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An essay by John Joly

Alpine Structure

Title:     Alpine Structure
Author: John Joly [More Titles by Joly]

AN intelligent observer of the geological changes progressing in southern Europe in Eocene times would have seen little to inspire him with a premonition of the events then developing. The Nummulitic limestones were being laid down in that enlarged Mediterranean which at this period, save for a few islands, covered most of south Europe. Of these stratified remains, as well as of the great beds of Cretaceous, Jurassic, Triassic, and Permian sediments beneath, our hypothetical observer would probably have been regardless; just as today we observe, with an indifference born of our transitoriness, the deposits rapidly gathering wherever river discharge is distributing the sediments over the sea-floor, or the lime-secreting organisms are actively at work. And yet it took but a few millions of years to uplift the deposits of the ancient Tethys; pile high its sediments in fold upon fold in the Alps, the Carpathians, and the Himalayas; and--exposing them to the rigours of denudation at altitudes where glaciation, landslip, and torrent prevail--inaugurate a new epoch of sedimentation and upheaval.

In the case of the Alps, to which we wish now specially to refer, the chief upheaval appears to have been in Oligocene times, although movement continued to the close of the Pliocene. There was thus a period of some millions of years within which the entire phenomena were comprised. Availing ourselves of Sollas' computations,[1] we may sum the maximum depths of sedimentary deposits of the geological periods concerned as follows:--

Pliocene - - - - - 3,950 m.

Miocene - - - - - 4,250 m.

Oligocene - - - - 3,660 m.

Eocene - - - - - - 6,100 m.

and assuming that the orogenic forces began their work in the last quarter of the Eocene period, we have a total of 13,400 m. as some measure of the time which elapsed. At the rate of io centimetres in a century these deposits could not have collected in less than 13.4 millions of years. It would appear that not less than some ten millions of years were consumed in the genesis of the Alps before constructive movements finally ceased.

The progress of the earth-movements was attended by the usual volcanic phenomena. The Oligocene and Miocene volcanoes extended in a band marked by the Auvergne, the Eiffel, the Bohemian, and the eastern Carpathian eruptions; and, later, towards the close of the movements in Pliocene times, the south border

[1] Sollas, Anniversary Address, Geol. Soc., London, 1909.

regions of the Alps became the scene of eruptions such as those of Etna, Santorin, Somma (Vesuvius), etc.

We have referred to these well-known episodes with two objects in view: to recall to mind the time-interval involved, and the evidence of intense crustal disturbance, both dynamic and thermal. According to views explained in a previous essay, the energetic effects of radium in the sediments and upper crust were a principal factor in localising and bringing about these results. We propose now to inquire if, also, in the more intimate structure of the Alps, the radioactive energy may not have borne a part.

What we see today in the Alps is but a residue spared by denudation. It is certain that vast thicknesses of material have disappeared. Even while constructive effects were still in progress, denudative forces were not idle. Of this fact the shingle accumulations of the Molasse, where, on the northern borders of the Alps, they stand piled into mountains, bear eloquent testimony. In the sub-Apennine series of Italy, the great beds of clays, marls, and limestones afford evidence of these destructive processes continued into Pliocene times. We have already referred to Schmidt's estimate that the sedimentary covering must have in places amounted to from 15,000 to 20,000 metres. The evidence for this is mainly tectonic or structural; but is partly forthcoming in the changes which the materials now open to our inspection plainly reveal. Thus it is impossible to suppose that gneissic rocks can become so far plastic as to flow in and around the calcareous sediments, or be penetrated by the latter--as we see in the Jungfrau and elsewhere--unless great pressures and high temperatures prevailed. And, according to some writers, the temperatures revealed by the intimate structural changes of rock-forming minerals must have amounted to those of fusion. The existence of such conditions is supported by the observation that where the.crystallisation is now the most perfect, the phenomena of folding and injection are best developed.[1] These high temperatures would appear to be unaccountable without the intervention of radiothermal effects; and, indeed, have been regarded as enigmatic by observers of the phenomena in question. A covering of 20,000 metres in thickness would not occasion an earth-temperature exceeding 500 deg. C. if the gradients were such as obtain in mountain regions generally; and 600 deg. is about the limit we could ascribe to the purely passive effects of such a layer in elevating the geotherms.

