The last erosional stage of the Molasse Basin and the Alps

Schlunegger, Fritz ; Mosar, Jon

In: International Journal of Earth Sciences, 2011, vol. 100, no. 5, p. 1147-1162

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    We present a synoptic overview of the Miocene-present development of the northern Alpine foreland basin (Molasse Basin), with special attention to the pattern of surface erosion and sediment discharge in the Alps. Erosion of the Molasse Basin started at the same time that the rivers originating in the Central Alps were deflected toward the Bresse Graben, which formed part of the European Cenozoic rift system. This change in the drainage direction decreased the distance to the marine base level by approximately 1,000km, which in turn decreased the average topographic elevation in the Molasse Basin by at least 200m. Isostatic adjustment to erosional unloading required ca. 1,000m of erosion to account for this inferred topographic lowering. A further inference is that the resulting increase in the sediment discharge at the Miocene-Pliocene boundary reflects the recycling of Molasse units. We consider that erosion of the Molasse Basin occurred in response to a shift in the drainage direction rather than because of a change in paleoclimate. Climate left an imprint on the Alpine landscape, but presumably not before the beginning of glaciation at the Pliocene-Pleistocene boundary. Similar to the northern Alpine foreland, we do not see a strong climatic fingerprint on the pattern or rates of exhumation of the External Massifs. In particular, the initiation and acceleration of imbrication and antiformal stacking of the foreland crust can be considered solely as a response to the convergence of Adria and Europe, irrespective of erosion rates. However, the recycling of the Molasse deposits since 5Ma and the associated reduction of the loads in the foreland could have activated basement thrusts beneath the Molasse Basin in order to restore a critical wedge. In conclusion, we see the need for a more careful consideration of both tectonic and climatic forcing on the development of the Alps and the adjacent Molasse Basin