Swiss and Alpine geologists between two tectonic revolutions. Part 1: from the discovery of nappes to the hypothesis of continental drift

Schaer, Jean-Paul

In: Swiss Journal of Geosciences, 2010, vol. 103, no. 3, p. 503-522

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    At the advent of the twentieth century, geologists believed that folded continental mountain chains like the Alps were due to horizontal compression, resulting from contractions of the Earth's crust as it cooled. In 1918, Albert Heim defended this point of view and illustrated it with a geological section across Switzerland. In 1915, however, and in short notes as early as 1912, Alfred Wegener in Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane (The Origin of Continents and Oceans) proposed that mountains were the result of collisions between light continents drifting and floating on denser formations of the Earth's interior, also present at the bottom of the oceans. Before this (1906), Otto Ampferer had already proposed the association of folds with active movements of material inside the Earth. Wegener used numerous morphological, geological, and gravimetric data to justify his theory. He was innovative in his successful use of paleogeographic and paleoclimatologic reconstitutions. Although very popular, his theory only received reserved approval from the active scientific community. Alpine geologists found it too audacious and too far removed from the field data. In the first critical analysis written in French (1922), Elie Gagnebin welcomed it as a working hypothesis, but was very reserved regarding the arguments of a geophysicist who, in his opinion, was not sufficiently versed in structural geology. In contrast, Emile Argand integrated Wegener's theory into his conception of the evolution of the Alps already in 1916. At that time, he judged the Alpine orogeny to have been the result of permanent compression and proposed that its whole history had been dominated by what he called embryonic tectonics, a compressional concept which he illustrated so admirably that it had an incomparable and lasting success. However, he himself abandoned it in his major work, La Tectonique de l'Asie (The Tectonics of Asia), in favour of an evolution that first originated in an extension regime, finally leading to the splitting of the continental crust, with local emergence of basic rocks, constituting the bottom of new oceanic floors. It is at the slope of these continental margins, and at their foot, that geosynclines are formed by the large accumulation of sediments transported by submarine slumping. During the following compressive stage, slices of basic ocean floor are transported upwards between overlapping continental masses, forming extensive ophiolitic zones. Although admired for his enormous accomplishment, La Tectonique de l'Asie remained ignored for its most innovative propositions, which clearly foreshadow plate tectonics. After this work, Argand practically abandoned geology. His last publication (1934), Guide géologique de la Suisse: la zone pennique (Geological Guide to Switzerland: the Pennine Zone), revived his argument of the early evolution of the geosyncline in a context of extension, followed by thrusts involving the ocean floor. Unfortunately, the concept had no greater success than at its first appearance