Geology of the Alps

Geology of the Alps

The Alps form a part of a Tertiary orogenic belt of mountain chains, called the Alpide belt, that stretches through southern Europe and Asia from the Atlantic all the way to the Himalayas. This belt of mountain chains was formed during the Alpine orogeny. A gap in these mountain chains in central Europe separates the Alps from the Carpathians off to the east. Orogeny took place continuously and tectonic subsidence is to blame for the gaps in between.

The Alps arose as a result of the collision of the African and European tectonic plates, in which the western part of the Tethys Ocean, which was formerly in between these continents, disappeared. Enormous stress was exerted on sediments of the Tethys Ocean basin and its Mesozoic and early Cenozoic strata were pushed against the stable Eurasian landmass by the northward-moving African landmass. Most of this occurred during the Oligocene and Miocene epochs. The pressure formed great recumbent folds, or "nappes", that rose out of what had become the Tethys Sea and pushed northward, often breaking and sliding one over the other to form gigantic thrust faults. Crystalline basement rocks, which are exposed in the higher central regions, are the rocks forming Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, and high peaks in the Pennine Alps and Hohe Tauern.

The formation of the Mediterranean Sea is a more recent development and does not mark the northern shore of the African landmass.

Geologic boundaries of the Alps

The Alps form a northward arc around their southeastern foreland basin, the Po River basin (to be precise the south is in fact their hinterland). Quarternary and Neogene sediments in this basin lie discordant over the southernmost thrust units. In the northeast southward dipping foreland deposits are found in the Bavarian basin, which are overthrusted from the south by the thrustfront of the Alpine nappes. To the northwest the foreland becomes more complicated as the external Jura mountains, geologically a part of the Alps, are found north of a big basin that separates both chains. This basin is called Molasse basin and forms the Swiss "Mittelland". The reason for the differences between the northeastern and southeastern forelands is still a topic for debate, but a possible cause is the nearby north-south extensional Rhine graben in the northwest.

The Alps continue more or less smoothly into the following related Alpine mountain ranges: the Apennines to the southwest, the Dinarides to the southeast and the Carpathians to the northeast. In the east the Alps are bounded by the Viennese Basin and the Pannonian Basin, where east–west stretching of the crust takes place.

Geologic structure of the Alps

The Alps have a complex geology, but the general structure is the same as for other mountain ranges formed by continental collision.

Tectonic subdivision

The main suture (big shear zone) in the Alps is called the Periadriatic Seam and runs through the Alps from east to west. This is the boundary between materials from the (former) European and Apulian plates.

South of this line are folded and thrusted units of the Southern Alps.

North of the Periadriatic seam the three main nappe stacks of the Alps are found: the Helvetic, Penninic and Austroalpine nappes. This subdivision is more or less according to the paleogeographical origins of the rocks found in the units: the Helvetic nappes contain material from the European plate, the Austroalpine nappes material from the Apulian plate, the Penninic nappes material from the domains that existed in between the two plates.

tructural geology

Because the thrusts in the Helvetic, Penninic and Austroalpine terranes are directed to the north, the dominant "vergence" (direction of fold asymmetry) in these units is to the north. In the Southern Alps the thrusts are to the south so the vergence is dominantly southward.

The rocks of the Austroalpine nappes form most of the outcrops in the Eastern Alps, while in the west these nappes are, with the exception of a few places (the Dent Blanche and Sesia units, eroded away. In the Western Alps the Helvetic nappes can be found to the north and west, sometimes still under klippes of the Penninic nappes, as in the Préalpes du Sud south of Lake Geneva.

In many spots in the central zone north of the Periadriatic seam large antiforms called anticlinoria can be found, sometimes they are displayed in the outcrops as windows. At the level of one of these windows (the Hohe Tauern window) the Periadriatic seam curves to the north, which suggests that the Apulian plate is more rigid in this particular spot, working as a so-called indentor.

In the central part of Switzerland uplift took place along a ductile north–south normal faultzone called the Rhône-Simplon line. The structure thus formed is called the Lepontin dome.


