The purpose of this paper is to clarify the dynamic role of lithospheric density heterogeneities, in particular with respect to mountain building and other processes of intraplate deformation. Density anomalies within or just beneath the lithosphere constitute major sources for tectonic stress fields: the product of their magnitude by their depth is shown to characterize their ability to induce deformation. This rule of the density moment directly yields the lithospheric thickening or thinning rate when applied to structures of large lateral extent. For anomalies of lateral extent that is small in comparison with their depth, the deformation is vertically inhomogeneous and has been computed with the help of simple physical models of a stratified viscous Newtonian lithosphere. The analytical treatment is based on Fourier transform. Continent‐continent collision thickens not only the crust but the entire lithosphere. The cold root underlying a mountain chain induces strong regional compressive stresses able to sustain the mountain bulding process without further help from forces transmitted from far away. Thus the continental lithosphere is in a somewhat metastable mechanical state. Adiabatic, i.e. rapid, thickening (or thinning) tends to grow further once initiated. Tectonic phases of strong compression correspond to the climax of such instabilities. The response of models with cold lithospheric roots of various intensities has been computed both in two and three dimensions. They yield velocity distributions and stress fields. Instructive comparisons are made with earthquake focal mechanisms and in situ stress measurements in the Alpine and Appalachian regions. In the presence of lateral variations of the mechanical properties of the lithosphere, the tectonic style is not only function of the local topography and of the nature of its compensation. Deformations in neighbouring provinces are coupled as shown by 3‐dimensional models. For example, thickening sustained by a cold lithospheric root may generate extension in peripheral zones of weakness. These last results illustrate the point that the computation of regional tectonic stresses requires the knowledge of the density anomalies within the lithosphere on the one hand, and of geometrical constraints related to lateral mechanical heterogeneities on the other.
Tectonics – Wiley
Published: Feb 1, 1982
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