Modeling Structural and Mechanical Responses to Localized Erosional Processes on a Bivergent Orogenic Wedge

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Rachel Marzen and Julia K Morgan, Rice University, Houston, TX, United States
Critical Coulomb wedge theory established that orogenic and accretionary wedges should develop self-similarly and maintain a critical taper that reflects the balance of strength of the wedge material and a basal décollement. However, a variety of geological processes can perturb that balance, forcing readjustment of the wedge. For example, glacial erosion and landsliding can concentrate erosion on a localized portion of the wedge slope, leaving that portion of the wedge with an out-of-equilibrium slope that would need to re-develop for the wedge to resume self-similar growth. We use the discrete element method to analyze how growing bivergent wedges with different cohesive strengths respond structurally and mechanically to erosional events localized along upper, middle, and lower segments of the pro-wedge. Mechanically, pro-wedge erosion results in a sudden decrease followed by a quick recovery of the mean stress and maximum shear stress throughout the pro-wedge. However, when erosion is localized in the mid- to lower portions of the pro-wedge, a zone of increased mean stress develops where the wedge is concentrating deformation to recover its taper. In contrast, when erosion is localized in the upper axial zone, there is almost no recovery of the wedge taper, reflecting the fact that the material at the top of the wedge is being carried passively in a transition zone between the pro-wedge and retro-wedge. Structurally, wedges composed of lower cohesion material recover their critical taper almost immediately through distributed deformation, while wedges of higher-cohesion material recover more slowly, and incompletely, by concentrating deformation along existing fault surfaces. As a result, localized erosional episodes can have a lasting effect on the wedge morphology when the wedge is composed of higher cohesion material.