In older rocks from the lower crust intrusions are found that formed during or just after the Hercynian orogeny. These intrusions are older than the Alps and have nothing to do with their formation. Radiometric age determination yields ages around 320 Ma. Slightly younger felsic intrusions formed by Permian and Triassic extension can also be found.

Intrusions from the formation of the Alps themselves are relatively rare. The largest ones can be found along the Periadriatic seam, the largest one is the Adamello granite. In the Penninic nappes migmatites and small melts can be found.


The rocks of the Helvetic and Austroalpine nappes and the southern Alps did not experience high grade metamorphism in the major Alpine phases in the Tertiary. Any high grade metamorphic rocks in these units will not have become metamorphic due to the formation of the Alps. Other possibilities are:
*they were originally from lower regions of the crust and got to the surface by uplift, which gives them amphibolite facies at most.
*in the Austroalpine nappes eclogites occur that were formed during the Cretaceous period, in an early phase of mountain building called the Eo-Alpine orogeny. These are high-grade metamorphic rocks, but their metamorphism is unrelated to the (later) formation of the Alps.

Tertiary eclogites do occur in the Penninic nappes, which contain material that has been through blueschist or eclogite facies. These nappes show a Barrovian field gradient. This type of metamorphism can only occur when a rock is in pressuretemperature conditions that normally occur in the Earth’s mantle. This means the Penninic nappes consist of material that was subducted into the mantle and was later obducted onto the crust.

Alpine (Tertiary) contact- or Buchan metamorphism is rare in the Alps, because intrusions are rare.

Tectonic history

The Alps are a fold and thrust belt, folding and thrusting is the expression of crustal shortening, which is caused by the convergent movements of the European and Apulian plates.

Breakup of Pangea

At the end of the Carboniferous period (300 Ma ago) the Hercynian or Variscan orogeny, in which the supercontinent Pangaea formed from Gondwana and Laurasia, was ended. East of the terranes that now form the Alps was the Paleo-Tethys Ocean.

The effects of wind and water were able to chemically and mechanically erode and destroy the Hercynic mountain ranges. In the Permian the main deposits in Europe were sandstone and conglomerate, products of erosion in the Hercynic mountain range. At the same time crustal extension took place, because the mountain range was isostatically unstable (this is called orogenic collapse). Due to extension basins formed along the axis of the mountain range, and felsic volcanism occurred. This was the first phase of rifting between Europe and Africa. Due to the rising sealevel in the Triassic period, the eastern margin of Pangaea was flooded. Shallow shelf seas and epicontinental seas existed in which evaporites and limestones were deposited.


In the early Jurassic period (180 Ma ago) a narrow ocean began to form between the northern (North America and Eurasia) and southern (Africa and South America) parts of Pangaea. The oceanic crust that was formed in the process is known as the Piemont-Liguria Ocean. This ocean is generally regarded as part of the Tethys Ocean (farther east), although it was not really connected to it, a peninsular piece of continental crust of the African plate called the Apulian plate lay in between. (Sometimes the names "Alpine Tethys" or "Western Tethys Ocean" are used to describe a number of small oceanic basins that formed southwest of the European plate, to distinguish them from the Neo-Tethys Ocean in the east) Because the Jurassic was a time with high sealevels, all these oceans were connected by shallow seas. On the continents shallow sea deposits (limestones) were formed during the entire Mesozoic.

In the late Jurassic the microcontinent Iberia broke away from the European plate, the Valais Ocean was formed between the two plates. Both Piemont-Liguria and Valais Oceans were never large oceans as today’s Atlantic Ocean. What they might have been like is the opening below the Red Sea, continuing down through Africa, forming the Rift Valley. Eventually, a new ocean will cut through east Africa, dividing a large section of land from the main continent.

When at the end of the Jurassic the Apulian plate began to move toward the European plate oceanic trenches formed in the eastern Alps, in these deep marine sediments were deposited, such as radiolarites and lutites.

