Article

Swiss Journal of Geosciences

, Volume 100, Issue 3, pp 383-405

First online:

Possible environmental effects on the evolution of the Alps-Molasse Basin system

  • Fritz SchluneggerAffiliated withExogene Geology Group, Institute of Geological Sciences, University of Bern Email author 
  • , Dirk Rieke-ZappAffiliated withExogene Geology Group, Institute of Geological Sciences, University of Bern
  • , Karl RamseyerAffiliated withExogene Geology Group, Institute of Geological Sciences, University of Bern

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Abstract

We propose three partly unrelated stages in the geodynamic evolution of the Alps and the sedimentary response of the Molasse Basin. The first stage comprises the time interval between ca. 35 and 20 Ma and is characterized by a high ratio between rates of crustal accretion and surface erosion. The response of the Molasse Basin was a change from the stage of basin underfill (UMM) to overfill (USM). Because the response time of erosional processes to crustal accretion and surface uplift lasts several millions of years, the orogen first experienced a net growth until the end of the Oligocene. As a result, the Molasse basin subsided at high rates causing the topographic axis to shift to the proximal basin border and alluvial fans to establish at the thrust front. During the Aquitanian, however, ongoing erosion and downcutting in the hinterland caused sediment discharge to the basin to increase and the ratio between the rates of crustal accretion and surface erosion to decrease. The result was a progradation of the dispersal systems, and a shift of the topographic axis towards the distal basin border. The second stage started at ca. 20 Ma at a time when palaeoclimate became more continental, and when the crystalline core became exposed in the orogen. The effect was a decrease in the erosional efficiency of the Swiss Alps and hence a reduction of sediment discharge to the Molasse Basin. We propose that this decrease in sediment flux caused the Burdigalian transgression of the OMM. We also speculate that this reduction of surface erosion initiated the modification of Alpine deformation from vertically- to mainly horizontally directed extrusion (deformation of the Southern Alps, and the Jura Mountains some Ma later). The third stage in the geodynamic development was initiated at the Miocene/Pliocene boundary. At that time, palaeoclimate possibly became wetter, which, in turn, caused surface erosion to increase relative to crustal accretion. This change caused the Alps to enter a destructive stage and the locus of active deformation to shift towards to the orogenic core. It also resulted in a net unloading of the orogen and thus in a flexural rebound of the foreland plate.

We conclude that the present chronological resolution is sufficient to propose possible feedback mechanisms between environmental effects and lithospheric processes. Further progress will result from a down-scaling in research. Specifically, we anticipate that climate-driven changes in sediment flux altered the channel geometries of USM and OSM deposits, the pattern of sediment transport and thus the stacking arrangement of architectural elements. This issue has not been sufficiently explored and awaits further detailed quantitative studies.

Keywords:

Swiss Molasse Alps geodynamics climate and tectonics