Those who are still unacquainted with the recently published observations on the structure of the Alps may find it difficult to enter into what has now to be stated; for the facts are, indeed, very different from the generally preconceived ideas of mountain formation. Nor can we wonder that many geologists for long held

[1] Weinschenk, C. R. _Congres Geol._, 1900, p. 321, et seq.

back from admitting views which appeared so extreme. Receptivity is the first virtue of the scientific mind; but, with every desire to lay aside prejudice, many felt unequal to the acceptance of structural features involving a folding of the earth-crust in laps which lay for scores of miles from country to country, and the carriage of mountainous materials from the south of the Alps to the north, leaving them finally as Alpine ranges of ancient sediments reposing on foundations of more recent date. The historian of the subject will have to relate how some who finally were most active in advancing the new views were at first opposed to them. In the change of conviction of these eminent geologists we have the strongest proof of the convincing nature of the observations and the reality of the tectonic features upon which the recent views are founded.

The lesser mountains which stand along the northern border of the great limestone Alps, those known as the Prealpes, present the strange characteristic of resting upon materials younger than themselves. Such mountains as the remarkable-looking Mythen, near Schwyz, for instance, are weathered from masses of Triassic and Jurassic rock, and repose on the much more recent Flysch. In sharp contrast to the Flysch scenery, they stand as abrupt and gigantic erratics, which have been transported from the central zone of the Alps lying far to the south. They are strangers petrologically, stratigraphically, and geographically,[1] to the locality in which they now occur. The exotic materials may be dolomites, limestones, schists, sandstones, or rocks of igneous origin. They show in every case traces of the severe dynamic actions to which they have been subjected in transit. The igneous, like the sedimentary, klippen, can be traced to distant sources; to the massif of Belladonne, to Mont Blanc, Lugano, and the Tyrol. The Prealpes are, in fact, mountains without local roots.

In this last-named essential feature, the Prealpes do not differ from the still greater limestone Alps which succeed them to the south. These giants, _e.g._ the Jungfrau, Wetterhorn, Eiger, etc., are also without local foundations. They have been formed from the overthrown and drawn-out anticlines of great crust-folds, whose synclines or roots are traceable to the south side of the Rhone Valley. The Bernese Oberland originated in the piling-up of four great sheets or recumbent folds, one of which is continued into the Prealpes. With Lugeon[2] we may see in the phenomenon of the formation of the Prealpes a detail; regarding it as a normal expression of that mechanism which has created the Swiss Alps. For these limestone masses of the Oberland are not indications of a merely local shift of the sedimentary covering of the Alps. Almost the whole covering has

[1] De Lapparent, _Traite de Geologie_, p. 1,785.

[2] Lugeon, _Bulletin Soc. Geol. de France_, 1901, p. 772.

been pushed over and piled up to the north. Lugeon[l] concludes that, before denudation had done its work and cut off the Prealpes from their roots, there would have been found sheets, to the number of eight, superimposed and extending between the Mont Blanc massif and the massif of the Finsteraarhorn: these sheets being the overthrown folds of the wrinkled sedimentary covering. The general nature of the alpine structure

{Fig. 8}

will be understood from the presentation of it diagrammatically after Schmidt of Basel (Fig. 8).[2] The section extends from north to south, and brings out the relations of the several recumbent folds. We must imagine almost the whole of these superimposed folds now removed from the central regions of the Alps by denudation,

[1] Lugeon, _loc. cit._

[2] Schmidt, _Ec. Geol. Helvetiae_, vol. ix., No. 4.

and leaving the underlying gneisses rising through the remains of Permian, Triassic, and Jurassic sediments; while to the north the great limestone mountains and further north still, the Prealpes, carved from the remains of the recumbent folds, now stand with almost as little resemblance to the vanished mountains as the memories of the past have to its former intense reality.

These views as to the origin of the Alps, which are shared at the present day by so many distinguished geologists, had their origin in the labours of many now gone; dating back to Studer; finding their inspiration in the work of Heim, Suess, and Marcel Bertrand; and their consummation in that of Lugeon, Schardt, Rothpletz, Schmidt, and many others. Nor must it be forgotten that nearer home, somewhat similar phenomena, necessarily on a smaller scale, were recognised by Lapworth, twenty-six years ago, in his work on the structure of the Scottish Highlands.