Eo-Alpine phase in the Cretaceous

The divergent movement of the European and African plates was relatively short-lived. When the Atlantic Ocean formed between Africa and South America (about 100 Ma ago) Africa began moving northeast.

As a result of this process, the soft layers of ocean sediment in the Alpine Tethys Oceans were compressed and folded as they were slowly thrust upwards. Caught in the middle of the merging continents, the area of the Tethys Sea between Africa and Eurasia began to shrink as oceanic crust subducted beneath the Apulian plate. The tremendous forces at work in the lower continental foundation caused the European base to bend downward into the hot mantle and soften. The southern (African) landmass then continued its northward movement over some 1,000 kilometers (600 mi). The slow folding and pleating of the sediments as they rose up from the depths is believed to have initially formed a series of long east–west volcanic island arcs. Volcanic rocks produced in these island arcs are found among the ophiolites of the Penninic nappes.

In the late Cretaceous the first continental collision took place as the northern part of the Apulian subplate collided with Europe. This is called the Eo-Alpine phase, and is sometimes regarded as the first phase of the formation of the Alps. The part of the Apulian plate that was deformed in this phase is the material that would later form the Austroalpine nappes and the Southern Alps. In some fragments of the Piemont-Liguria Ocean now in the Penninic nappes an Eo-Alpine deformation phase can also be recognized.

Apart from the Eo-Alpine fold and thrust belt other regions were still in the marine domain during the Cretaceous. On the southern margins of the European continent shallow seas formed limestone deposits, that would later be (in the Alps) incorporated into the Helvetic nappes. At the same time sedimentation of anoxic clay took place in the deep-marine realms of the Piemont-Liguria and Valais Oceans. This clay would later become the Bündner slates from the Penninic nappes.

Paleocene and Eocene

When the Piemont-Liguria oceanic crust had completely subducted beneath the Apulian plate in the Paleocene, the Briançonnais microcontinent, according to some a piece of the Iberian plate, arrived at the subduction zone. The Briançonnais microcontinent and Valais Ocean (with island arcs) subducted beneath the Apulian plate. They stayed at around 70 kilometers (45 mi) below the surface during the Eocene, reaching the eclogite facies and becoming intruded by migmatites. This material would later become the Penninic nappes, but a large part of the Briançonnais terrane subducted further into the mantle and was lost. Meanwhile, at the surface the upper crust of the Apulian plate (the later Austroalpien nappes) was thrusted over the European crust. This was the main collisional phase in the formation of the Alps.

Oligocene and Miocene

When the subducting slab broke off (slab breakoff), slab pull fell away and the subducted crust began moving up. This led to the uplift of the thickened continental crust which led in the Miocene to extension. In the case of the Alps the extension could only take place in a west–east direction, because the Apulian plate was still converging from the south. An enormous thrustzone evolved that would later become the Periadriatic Seam. The zone also accommodated dextral shear that resulted from the west–east extension. With the exception of the allochthon Austroalpine material this thrust evolved at the boundary of the Apulian and European plates. The central zones of the Alps rose and were subsequently eroded. Tectonic windows and domes as the Hohe Tauern window were formed in this way.

Meanwhile, the thrust front of the Penninic and Austroalpine nappes moved on, pushing all material in its way northward. Due to this pressure a decollement developed over which thrusting took place. The thrusted material will become the Helvetic nappes.


At present, the Apulian and European plates are still converging. The process of mountain building continues to this day. Measurements in the road and railway tunnels show that the Alps continue to rise somewhere between a millimeter and a centimeter each year. This is held in an overall balance by weathering effects. Also, there are many active seismic areas under the mountains that show that stresses continue to be released along deep fault lines. In the process the core of the Alps, with the terranes that were subducted in the Paleocene and Eocene, still moves upward. Northward thrusting takes place along a line called the Penninic thrustfront. The formation of the foreland basins (Po basin and Bavarian basin) goes on with the crust subsiding in these areas.


