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The metamorphic and magmatic record of collisional orogens


The Cenozoic Himalaya-Tibet orogen is generally regarded as the archetypal continental collision zone and is often used as an analogue for interpreting ancient orogenic events. However, given the wide diversity observed in present-day collisional mountain belts, the extent to which such inferences can be made remains debated. In this Review, we compare the metamorphic and magmatic record of the Himalaya-Tibet orogen to four ancient orogens — the Palaeozoic Caledonian orogen, the Meso-Neoproterozoic Grenville and Sveconorwegian orogens, and the Palaeoproterozoic Trans-Hudson orogen — to establish the controls on the underlying dynamics and the nature of the resulting rock record. The similarities in rock records, and, thus, thermal conditions, are interpreted to result from comparable foreland strengths, resulting in similar maximum crustal thicknesses. Apparent differences in the records are mainly attributed to variation in exposed structural level rather than fundamentally different tectonic processes. We, therefore, suggest that foreland rheology is a critical factor in determining the effectiveness of orogen comparisons. Future research is required to investigate the causes and consequences of lateral variability in mountain belts, in particular, focussing on the record of orogens smaller than those considered here, and to understand if and why mountain building processes have varied through Earth history.

Key points

  • The metamorphic and magmatic rock record of five major orogens — Himalaya-Tibet, Caledonian, Grenville, Sveconorwegian and Trans-Hudson — are compared.

  • Commonalities include pre-collisional accretionary tectonics and magmatism, and post-collisional continental underthrusting, crustal thickening and associated metamorphism.

  • The post-collisional commonalities are likely to be due to similarities in the strengths of the plates bounding the mountain belts supporting similar crustal thicknesses.

  • Differences include the dominant metamorphic grade exposed at the present erosion surface and the preservation of high-pressure and low-temperature rocks.

  • The causes of these differences are mainly attributed to contrasts in exposed structural level, rather than differences in the underlying tectonic processes.

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Fig. 1: The spatiotemporal development of metamorphic and magmatic rocks during collisional orogenesis.
Fig. 2: The metamorphic and magmatic rock record for five major collisional orogens.
Fig. 3: Geological map of the Himalaya-Tibet orogen.
Fig. 4: Geological maps of the Caledonian orogen.
Fig. 5: Geological maps of the Grenville and Sveconorwegian orogens.
Fig. 6: Geological map of the Trans-Hudson orogen.


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The authors thank P.-G. Andréasson and J. Andersson for discussion. This is NRCan contribution no. 20210115.

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All authors contributed to the manuscript preparation and discussion. O.M.W. led the Himalaya-Tibet orogen section, R.S. the Greenland Caledonian orogen, C.M. the Scandinavian Caledonian orogen, T.R. the Grenville orogen, C.M. the Sveconorwegian orogen, M.R.S-O. the Trans-Hudson orogen and A.C. the comparison of the orogens. C.M.M. led figure drafting.

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Correspondence to Owen M. Weller or Catherine M. Mottram.

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Nature Reviews Earth & Environment thanks V. Pease, M. Bickford and A. Collins for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Phase equilibria modelling

A method of calculating the pressure and temperature conditions at which a set of minerals (phases) is in equilibrium within a model system.


Determining the age of minerals within a petrographic context, such that the age(s) can be linked to stage(s) of metamorphism.


Refers to a mountain belt formed by plate convergence. The term orogeny is derived from the ancient Greek words ‘oros’ (mountain) and ‘genesis’ (origin or formation).


A fault-bound crustal block distinguished from adjacent domains by distinct geological characteristics, including age, lithology, stratigraphy and geological history.


A sedimentary rock type that comprises terrestrial or shallow marine strata deposited in front of rising mountain chains, typically including conglomerates.


Partial melting of rocks due to changes in the ambient pressure and/or temperature beyond the conditions at which rocks start to melt (the solidus).


A style of regional metamorphism named after British geologist George Barrow (1853–1932) and relating to pressure–temperature conditions typical of mid-crustal metamorphism during orogenesis.


Large, sheet-like bodies of rock that have been moved some kilometres above a thrust fault from its original position (often synonymous with ‘allochthon’).


A package of rocks that were originally formed or deposited a substantial distance from their current location, and were transported by tectonic processes.


The transitional zone between diagenesis and metamorphism; this is normally characterized by low temperatures (100–200 °C) and pressures (1–2 kbar).

Isothermal decompression

Exhumation of a rock mass at approximately constant temperature, indicating exhumation rates more rapid than rates of heat transfer.


A package of rocks that have been displaced a relatively small distance from their original place of formation and can still be correlated with the footwall lithostratigraphic units.


A style of regional metamorphism characterized by the presence of andalusite in intermediate-grade pelitic assemblages, indicating lower pressure metamorphic conditions than Barrovian.


When fault age progressively decreases in the direction of transport.


When deformation only involves cover (and not basement) units; when both elements are involved, deformation is referred to as thick-skinned.


Metamorphic conditions characterized by increasing temperature and (typically) pressure.


A mineral assemblage that has re-equilibrated (usually partially) on the retrograde path, generally at lower pressure and temperature conditions than the peak assemblage and due to the influx of a hydrous fluid.

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Weller, O.M., Mottram, C.M., St-Onge, M.R. et al. The metamorphic and magmatic record of collisional orogens. Nat Rev Earth Environ 2, 781–799 (2021).

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