An important tectonic principle underlies the development of the phenomena we have just been reviewing. The uppermost of the superimposed recumbent folds is more extended in its development than those which lie beneath. Passing downwards from the highest of the folds, they are found to be less and less extended both in the northerly and in the southerly direction, speaking of the special case--the Alps--now before us. This feature might be described somewhat differently. We might say that those folds which had their roots farther to the south were the most drawn-out towards the north: or again we might say that the synclinal or deep-seated part of the fold has lagged behind the anticlinal or what was originally the highest part of the fold, in the advance of the latter to the north. The anticline has advanced relatively to the syncline. To this law one exception only is observed in the Swiss Alps; the sheet of the Breche (_Byecciendecke_) falls short, in its northerly extension, of the underlying fold, which extends to form the Prealpes.

Contemplating such a generalised section as Professor Schmidt's, or, indeed, more particular sections, such as those in the Mont Blanc Massif by Marcel Bertrand,[1] of the Dent de Morcles, Diablerets, Wildhorn, and Massif de la Breche by Lugeon,[2] or finally Termier's section of the Pelvoux Massif,[3] one is reminded of the breaking of waves on a sloping beach. The wave, retarded at its base, is carried forward above by its momentum, and finally spreads far up on the strand; and if it could there remain, the succeeding wave must necessarily find itself superimposed upon the first. But no effects of inertia, no kinetic effects, may be called to our aid in explaining the formation of mountains. Some geologists have accordingly supposed that in order to account for

[1] Marcel Bertrand, _Cong. Geol. Internat._, 1900, Guide Geol., xiii. a, p. 41.

[2] Lugeon, _loc. cit._, p. 773.

[3] De Lapparent, _Traite de Geol._, p. 1,773.

the recumbent folds and the peculiar phenomena of increasing overlap, or _deferlement_, an obstacle, fixed and deep-seated, must have arrested the roots or synclines of the folds, and held them against translational motion, while a movement of the upper crust drew out and carried forward the anticlines. Others have contented themselves by recording the facts without advancing any explanatory hypothesis beyond that embodied in the incontestable statement that such phenomena must be referred to the effects of tangential forces acting in the Earth's crust.

It would appear that the explanation of the phenomena of recumbent folds and their _deferlement_ is to be obtained directly from the temperature conditions prevailing throughout the stressed pile of rocks; and here the subject of mountain tectonics touches that with which we were elsewhere specially concerned--the geological influence of accumulated radioactive energy.

As already shown[1], a rise of temperature due to this source of several hundred degrees might be added to such temperatures as would arise from the mere blanketing of the Earth, and the consequent upward movement of the geotherms. The time element is here the most important consideration. The whole sequence of events from the first orogenic movements to the final upheaval in Pliocene times must probably have occupied not less than ten million years.

[1] _Mountain Genesis_, p. 129, et seq.

Unfortunately the full investigation of the distribution of temperature after any given time is beset with difficulties; the conditions being extremely complex. If the radioactive heating was strictly adiabatic--that is, if all the heat was conserved and none entered from without--the time required for the attainment of the equilibrium radioactive temperature would be just about six million years. The conditions are not, indeed, adiabatic; but, on the other hand, the rocks upraised by lateral pressure were by no means at 0 deg. C. to start with. They must be assumed to have possessed such temperatures as the prior radiothermal effects, and the conducted heat from the Earth's interior, may have established.

It would from this appear probable that if a duration of ten million years was involved, the equilibrium radioactive temperatures must nearly have been attained. The effects of heat conducted from the underlying earthcrust have to be added, leading to a further rise in temperature of not less than 500 deg. or 600 deg. . In such considerations the observed indications of high temperatures in materials now laid bare by denudation, probably find their explanation (P1. XIX).

The first fact that we infer from the former existence of such a temperature distribution is the improbability, indeed the impossibility, that anything resembling a rigid obstacle, or deep-seated "horst," can have existed beneath the present surface-level, and opposed the northerly movement of the deep-lying synclines. For such a horst can only have been constituted of some siliceous rock-material such as we find everywhere rising through the worn-down sediments of the Alps; and the idea that this could retain rigidity under the prevailing temperature conditions, must be dismissed. There is no need to labour this question; the horst cannot have existed. To what, then, is the retardation of the lower parts of the folds, their overthrow, above, to the north, and their _deferlement_, to be ascribed?

