incision history of the plateau is crucial to unraveling the Cenozoic tectonoclimatic evolution of the region, particularly because the region has long been used as a natural laboratory to understand the geodynamics of continental rifting and the evolution of hominins. We undertake a quantitative geomorphologic approach integrating field, geographic information system (GIS), and digital elevation model (DEM) data to analyze incision (volume, long-term rates, and spatiotemporal variability) and river longitudinal profiles of the Blue Nile drainage. Previously published isotopic ages of the Cenozoic volcanic rocks are used to constrain long-term incision rates through geologic time. Our data argue that (1) the Blue Nile drainage has removed at least 93,200 km3 of rocks from the northwestern Ethiopian Plateau since ca. 29 Ma (early Oligocene) through a three-phase (ca. 29-10 Ma, ca. 10-6 Ma, and ca. 6 Ma to present) incision, where long-term incision rates increased rapidly and episodically in the late Miocene (ca. 10 Ma and ca. 6 Ma); (2) being out-of-phase with the past climatic events and in-phase with the main volcanic episodes of the region, this episodic increase of incision rate is suggestive of episodic growth of the plateau; (3) of the ~2-km rock uplift of the plateau since ca. 30 Ma, 0.3 km was due to isostatic uplift related to erosional unloading, and the rest was due to other tectonic activities; (4) the extremely rapid long-term incision rate increase, thus a rapid uplift of the plateau, ca. 6 Ma might be related to lithospheric foundering, caused by ponded plume material beneath the Ethiopian Plateau and aided by huge tectonic stresses related to the Messinian salinity crisis of the Mediterranean Sea. These events could have caused the plateau to rise >1 km within a few m.y. in the early Pliocene. This uplift history of the Ethiopian Plateau can shed critical light on the geodynamics of the Afar mantle plume and the evolution of the East African hominins via climate change.


Geosciences and Geological and Petroleum Engineering

Keywords and Phrases

Ethiopian Plateau; Blue Nile River (Ethiopia and Sudan); Geology -- Remote sensing

Geographic Coverage


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International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)


Document Type

Article - Journal

Document Version

Final Version

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© 2007 Geological Society of America (GSA), All rights reserved.

Publication Date

01 Sep 2007

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Geology Commons