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A foreland basin system is defined as: (a) an elongate region of potential sediment accommodation that forms on continental crust between a contractional orogenic belt and the adjacent craton, mainly in response to geodynamic processes related to subduction and the resulting peripheral or retroarc fold-thrust belt; (b) it consists of four discrete depozones, referred to as the wedge-top, foredeep, forebulge and back-bulge depozones – which of these depozones a sediment particle occupies depends on its location at the time of deposition, rather than its ultimate geometric relationship with the thrust belt; (c) the longitudinal dimension of the foreland basin system is roughly equal to the length of the fold-thrust belt, and does not include sediment that spills into remnant ocean basins or continental rifts (impactogens).

The wedge-top depozone is the mass of sediment that accumulates on top of the frontal part of the orogenic wedge, including ‘piggyback’ and ‘thrust top’ basins. Wedge-top sediment tapers toward the hinterland and is characterized by extreme coarseness, numerous tectonic unconformities and progressive deformation. The foredeep depozone consists of the sediment deposited between the structural front of the thrust belt and the proximal flank of the forebulge. This sediment typically thickens rapidly toward the front of the thrust belt, where it joins the distal end of the wedge-top depozone. The forebulge depozone is the broad region of potential flexural uplift between the foredeep and the back-bulge depozones. The back-bulge depozone is the mass of sediment that accumulates in the shallow but broad zone of potential flexural subsidence cratonward of the forebulge. This more inclusive definition of a foreland basin system is more realistic than the popular conception of a foreland basin, which generally ignores large masses of sediment derived from the thrust belt that accumulate on top of the orogenic wedge and cratonward of the forebulge.

The generally accepted definition of a foreland basin attributes sediment accommodation solely to flexural subsidence driven by the topographic load of the thrust belt and sediment loads in the foreland basin. Equally or more important in some foreland basin systems are the effects of subduction loads (in peripheral systems) and far-field subsidence in response to viscous coupling between subducted slabs and mantle–wedge material beneath the outboard part of the overlying continent (in retroarc systems). Wedge-top depozones accumulate under the competing influences of uplift due to forward propagation of the orogenic wedge and regional flexural subsidence under the load of the orogenic wedge and/or subsurface loads. Whereas most of the sediment accommodation in the foredeep depozone is a result of flexural subsidence due to topographic, sediment and subduction loads, many back-bulge depozones contain an order of magnitude thicker sediment fill than is predicted from flexure of reasonably rigid continental lithosphere. Sediment accommodation in back-bulge depozones may result mainly from aggradation up to an equilibrium drainage profile (in subaerial systems) or base level (in flooded systems). Forebulge depozones are commonly sites of unconformity development, condensation and stratal thinning, local fault-controlled depocentres, and, in marine systems, carbonate platform growth.

Inclusion of the wedge-top depozone in the definition of a foreland basin system requires that stratigraphic models be geometrically parameterized as doubly tapered prisms in transverse cross-sections, rather than the typical ‘doorstop’ wedge shape that is used in most models. For the same reason, sequence stratigraphic models of foreland basin systems need to admit the possible development of type I unconformities on the proximal side of the system. The oft-ignored forebulge and back-bulge depozones contain abundant information about tectonic processes that occur on the scales of orogenic belt and subduction system.