The arc of the western Alps in the light of geophysical data on deep crustal structure
Article first published online: 26 JUL 2010
Copyright 2000 by the American Geophysical Union.
Volume 19, Issue 1, pages 62–85, February 2000
How to Cite
2000), The arc of the western Alps in the light of geophysical data on deep crustal structure, Tectonics, 19(1), 62–85, doi:10.1029/1999TC900057., and (
- Issue published online: 26 JUL 2010
- Article first published online: 26 JUL 2010
- Manuscript Accepted: 27 JUL 1999
- Manuscript Received: 18 JAN 1999
Recently, two international deep seismic campaigns in the western and central Alps (Etude Continentale et Océanique par Reflexion et Refraction Sismique - Progetto Strategico Crosta Profonda, ECORS-CROP [Roure et al. 1996b]; and National Research Program 20, NRP-20 [Pfiffner et al. 1997]) have been completed. Here we present a synoptic interpretation of the wealth of geophysical data about deep crustal structure of the Alps collected during the past 40 years, including the two above mentioned geophysical projects. The tectonic reinterpretation of the ECORS-CROP high-resolution seismic transect is based on an evaluation of the deep crustal structure by integrating new and literature data on surface geology. Combined with previously published interpretations regarding the central Alps [Schmid et al., 1996], this study reveals substantial differences in geometry and kinematics between transects across the western and central Alps, respectively. At depth the transition between the central and western Alps is marked by the western limits of an Adriatic lower crustal wedge-shaped structure and the northeastern limits of a similar structure made of European lower crustal material. At the surface it coincides with a corridor of dextral strike-slip along the Tonale and Simplon lines. In addition, the thickness of the seismogenic zone shows a remarkable variation from over 40 km beneath the Penninic realm of the western Alps to less than 20 km in the central Alps. The formation of the western Alpine arc was initiated during convergence and collision before 35 Myr ago, when the Adriatic micro-plate, moving northward with respect to the European foreland, caused sinistral transpression in the western Alps while the central and eastern Alps underwent head-on convergence and collision. During the post-collisional stage, i.e., after 35 Myr ago, the arcuate shape of the western Alps was accentuated by WNW-directed movement and anticlockwise rotation of the Adriatic microplate, decoupled from the central and eastern Alps along the Tonale-Simplon dextral shear zone. This led to wedging of lower crustal slices both in the western Alps and in the central Alps. The new tectonic interpretation of the ECORS-CROP transect allows a kinematic model to be established for crustal shortening in the western Alps during the past 35 Myr. The Ivrea mantle plays the role of a backstop in our tectonic model. We distinguish three episodes of post-collisional crustal shortening along the ECORS-CROP transect: From 35 to 30 Ma the Brianconnais basement was back-thrusted over the Gran Paradiso units, leading to 30 km of crustal shortening (first episode). In the early Miocene, movements concentrated mainly along the Penninic frontal thrust and resulted in about 60 km shortening (second episode). Post-12 Ma shortening within the external massifs is associated with folding in the Jura mountains when the crust was shortened by an additional 30 km (third episode).