A little consideration shows that the very conditions of high temperature and viscosity, which render untenable the hypothesis of a rigid obstacle, suffice to afford a full explanation of the retardation of the roots of the folds. For directed translatory movements cannot be transmitted through a fluid, pressure in which is necessarily hydrostatic, and must be exerted equally in every direction. And this applies, not only to a fluid, but to a body which will yield viscously to an impressed force. There will be a gradation, according as viscosity gives place to rigidity, between the states in which the applied force resolves itself into a purely hydrostatic pressure, and in which it is transmitted through the material as a directed thrust. The nature of the force, in the most general case, of course, has to be considered; whether it is suddenly applied and of brief duration, or steady and long-continued. The latter conditions alone apply to the present case.

It follows from this that, although a tangential force or pressure be engendered by a crustal movement occurring to the south, and the resultant effects be transmitted northwards, these stresses can only mechanically affect the rigid parts of the crust into which they are carried. That is to say, they may result in folding and crushing, or horizontally transporting, the upper layers of the Earth's crust; but in the deeper-lying viscous materials they must be resolved into hydrostatic pressure which may act to upheave the overlying covering, but must refuse to transmit the horizontal translatory movements affecting the rigid materials above.

Between the regions in which these two opposing conditions prevail there will be no hard and fast line; but with the downward increase of fluidity there will be a gradual failure of the mechanical conditions and an increase of the hydrostatic. Thus while the uppermost layers of the crust may be transported to the full amount of the crustal displacement acting from the south (speaking still of the Alps) deeper down there will be a lesser horizontal movement, and still deeper there is no influence to urge the viscous rock-materials in a northerly direction. The consequences of these conditions must be the recumbence of the folds formed under the crust-stress, and their _deferlement_ towards the north. To see this, we must follow the several stages of development.

The earliest movements, we may suppose, result in flexures of the Jura-Mountain type--that is, in a succession of undulations more or less symmetrical. As the orogenic force continues and develops, these undulations give place to folds, the limbs of which are approximately vertical, and the synclinal parts of which become ever more and more depressed into the deeper, and necessarily hotter, underlying materials; the anticlines being probably correspondingly elevated. These events are slowly developed, and the temperature beneath is steadily rising in consequence of the conducted interior heat, and the steady accumulation of radioactive energy in the sedimentary rocks and in the buried radioactive layer of the Earth. The work expended on the crushed and sheared rock also contributes to the developing temperature. Thus the geotherms must move upwards, and the viscous conditions extend from below; continually diminishing the downward range of the translatory movements progressing in the higher parts. While above the folded sediments are being carried northward, beneath they are becoming anchored in the growing viscosity of the medium. The anticlines will bend over, and the most southerly of the folds will gradually become pushed or bent over those lying to the north. Finally, the whole upper part of the sheaf will become horizontally recumbent; and as the uppermost folds will be those experiencing the greatest effects of the continued displacement, the _deferlement_ or overlap must necessarily arise.

We may follow these stages of mountain evolution in a diagram (Fig. 9) in which we eliminate intermediate conditions, and regard the early and final stages of development only. In the upper sketch we suppose the lateral compression much developed and the upward movement of the geotherms in progress. The dotted line may be assumed to be a geotherm having a temperature of viscosity. If the conditions here shown persist

{Fig. 9}

indefinitely, there is no doubt that the only further developments possible are the continued crushing of the sediments and the bodily displacement of the whole mass to the north. The second figure is intended to show in what manner these results are evaded. The geotherm of viscosity has risen. All above it is affected mechanically by the continuing stress, and borne northwards in varying degree depending upon the rigidity. The folds have been overthrown and drawn out; those which lay originally most to the south have become the uppermost; and, experiencing the maximum amount of displacement, overlap those lying beneath. There has also been a certain amount of upthrow owing to the hydrostatic pressure. This last-mentioned element of the phenomena is of highly indeterminate character, for we know not the limits to which the hydrostatic pressure may be transmitted, and where it may most readily find relief. While, according to some of the published sections, the uplifting force would seem to have influenced the final results of the orogenic movements, a discussion of its effects would not be profitable.

[The end]
John Joly's Essay: Alpine Structure