20. Foreland Basin Systems Revisited: Variations in Response to Tectonic Settings

  1. Cathy Busby2 and
  2. Antonio Azor3
  1. Peter G. DeCelles

Published Online: 30 JAN 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9781444347166.ch20

Tectonics of Sedimentary Basins: Recent Advances

Tectonics of Sedimentary Basins: Recent Advances

How to Cite

DeCelles, P. G. (2011) Foreland Basin Systems Revisited: Variations in Response to Tectonic Settings, in Tectonics of Sedimentary Basins: Recent Advances (eds C. Busby and A. Azor), John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Chichester, UK. doi: 10.1002/9781444347166.ch20

Editor Information

  1. 2

    Department of Earth Science, University of California, Santa Barbara CA 93106, USA

  2. 3

    Departamento de Geodinámica, Universidad de Granada, Campus de Fuentenueva, s/n, 18071 Granada, Spain

Author Information

  1. Department of Geosciences, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721, USA

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 30 JAN 2012
  2. Published Print: 30 DEC 2011

ISBN Information

Print ISBN: 9781405194655

Online ISBN: 9781444347166



  • foreland basins;
  • flexure;
  • orogenic belts;
  • geodynamics;
  • stratigraphy


The four-part districting scheme (wedge-top, foredeep, forebulge, and backbulge depozones) applies to many foreland basin systems worldwide, but significant variations occur in the stratigraphic record. These variations depend on tectonic setting and the nature of the associated fold-thrust belt. Continued growth of the foldthrust belt by horizontal shortening requires foreland lithosphere to migrate toward the fold-thrust belt. The flexural wave set up by the topographic load may migrate ∼1000km sideways through the foreland lithosphere, a distance that is comparable to the flexural wavelength. This extreme lateral mobility results in the vertical stacking of foreland basin depozones in the stratigraphic record. The standard stratigraphic succession consists of a several km-thick upward coarsening sequence, marked in its lower part by a zone of intense stratigraphic condensation or a major disconformity (owing to passage of the forebulge), and in its upper part by coarsegrained proximal facies with growth structures (the wedge-top depozone). Foredeep deposits always reside between the forebulge disconformity/condensation zone and wedge-top deposits, and backbulge deposits may be present in the lowermost part of the succession. Wedge-top deposits are vulnerable to erosion because of their high structural elevation, and preservation of backbulge and forebulge deposits depends in part on tectonic setting.

Three main types of fold-thrust belt are recognized: retroarc, collisional (or peripheral), and those associated with retreating collisional subduction zones. Retroarc foreland basin systems (such as the modern Andean) are susceptible to far-field dynamic loading transmitted to the foreland lithosphere by viscous coupling between the subducting oceanic slab and the mantle wedge. This longwavelength subsidence adds to subsidence caused by the topographic flexural wave, allowing for preservation of well-developed forebulge and backbulge depozones. The absence of dynamic subsidence in collisional (peripheral) foreland basin systems (such as the modern Himalayan) renders forebulge and backbulge regions vulnerable to erosion and non-preservation. Retreating collisional foreland basin systems (such as those in the Mediterranean region) are often associated with large subducted slab loads, which produce narrow but very thick accumulations in the foredeep and wedge-top depozones. These foreland basin systems are characterized by very thick foredeep and wedge-top deposits, well beyond what would be expected from topographic loading alone. Changing lithospheric stiffness in collisional settings may affect preservation of the backbulge and forebulge depozones. If these distal foreland basin deposits are not preserved, roughly half the history of the orogenic event (as archived in the stratigraphic record) may be lost.

Many foreland stratigraphic successions provide sufficient information to estimate the velocity of migration of the flexural wave through the foreland, which may in turn be decomposed into propagation and shortening velocities in the thrust belt. Foreland basin subsidence curves may be inverted to produce an idealized flexural profile, from which flexural properties of the lithosphere maybe derived. However, spatial changes in flexural rigidity, as well as changes in the size of the orogenic load and rates of propagation and shortening in the thrust belt require that the thrust belt-foreland basin system be palinspastically restored in order to understand the long-term geodynamics.