A complex basin evolution was studied using various methods, including thermal constraints based on apatite fission-track (AFT) analysis, vitrinite reflectance (VR) and biomarker isomerisation, in addition to a detailed analysis of the regional stratigraphic record and of the lithological properties. The study indicates that (1) given the substantial amount of data, the distinction and characterisation of successive stages of heating and burial in the same area are feasible, and (2) the three thermal indicators (AFT, VR and biomarkers) yield internally consistent thermal histories, which supports the validity of the underlying kinetic algorithms and their applicability to natural basins. All data pertaining to burial and thermal evolution were integrated in a basin model, which provides constraints on the thickness of eroded sections and on heat flow over geologic time.

Three stages of basin evolution occurred in northern Switzerland. The Permo-Carboniferous strike–slip basin was characterised by high geothermal gradients (80–100°C km−1) and maximum temperature up to 160°C. After the erosion of a few hundreds of metres in the Permian, the post-orogenic, epicontinental Mesozoic basin developed in Central Europe, with subsidence triggered by several stages of rifting. Geothermal gradients in northern Switzerland during Cretaceous burial were relatively high (35–40°C km−1), and maximum temperature typically reached 75°C (top middle Jurassic) to 100°C (base Mesozoic). At least in the early Cretaceous, a stage of increased heat flow is needed to explain the observed maturity level. After erosion of 600–700 m of Cretaceous and late Jurassic strata during the Paleocene, the wedge-shaped Molasse Foreland Basin developed. Geothermal gradients were low at this time (≤20°C km−1). Maximum temperature of Miocene burial exceeded that of Cretaceous burial in proximal parts (<35 km from the Alpine front), but was lower in more distal parts (>45 km). Thus, maximum temperature as well as maximum burial depth ever reached in Mesozoic strata occurred at different times in different regions. Since the Miocene, 750–1050 m were eroded, a process that still continues in the proximal parts of the basin. Current average geothermal gradients in the uppermost 2500 m are elevated (32–47°C km−1). They are due to a Quaternary increase of heat flow, most probably triggered by limited advective heat transport along Paleozoic faults in the crystalline basement.