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Carbonate platforms in the Dolomites area of the Southern Alps – historic perspectives on progress in sedimentology



The area of the Dolomites in the Southern Alps exhibits some of the best outcrops of carbonate platforms and platform-to-basin transitions in the world. The region has attracted geologists since the early 19th Century and has been a centre of stratigraphic and sedimentological research ever since. The interpretation of the platforms in the Dolomites as coral reefs dates back to the 1850s and was inspired by the work on modern reefs in the Pacific and Indian Oceans at that time. Very soon, however, studies in the Dolomites triggered developments of their own. Fieldwork on these Triassic atolls led to a first understanding of the dramatic facies changes at the periphery of reefs and atolls, including the recognition of slope facies and basinward transport of platform material by gravity. In addition, the platforms were used to prove long-term syndepositional subsidence on the scale of kilometres as early as 1860. After World War II, the study of modern reefs and platforms led to process-based facies models and this, in turn, guided the sedimentological analysis of the Alpine–Mediterranean belt. Repeatedly, however, the roles became reversed and the Alpine–Mediterranean platforms contributed to the fundamental underpinnings of sedimentology. In the 1980s, mountain-size outcrops in the Alps and the Apennines were recognized as models for the interpretation of shoal-water carbonates in seismic data. Seismic models of outcrops in the Dolomites, for instance, gave rise to the concept of pseudo-unconformities, i.e. rapid lateral facies changes that appear as unconformities in seismic images. In the 1990s, the Alpine–Mediterranean Mesozoic along with the North American and European Palaeozoic revealed the significance of microbially induced carbonate precipitation in constructing large limestone bodies. Studies of ancient rocks led this development because this particular carbonate factory is far less prominent now than it was at certain times in the past.