Plate-wide stress relaxation explains European Palaeocene basin inversions


During Late Cretaceous and Cenozoic times, many Palaeozoic and Mesozoic rifts and basin structures in the interior of the European continent underwent several phases of inversion (the process of shortening a previously extensional basin)1. The main phases occurred during the Late Cretaceous and Middle Palaeocene, and have been previously explained by pulses of compression, mainly from the Alpine orogen2,3,4,5. Here we show that the main phases differed both in structural style and cause. The Cretaceous phase was characterized by narrow uplift zones, reverse activation of faults, crustal shortening, and the formation of asymmetric marginal troughs. In contrast, the Middle Palaeocene phase was characterized by dome-like uplift of a wider area with only mild fault movements, and formation of more distal and shallow marginal troughs. A simple flexural model explains how domal, secondary inversion follows inevitably from primary, convergence-related inversion on relaxation of the in-plane tectonic stress. The onset of relaxation inversions was plate-wide and simultaneous, and may have been triggered by stress changes caused by elevation of the North Atlantic lithosphere by the Iceland plume6 or the drop in the north–south convergence rate between Africa and Europe7.

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Figure 1: Geological profiles.
Figure 2: Mechanisms of primary and secondary inversion.
Figure 3: Isopach signature of inversion movements.


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This work was completed during project CENMOVE, financed by the Danish Natural Science Research Council. D.L.H. thanks the Carlsberg Foundation for support. L. Mackay and C. Beaumont are thanked for reviews. M. Jarosinsky, F. Kockel, J. Korstgaard, R. Mortimore, V. Otto, P. Poprawa and O. Vejbæk are thanked for discussions.

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Correspondence to Søren B. Nielsen.

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Nielsen, S., Thomsen, E., Hansen, D. et al. Plate-wide stress relaxation explains European Palaeocene basin inversions. Nature 435, 195–198 (2005).

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