February 2021 - Volume 17, Number 1

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Shedding Light on the European Alps

Anders McCarthy and Othmar Müntener Guest Editors

Table of Contents

Overview

The European Alps are one of the most studied orogens worldwide. Research over last 30 years is forcing us to rethink our understanding of Alpine evolution: new concepts have emerged that question long-established paradigms. The articles in this issue provide a petrological, geochemical, and tectonic overview of the Alpine Orogeny, from rifting and spreading to subduction and collision and, finally, to postcollisional uplift and erosion. The current debates regarding the origins of (ultra-)high pressure metamorphism, the origins of syncollisional magmatism, and the evolution of rifting and ocean spreading are discussed. And, the consequences of the new interpretations on the dynamics of subduction and collision are examined.

  • Ocean Subduction Dynamics in the Alps
  • Under Pressure: High-Pressure Metamorphism in the Alps
  • The Heterogeneous Tethyan Oceanic Lithosphere of the Alpine Ophiolites
  • Formation of the Alpine Orogen by Amagmatic Convergence and Assembly of Previously Rifted Lithosphere
  • Superhydrous Arc Magmas in the Alpine Context
  • How Climate, Uplift and Erosion Shaped the Alpine Topography
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2021 Topics

Thematic Articles

Ocean Subduction Dynamics in the Alps

By and

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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Under Pressure: High-Pressure Metamorphism in the Alps

By , and

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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The Heterogeneous Tethyan Oceanic Lithosphere of the Alpine Ophiolites

By and

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

By , and

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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Superhydrous Arc Magmas in the Alpine Context

By , and

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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How Climate, Uplift and Erosion Shaped the Alpine Topography

By , and

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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