The combined information about sedimentary petrography from the North Alpine Foreland Basin and structural geology from the Alps allows a qualitative reconstruction of the drainage network of the central Swiss Alps between 30 Ma and the present. This study suggests that crustal thickening and crustal thinning significantly controlled the location of the drainage divide. It also reveals the possible controls of crustal thickening/thinning on the change of the orientation of the drainage network from across-strike between 30 and 14 Ma to along-strike thereafter.
Initial crustal thickening in the rear of the wedge is considered to have formed the drainage divide between north and south at 30 Ma. Because the location of crustal thickening shifted from east to west between ≈30–20 Ma, the catchment areas of the eastern dispersal systems reached further south than those of the western Alpine palaeorivers for the same time slice. Similarly, the same crustal dynamics appear to have controlled two phases of denudation that are reflected in the Molasse Basin by petrographic trends. Uplift in the rear of the wedge caused the Alpine palaeorivers to expand further southward. This is reflected in the foreland basin by increasing admixture of detritus from structurally higher units. However, tectonic quiescence in the rear of the wedge allowed the Alpine palaeorivers to cut down into the Alpine edifice, resulting in an increase of detritus from structurally lower units. Whereas uplift in the rear of the wedge was responsible for initiation of the Alpine drainage systems, underplating of the external massifs some 50 km further north is thought to have caused along-strike deviation of the major Alpine palaeorivers.
Besides crustal thickening, extension in the rear of the wedge appears to have significantly controlled the evolution of the drainage network of the western Swiss Alps. Slip along the Simplon detachment fault exposed the core of the Lepontine dome, and caused a 50-km-northward shift of the drainage divide.