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Simulation of Foreland Basin Stratigraphy using a diffusion model of mountain belt uplift and erosion: An example from the central Alps, Switzerland


  • H. D. Sinclair,

  • B. J. Coakley,

  • P. A. Allen,

  • A. B. Watts


Foreland basin stratigraphy can be considered as the result of three interacting processes: thrust deformation, which builds the tectonic load, sedimentary and erosional processes which redistribute that load, and the flexural response of the lithosphere. The resultant stratigraphy of foreland basins is commonly composed of a small number of shallowing and coarsening upward cycles bounded by regional unconformities. To understand the development of these unconformities, we present a simple model of these three processes, coupling an evolving thrust wedge on a linear elastic plate with erosion and sedimentation defined by the diffusion equation applied to topography. Our model demonstrates the development of regional unconformities without recourse to either eustasy or complex viscoelastic models for the continental lithosphere. The model describes the thrust wedge-foreland basin system in terms of four parameters: (1) the effective elastic thickness of the foreland plate (Te), (2) the sediment transport coefficient (K), (3) the thrust wedge advance rate, (4) the surface slope of the thrust wedge. The model is applied to the Oligocene-Miocene North Alpine Foreland Basin (NAFB) of eastern Switzerland. The stratigraphy of the NAFB can be simplified into two large-scale shallowing upward cycles separated by an unconformity at the base of the Burdigalian (22 Ma). Geological information is taken from the NAFB to estimate suitable values for the parameters listed above. Assuming a linear elastic lithospheric rheology, the Te value is estimated at 10±5 km from decompacted sediment columns. Data to constrain the sequential development of the thrust wedge come from structural geology. The early stages (40–24 Ma) of compression involved a relatively low-angle thrust wedge with an advance rate of approximately 2–4 mm/yr. At about 24 Ma the wedge advance slowed down and thickened by underplating crystalline basement of the foreland plate. The value for the transport coefficient has been estimated from previous studies. Prior to attempting to simulate the broad-scale geometry of the NAFB the role of each parameter was assessed individually. The values for Te and K are held constant throughout the simulation of the NAFB at 7.5 km and 500 m²/yr, respectively. The geometry of the base Burdigalian unconformity is reproduced by variations in the parameters describing the thrust wedge. The surface slope angle of the wedge is increased from 2.5° to 4° over 0.2 m.y., and the rate of thrust advance is decreased from 2 mm/yr to 0.2 mm/yr, during the thickening event between 24 and 23.8 Ma. The rejuvenation of the internal parts of the thrust load causes backtilting of the foreland basin sediments and, after a time lag, erosion of the distal stratigraphy over the forebulge, so simulating the base Burdigalian unconformity.

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