Reconstruction of the tectonic evolution of the western Mediterranean since the Oligocene

Gideon Rosenbaum, Gordon S. Lister, and Cecile Duboz

We present a tectonic synthesis and an animation of the tectonics of the western Mediterranean since the Oligocene. This work is based on data derived from different geological datasets, such as structural geology, the distribution of metamorphic rocks, magmatic activity, sedimentary patterns, palaeomagnetic data and geophysics. Reconstruction was performed using an interactive software package (PLATYPLUS), which enabled us to apply rotational motions to numerous microplates and continental terranes involved in the evolution of the western Mediterranean basins. Boundary conditions are provided by the relative motions of Africa and Iberia with respect to Europe, and the Adriatic plate is considered here as an African promontory.

The reconstruction shows that during Alpine orogenesis, a very wide zone in the interface between Africa and Europe underwent extension. Extensional tectonics was governed by rollback of subduction zones triggered by gravitational instability of old and dense oceanic lithosphere. Back-arc extension occurred in the overriding plates as a result of slow convergence rates combined with rapid subduction rollback. This mechanism can account for the evolution of the majority of the post-Oligocene extensional systems in the western Mediterranean. Moreover, extension led to drifting and rotations of continental terranes towards the retreating slabs in excess of 100-800 km. These terranes - Corsica, Sardinia, the Balearic Islands, the Kabylies blocks, Calabria and the Rif-Betic - drifted as long as subduction rollback took place, and were eventually accreted to the adjacent continents. We conclude that large-scale horizontal motions associated with subduction rollback, back-arc extension and accretion of allochthonous terranes played a fundamental role during Alpine orogenesis.