Slab Load Controls Beneath the Alps on the Source-to-Sink Sedimentary Pathways in the Molasse Basin

Schlunegger, Fritz; Kissling, Edi (2022). Slab Load Controls Beneath the Alps on the Source-to-Sink Sedimentary Pathways in the Molasse Basin. Geosciences, 12(6), p. 226. MDPI 10.3390/geosciences12060226

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The stratigraphic development of foreland basins has mainly been related to surface loading in the adjacent orogens, whereas the control of slab loads on these basins has received much less attention. This has also been the case for interpreting the relationships between the Oligocene to Micoene evolution of the European Alps and the North Alpine foreland basin or Molasse basin. In this trough, periods of rapid subsidence have generally been considered as a response to the growth of the Alpine topography, and thus to the construction of larger surface loads. However, such views conflict with observations where the surface growth in the Alps has been partly decoupled from the subsidence history in the basin. In addition, surface loads alone are not capable of explaining the contrasts in the stratigraphic development particularly between its central and eastern portions. Here, we present an alternative view on the evolution of the Molasse basin. We focus on the time interval between c. 30 and 15 Ma and relate the basin-scale development of this trough to the subduction processes, and thus to the development of slab loads beneath the European Alps. At 30 Ma, the western and central portions of this basin experienced a change from deep marine underfilled (Flysch stage) to overfilled terrestrial conditions (Molasse stage). During this time, however, a deep marine Flysch-type environment prevailed in the eastern part of the basin. This was also the final sedimentary sink as sediment was routed along the topographic axis from the western/central to the eastern part of this trough. We interpret the change from basin underfill to overfill in the western and central basin as a response to oceanic lithosphere slab-breakoff beneath the Central and Western Alps. This is considered to have resulted in a growth of the Alpine topography in these portions of the Alps, an increase in surface erosion and an augmentation in sediment supply to the basin, and thus in the observed change from basin underfill to overfill. In the eastern part of the basin, however, underfilled Flysch-type conditions prevailed until 20 Ma, and subsidence rates were higher than in the western and central parts. We interpret that high subsidence rates in the eastern Molasse occurred in response to slab loads beneath the Eastern Alps, where the subducted oceanic slab remained attached to the European plate and downwarped the plate in the East. Accordingly, in the central and western parts, the growth of the Alpine topography, the increase in sediment flux and the change from basin underfill to overfill most likely reflect the response to slab delamination beneath the Central Alps. In contrast, in the eastern part, the possibly subdued topography in the Eastern Alps, the low sediment flux and the maintenance of a deep marine Flysch-type basin records a situation where the oceanic slab was still attached to the European plate. The situation changed at 20 Ma, when the eastern part of the basin chronicled a change from deep marine (underfilled) to shallow marine and then terrestrial (overfilled conditions). During the same time, subsidence rates in the eastern basin decreased, deformation at the Alpine front came to a halt and sediment supply to the basin increased possibly in response to a growth of the topography in the Eastern Alps. This was also the time when the sediment routing in the basin axis changed from an east-directed sediment dispersal prior to 20 Ma, to a west-oriented sediment transport thereafter and thus to the opposite direction. We relate these changes to the occurrence of oceanic slab breakoff beneath the Eastern Alps, which most likely resulted in a rebound of the plate, a growth of the topography in the Eastern Alps and a larger sediment flux to the eastern portion of the basin. Beneath the Central and Western Alps, however, the continental lithosphere slab remained attached to the European plate, thereby resulting in a continued downwarping of the plate in its central and western portions. This plate downwarping beneath the central and western Molasse together with the rebound of the foreland plate in the East possibly explains the inversion of the drainage direction. We thus propose that slab loads beneath the Alps were presumably the most important drivers for the development of the Molasse basin at the basin scale.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Review Article)


08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geological Sciences

UniBE Contributor:

Schlunegger, Fritz


500 Science > 550 Earth sciences & geology








Fritz Schlunegger

Date Deposited:

31 May 2022 15:40

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 16:20

Publisher DOI:





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