Exhuming the Alps through time: clues from detrital zircon fission-track thermochronology


Matthias Bernet, LGCA, Université Joseph Fourier, 38041Grenoble, France. E-mail: matthias.bernet@ujf-grenoble.fr


The European Alps are a mountain belt that is characterized by a series of discrete orogenic events, which have long been recognized. Despite the inherent episodic nature of orogenic evolution, the Alps have been continuously exhumed, mainly by erosion, but also by normal faulting. Since continental collision started in the late Eocene/Early Oligocene evidence for ongoing erosional exhumation has been preserved in synorogenic sediments that accumulated in basins adjacent to the pro- and retro-side of this double-vergent mountain belt. This long-term erosion record can be used to determine exhumation rates. Lag-times calculated from fission-track (FT) ages of detrital zircon from synorogenic sediments are fairly constant for the European Alps since the Oligocene–Late Miocene. Although the fast exhuming areas were unroofed at rates of 0.4–0.7 km Myr−1, the overall average exhumation rate is between 0.2 and 0.3 km Myr−1 on a regional scale. The detrital and bedrock zircon FT data of the Alps do not detect the increase in erosion rates since the Pliocene over the past ∼5 Myr, as shown elsewhere. This increase cannot be detected yet with the detrital zircon FT method because not enough rock has been removed to widely expose zircons with Pliocene or younger cooling ages in the Alps. Long term (30 Myr) exhumation rates appear to have been approximately constant when averaged over a sliding time window of about 8 Myr, or depth window of 5 to 10 km (ZFT closure depths); shorter-term fluctuations are not identified using this method.