A systematic comparison of experimental set-ups for modelling extensional tectonics

Zwaan, Frank; Schreurs, Guido; Buiter, Susanne J. H. (2019). A systematic comparison of experimental set-ups for modelling extensional tectonics. Solid Earth, 10(4), pp. 1063-1097. Copernicus Publications 10.5194/se-10-1063-2019

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Analogue modellers investigating extensional tectonics often use different machines, set-ups and model materials, implying that direct comparisons of results from different studies can be challenging. Here we present a systematic comparison of crustal-scale analogue experiments using simple set-ups simulating extensional tectonics, involving either a foam base, a rubber base, rigid basal plates or a conveyor base system to deform overlying brittle-only or brittle-viscous models. We use X-ray computed tomography (CT) techniques for a detailed 3-D analysis of internal and external model evolution.

We find that our brittle-only experiments are strongly affected by their specific set-up, as the materials are directly coupled to the model base. Experiments with a foam or rubber base undergo distributed faulting, whereas experiments with a rigid plate or conveyor base experience localized deformation and the development of discrete rift basins. Pervasive boundary effects may occur due to extension-perpendicular contraction of a rubber base. Brittle-viscous experiments are less affected by the experimental set-up than their brittle-only equivalents since the viscous layer acts as a buffer that decouples the brittle layer from the base. Under reference conditions, a structural weakness at the base of the brittle layer is required to localize deformation into a rift basin. Brittle-viscous plate and conveyor base experiments better localize deformation for high brittle-to-viscous thickness ratios since the thin viscous layers in these experiments allow deformation to transfer from the experimental base to the brittle cover. Brittle-viscous-base coupling is further influenced by changes in strain rate, which affects viscous strength. We find, however, that the brittle-to-viscous strength ratios alone do not suffice to predict the type of deformation in a rift system and that the localized or distributed character of the experimental set-up needs to be taken into account as well.

Our set-ups are most appropriate for investigating crustal-scale extension in continental and selected oceanic settings. Specific combinations of set-up and model materials may be used for studying various tectonic settings or lithospheric conditions. Here, natural factors such as temperature variations, extension rate, water content and lithology should be carefully considered. We hope that our experimental overview may serve as a guide for future experimental studies of extensional tectonics.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geological Sciences
08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geological Sciences > Tectonics

UniBE Contributor:

Zwaan, Frank and Schreurs, Guido


500 Science > 550 Earth sciences & geology




Copernicus Publications


[42] Schweizerischer Nationalfonds ; [UNSPECIFIED] University Bern ; [UNSPECIFIED] Norwegian Research Council


[UNSPECIFIED] SNF 200021_147046/1




Frank Zwaan

Date Deposited:

31 Jul 2019 10:40

Last Modified:

24 Feb 2020 12:19

Publisher DOI:






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