The formation of the Alpine landscape seen today is a recent development – only some two million years old. Since then, five known ice ages have done much to remodel the region. The tremendous glaciers that flowed out of the mountain valleys repeatedly covered all of the Swiss plain and shoved the topsoil into the low rolling hills seen today. They scooped out the lakes and rounded off the limestone hills along the northern border.

The last glacier advance in the Alps ended some 10,000 years ago, leaving the large lake now known as Lake Neuchatel. The ice in this region reached some 1,000 meters (0.6 mi) in depth and flowed out of the region behind Lake Geneva some 100 kilometers (60 mi) to the south. Today large granite boulders are found scattered in the forests in the region. These were carried and pushed by the glaciers that filled this part of the western plain for some 80,000 years during the last ice age. From their composition it has been possible to determine the precise area from which they began their journey. As the last ice age ended, it is believed that the climate changed so rapidly that the glaciers retreated back into the mountains in only some 200 to 300 years time.

Besides leaving an Arctic-like wasteland of barren rock and gravel, the huge moraine of material that was dropped at the front of the glaciers blocked huge masses of melt water that poured onto the central plain during this period. A huge lake resulted, flooding the region to a depth of several hundred meters for many years. The old shoreline can be seen in some places along the low hills at the foot of the mountains – the hills actually being glacial side-moraines. As the Aare River, which now drains western Switzerland into the Rhine River, eventually opened the natural dam, the water levels in the plain fell to near the present levels.

In the last 150 years humans have changed the flow and levels of all the rivers and most of the extensive wetlands and small lakes have disappeared under the effects of farming and other development.

Geologic research

The Alps were the first mountain system to be extensively studied by geologists, and many of the geologic terms associated with mountains and glaciers originated there. The term "Alps" has been applied to mountain systems around the world that exhibit similar traits.


In the 1980s and 1990s a number of teams have been mapping the structures in the lower crust by seismology. The result was a number of detailed geological cross-sections, enhancing our knowledge of the deep structures below the Alps. When seismic research is combined with insights from gravitational research and mantle tomography the subducting slab of the European plate can be mapped. Tomography also shows some older detached slabs deeper in the mantle.

ee also

*Swiss plateau


External links

* [ Geophysical research and the geology of the Alps]
* [ The tectonic evolution of the western and central Alps and their forelands, website of prof. S.M. Schmid]
* [ Alpine geology]
* [ Paleoreconstructions of the Alpine Tethys region, IGCP369 project website]
* [ Platetectonic maps of the North Atlantic (including the Mediterranean) by Peter Ziegler]
* [ Plate tectonic reconstruction of the opening and closing of the Valais and Ligurian Oceans, website of Christian Nicollet (in French)]


*Frisch, W.; Dunkl, I. & Kuhlemann, J.; 2000: "Post-collisional large-scale extension in the Eastern Alps" in Tectonophysics v 327, p239
*Schmid, S.M.; Fügenshuh, B.; Kissling, E. & Schuster, R.; 2004: "Tectonic map and overall architecture of the Alpine orogen" in Eclogae Geologicae Helvetiae v 97, p 93
*Schmid, S.M. & Kissling, E.; 2000: "The arc of the western Alps in the light of geophysical data on deep crustal structure" in Tectonics v 19, p 62
*Schmid, S.M.; Pfiffner, O.A.; Froitzheim, N.; Schönborn, G. & Kissling, E.; 1996: "Geophysical-geological transect and tectonic evolution of the Swiss-Italian Alps" in Tectonics V 15, p 1036
*Stampfli, G.M.; Borel, G.D.; Marchant, R. & Mosar, J.; 2002: "Western Alps geological constraints on western Tethyan reconstructions" in: Rosenbaum, G. & Lister, G. S.; 2002: "Reconstruction of the evolution of the Alpine-Himalayan orogeny. Journal of the Virtual Explorer."
*Stampfli, G.M.; 1993: "Le Briançonnais, terrain exotique dans les Alps?" in Eclogae Geologicae Helvetiae v 86, p 1
*P.A. Ziegler; 1988: "Evolution of the Arctic-North Atlantic and the Western Tethys", American Association of Petroleum Geologists Memoir 43

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