The Physical Geography of Western Europe

By Eduard A. Koster | Go to book overview

2 Neotectonics

Francesco Dramis and Emanuele Tondi


Introduction

Debate in neotectonics mainly hinges on how far back in time the prefix ‘neo’ should be taken. The term ‘neotectonics’ means, in a first approximation, geologically young, recent or living (active) crustal structures and processes. Some of the many definitions (Angelier 1976; Mercier 1976; Beloussov 1978; Hancock and Williams 1986; Vita-Finzi 1986; Winslow 1986) focus neotectonic studies only on active deformation (late Quaternary– Present) and accept neotectonics as more or less synonymous to active tectonics, while others trace the neotectonic period mainly from the Middle Miocene. It is very difficult to identify a standard time period for defining the beginning of neotectonics, but the present-day opinion is that it depends on the individual characteristics of each geological environment. According to Fourniguet (1987), no time limit is fixed and the field of investigation extends from the present as far back into the past as necessary to understand present or active deformation. The INQUA (International Union for Quaternary Research) Tectonic Commission has accepted the definition of Mörner (1978): ‘Neotectonics is defined as any earth movements or deformations of the geodetic reference level, their mechanisms, their geological origin, their implications for various practical purposes and their future extrapolations.’ Pavlides (1989) proposed a definition along the following lines: ‘Neotectonics is the study of young tectonic events (deformation of upper crust), which have occurred or are still occurring in a given region after its final orogeny (at least for recent orogenies) or more precisely after its last significant reorganization.’

When western Europe is considered, a major change in boundary conditions occurred in the Upper Miocene (7 Ma) when the motion of Africa became directed to the north-west (Dewey et al. 1989). Geological, seismological, and geodetic data in the Mediterranean region and in continental Europe show that the relative motion of Africa and Europe is still in this direction. For this reason we think that for the neotectonics of western Europe one cannot go far back in time beyond the Upper Miocene.


State of Stress

The study of the state of stress of the lithosphere around the world has recently been attempted within the World Stress Map Project of the International Lithosphere Programme (Zoback 1992). A compilation of new and existing data has led to a large database which includes results from a variety of geological and geophysical techniques: earthquake focal mechanisms, hydraulic fracturing, borehole break-outs, overcoring, and fault-slip orientations. Some of these results and their interpretation were published in a special issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research in which one paper is specifically devoted to Europe (Müller et al. 1992).

Measurements of tectonic stress in western Europe take into account regional stress patterns as well as more local perturbations. The only way to distinguish between these is that of defining a large-scale stress (long wavelength) pattern with a large number of consistent and regionally distributed observations. This can then be interpreted as either the result of large-scale tectonic forces due to movements of the plate, or the effects of large-scale flexural loading or unloading, or in homogeneous density contrasts within the lithosphereasthenosphere system, or else as some other large-scale phenomena. Local factors such as topography, erosion,

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