Extensional neotectonics around the bend of the Western/Central Alps: an overview

Sue, Christian ; Delacou, Bastien ; Champagnac, Jean-Daniel ; Allanic, Cécile ; Tricart, Pierre ; Burkhard, Martin

In: International Journal of Earth Sciences, 2007, vol. 96, no. 6, p. 1101-1129

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    The Western Alps' active tectonics is characterized by ongoing widespread extension in the highest parts of the belt and transpressive/compressive tectonics along its borders. We examine these contrasting tectonic regimes using a multidisciplinary approach including seismotectonics, numerical modeling, GPS, morphotectonics, fieldwork, and brittle deformation analysis. Extension appears to be the dominant process in the present-day tectonic activity in the Western Alps, affecting its internal areas all along the arc. Shortening, in contrast, is limited to small areas located along at the outer borders of the chain. Strike-slip is observed throughout the Alpine realm and in the foreland. The stress-orientation pattern is radial for σ3 in the inner, extensional zones, and for σ1 in the outer, transcurrent/tranpressional ones. Extensional areas can be correlated with the parts of the belt with the thickest crust. Quantification of seismic strain in tectonically homogeneous areas shows that only 10-20% of the geodesy-documented deformation can be explained by the Alpine seismicity. We propose that, Alpine active tectonics are ruled by isostasy/buoyancy forces rather than the ongoing shortening along the Alpine Europe/Adria collision zone. This interpretation is corroborated by numerical modeling. The Neogene extensional structures in the Alps formed under increasingly brittle conditions. A synthesis of paleostress tensors for the internal parts of the West-Alpine Arc documents major orogen-parallel extension with a continuous change in σ3 directions from ENE-WSW in the Simplon area, to N-S in the Vanoise area and to NNW-SSE in the Briançon area. Minor orogen-perpendicular extension increases from N to S. This second signal correlates with the present-day geodynamics as revealed by focal-plane mechanisms analysis. The orogen-parallel extension could be related to the opening of the Ligurian Sea during the Early-Middle Miocene and to compression/rotation of the Adriatic indenter inducing lateral extrusion