Exhumation of high-pressure rocks: a review of concepts and processes



The exhumation of high-pressure metamorphic rocks requires either the removal of the overburden that caused the high pressures, or the transport of the metamorphic rocks through the overburden. Exhumation cannot be achieved simply by thrusting or strike-slip faulting. It may be caused by erosion of shortened and thickened crust, but this is unlikely to be the only mechanism for exhuming rocks from depths greater than about 20 km. One or more of the following additional mechanisms may be involved.

1 Corner flow of low-viscosity material trapped between the upper and lower plates in a subduction zone can cause upward flow of deeply buried rock, and may explain some occurrences of high-pressure tectonic blocks in mélange. This process does not, however, appear to be adequate to explain the exhumation of regional high-pressure terrains.

2 Buoyancy forces acting directly on metamorphic rock bodies may cause them to rise relative to more dense surroundings. This is likely to be the most important mechanism of exhumation of crustal rocks subducted into the mantle, but cannot explain the emplacement of coherent tracts of high-density metamorphic rock into shallow crustal levels. Some high-pressure blocks emplaced at shallow levels in accretionary terrains may have been entrained in diapiric intrusions of low-density mud or serpentinite.

3 Extension driven by the forces associated with contrasts in surface elevation may explain the exhumation and structural setting of many high-pressure terrains. Extension may occur in the upper part of an accretionary wedge thickened by underplating; or it may affect the whole lithosphere in a region of intracontinental convergence, if surface elevation has been increased by the removal of a lithospheric root. In the second case extension may be accompanied by magmatism and an evolution towards higher temperature during decompression of the metamorphic terrain.