How Climate, Uplift and Erosion Shaped the Alpine Topography

Decades of scientific research on the European Alps have helped quantify the vast array of processes that shape the Earth’s surface. Patterns in rock exhumation, surface erosion and topographic changes can be compared to sediment yields preserved in sedimentary basins or collected from modern rivers. Erosion-driven isostatic uplift explains up to ~50% of the modern geodetic rock uplift rates; the remaining uplift reveals the importance of internal processes (tectonics, deep-seated geodynamics) and external processes (glacial rebound, topographic changes). We highlight recent methodological and conceptual developments that have contributed to our present view of the European Alps, and we provide suggestions on how to fill the gaps in our understanding.

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Superhydrous Arc Magmas in the Alpine Context

Magmatic rocks in the Alps are scarce. What little arc magmatism there was pre-dates the Eurasia–Adria collision at 43–34 Ma but ends at 30–29 Ma. Conversely, geochemical data for magmatic rocks from the Alps resemble that of subduction-related magmatic arcs. A characteristic of Alpine magmatism is the occurrence of relatively deep (80–100 km) superhydrous (>8 wt% H2O) low-K primary magmas in the east and shoshonitic K-rich magmas in the west. These features are likely related to the absence of vigorous mantle wedge convection. Superhydrous primary magmas undergo extensive crystallization and fluid saturation at depth, producing high ratios of plutonic to volcanic rocks. We speculate that superhydrous primary arc magmas are a consequence of slow convergence and the initial architecture of subducting crust.

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Formation of the Alpine Orogen by Amagmatic Convergence and Assembly of Previously Rifted Lithosphere

The tectonic and magmatic characteristics of the Alps and Pyrenees during convergence are quite distinct from characteristics associated with classic Benioff-type oceanic subduction. From the initiation of subduction at passive margins until the onset of continental collision, the closure of the Western Tethys never produced a long-lived magmatic arc. This is a consequence of the 3-D architecture of the Western Tethys (a series of hyper-thinned basins and continental blocks) and its narrow width (<500–700 km) prior to convergence. Subduction primarily involved the slow and amagmatic subduction of a narrow domain of dry lithospheric mantle. This type of congested Ampferer subduction led to the sequential and coherent accretion of inherited rifted domains which today form the Alpine and Pyrenean orogens.

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The Heterogeneous Tethyan Oceanic Lithosphere of the Alpine Ophiolites

The Alpine–Apennine ophiolites are lithospheric remnants of the Jurassic Alpine Tethys Ocean. They predominantly consist of exhumed mantle peridotites with lesser gabbroic and basaltic crust and are locally associated with continental crustal material, indicating formation in an environment transitional from an ultra-slow-spreading seafloor to a hyperextended passive margin. These ophiolites represent a unique window into mantle dynamics and crustal accretion in an ultra-slow-spreading extensional environment. Old, pre-Alpine, lithosphere is locally preserved within the mantle sequences: these have been largely modified by reaction with migrating asthenospheric melts. These reactions were active in both the mantle and the crust and have played a key role in creating the heterogeneous oceanic lithosphere in this branch of the Mesozoic Western Tethys.

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Under Pressure: High-Pressure Metamorphism in the Alps

The mechanisms attending the burial of crustal material and its exhumation before and during the Alpine orogeny are controversial. New mechanical models propose local pressure perturbations deviating from lithostatic pressure as a possible mechanism for creating (ultra-)high-pressure rocks in the Alps. These models challenge the assumption that metamorphic pressure can be used as a measure of depth, in this case implying deep subduction of metamorphic rocks beneath the Alpine orogen. We summarize petrological, geochronological and structural data to assess two fundamentally distinct mechanisms of forming (ultra-)high-pressure rocks: deep subduction; or anomalous, non-lithostatic pressure variation. Furthermore, we explore mineral-inclusion barometry to assess the relationship between pressure and depth in metamorphic rocks.

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Ocean Subduction Dynamics in the Alps

T he Alps preserve abundant oceanic blueschists and eclogites that exemplify the selective preservation of fragments of relatively short-lived, small, slow-spreading North Atlantic–type ocean basins whose subducting slabs reach down to the Mantle Transition Zone at most. Whereas no subducted fragments were returned during the first half of the subduction history, those exhumed afterwards experienced conditions typical of mature subduction zones worldwide. Sedimentary-dominated units were underplated intermittently, mostly at ~30–40 km depth. Some mafic–ultramafic-dominated units formed close to the continent were subducted to ~80 km and offscraped from the slab only a few million years before continental subduction. Spatiotemporal contrasts in burial and preservation of the fragments reveal how along-strike segmentation of the continental margin affects ocean subduction dynamics.

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Fluids in Geothermal Systems

Hot fluids are nearly ubiquitous in volcanic environments in the Earth’s crust. Magma at depth heats groundwater which then ascends towards the Earth’s surface through faults, fractures, and otherwise permeable rocks. Fluids in geothermal systems offer direct insight into the many complex chemical and physical processes that occur in these extreme environments. They are also analogues of many ore-forming systems. Scientists have advanced our understanding of fluids in geothermal systems by studying wells sunk ~2–3 km deep into many geothermal fields. Today, we are targeting deeper and hotter reservoirs, at or near the contact of magmatic bodies, which provide unique opportunities to study, and potentially utilize, supercritical fluid resources in the near future.

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Magmatic-Hydrothermal Fluids

Magmatic-hydrothermal fluids play a key role in a variety of geological processes, including volcanic eruptions and the formation of ore deposits whose metal content is derived from magmas and transported to the site of ore deposition by means of hydrothermal fluids. Here, we explain the causes and consequences of fluid saturation in magmas, the corresponding fluid-phase equilibria, and the behavior of metals and ligands during the transition from magma to an exsolved hydrothermal fluid. Much of what we know about magmatic-hydrothermal systems stems from the study of fluid inclusions, which are minute droplets of fluids trapped within minerals during mineral growth.

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Subduction-Zone Fluids

Fluids are essential to the physical and chemical processes in subduction zones. Two types of subduction-zone fluids can be distinguished. First, shallow fluids, which are relatively dilute and water rich and that have properties that vary between subduction zones depending on the local thermal regime. Second, deep fluids, which possess higher proportions of dissolved silicate, salts and non-polar gases relative to water content, and have properties that are broadly similar in most subduction systems, regardless of the local thermal structure. We review key physical and chemical properties of fluids in two key subduction-zone contexts—along the slab top and beneath the volcanic front—to illustrate the distinct properties of shallow and deep subduction-zone fluids.

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Fluids in Submarine Mid-Ocean Ridge Hydrothermal Settings

Metamorphic reactions within the Earth’s crust produce fluids of variable composition that play a major role in the evolution of continents. Metamorphic fluids facilitate reactions that alter crustal rheology, reduce melting temperature, cycle elements between geological reservoirs and form ore deposits. These fluids are relatively inaccessible, other than by study of fluid inclusions, so most studies rely on a combination of indirect evidence and predictive thermodynamic models to determine the characteristics and roles of the fluids. In this article, the origins, compositions, controlling phase equilibria, and roles of metamorphic fluids are reviewed, followed by a discussion of selected areas of current and future research.

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