Analogue modelling of continental rifting: an overview

Zwaan, Frank; Schreurs, Guido (2021). Analogue modelling of continental rifting: an overview (In Press). In: Rifted Margins. ISTE-Wiley

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When studying rifts and rifted margin evolution, geologists have to face various challenges. Such tectonic systems extend over large parts of the globe, making it hard to chart them in detail. Furthermore, large portions of these systems are buried under thick layers of sediment or covered by water, strongly reducing their accessibility. These problems have been mitigated to a certain degree using geophysical techniques, in particular seismic methods, and deep borehole drilling. Yet perhaps the greatest obstacle on the path to a thorough understanding of rift processes is posed by the timescale at which the latter operate; it is simply not possible to directly observe the development of a rift system over millions of years, which prevents us from fully understanding the dynamics involved.

Recognizing these challenges, geologists have long since turned to analogue models. By choosing the correct materials and experimental set-up, it is possible to simulate tectonic processes stretching over vast spatial and temporal scales within a couple of hours or days in the laboratory. This approach provides an easy and relatively cheap method to test various parameters that may affect tectonic systems, providing unique insights in associated dynamics and kinematics that are not readily deduced from static field examples, which is especially relevant for petroleum geologists (e.g. Naylor et al. 1994; Brun & Fort 2004). The first such analogue model (or experiment), simulating tectonic folding, was published by Sir James Hall in 1815 (Hall, 1815). In the 200 years since the first experiments, a wide variety of methods have been used to simulate a vast spectrum of tectonic processes (e.g. Graveleau et al. 2012; Koyi 1997). It must however be stressed that analogue modelling applications are not restricted to tectonics, but these techniques have also been applied to study, for instance, sedimentary processes, magmatic events, slope collapse and tsunami hazards (e.g. Donnadieu et al. 2003; Wang et al. 2014; McFall & Fritz 2016; Poppe et al. 2019). Meanwhile, a broad arsenal of methods has been developed to not only observe and describe, but also quantify surface- and internal model deformation, so that the analogue modelling community remains at the forefront of geological innovation.

Although the first models were conducted to simulate compressional tectonics, numerous experimental studies have addressed extensional tectonics over the years. Ample references to these studies can be found in the reviews and overview papers by Vendeville et al. (1987), McClay (1990), Allemand & Brun (1991), Beslier (1991), Naylor et al. (1994), McClay et al. (1996), Koyi (1997), Brun (1999, 2002), Michon & Merle (2000, 2003), Corti et al. (2003), Bahroudi et al. (2003), Corti (2012), Brun et al. (2018) and Zwaan et al. (2019). The aim of this text is therefore not to present an exhaustive review of all preceding publications, but to provide an overview of analogue modelling of rift tectonics, describing the general methodology (materials and scaling, set-ups and state-of the art analysis techniques), and to illustrate how these can be applied for studying a variety of aspects of rifts and rifted margins. We also describe the current challenges and opportunities in the field, which revolve around key topics such as rheology, structural inheritance and kinematics, and hope that this work may serve as a guide and inspiration for future analogue modelling studies.

Item Type:

Book Section (Book Chapter)


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










Frank Zwaan

Date Deposited:

10 Mar 2021 10:43

Last Modified:

13 Aug 2021 10:22

Publisher DOI:




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