The deep crust of the Southern Rhine Graben: Reflectivity and seismicity as images of dynamic processes

G. Mayer, P. M. Mai, T. Plenefisch, H. Echtler, E. Lüschen, V. Wehrle, B. Müller, K. P. Bonjer, C. Prodehl*, K. Fuchs

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


The Rhine Graben, part of the European Cenozoic rift system, deserves special attention because of its location in the foreland of the Alpine orogen. The Phanerozoic evolution of the lithosphere in this region is defined by a set of major geodynamic events ranging from the Variscan orogeny, late-orogenic crustal re-equilibration to the interference of rifting and Alpine orogeny in Tertiary times. The Rhine Graben is one of the most detailedly studied continental grabens. Prospecting for hydrocarbons in its sedimentary fill and intensive pre-site studies for the Continental Deep Drilling Program (KTB) on its eastern crystalline flank (Black Forest) provided a comprehensive set of geoscience data. Seismic investigations ranging from a deep seismic network of near-vertical reflection to concurrent wide-angle refraction experiments were accompanied by seismological and geological surveys. Therefore, a direct observational comparison between the two depth definitions of crustal subdivisions, elastic vs. strength/rheological, was possible. In large parts of Western Europe deep seismic sounding (DSS) investigation distinguishes between a crystalline upper crust of comparatively low P-wave velocities (5.9-6.0 km/s) with little and discrete reflectivity and a strongly reflective lower crust with higher P-wave velocities (about 6.4-6.8 km/s). Both are separated by the Conrad discontinuity. In contrast, strength and rheological considerations define a brittle upper crust and a ductile lower crust. The boundary between these two realms is usually referred to as the brittle/ductile transition zone which in seismically active regions is imaged by the deepest crustal hypocentres. The present brittle/ductile transition in the Rhine Graben region, as defined by the deepest hypocentres, does not necessarily coincide with the structural separation in an upper and lower crust as seen in deep seismic studies. This suggests that the laminated lower crust developed during the crustal re-equilibration phase at the end of the Variscan orogeny. The second part of this paper concentrates on evidence of recent tectonic activities related to rifting processes impacting on the Variscan lower crust. A remarkable concentration of deep crustal earthquakes reaching to the top of an asymmetrical thinned lower crust is observed at or near the eastern border fault of the southern Rhine Graben and is possibly induced by the young rifting process. We suggest that this asymmetry could be a consequence of the uppermost mantle detaching from the upper crust in collision with the Alpine orogen. This allows us to propose the distinction between the influence of compression, extension, continental subduction and intra-crustal detachment during graben formation. The dynamic interference of rifting and foreland compression shown by structural and seismological observations leads to the notion of small-scale collisional escape tectonics associated with an intra-continental transform fault at the southern end of the Rhine Graben, the Rhine-Saône Transform zone.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)15-40
Number of pages26
Issue number1-3
StatePublished - Jul 10 1997
Externally publishedYes


  • Black Forest
  • Crustal structure
  • European Cenozoic rift system
  • Lower crust
  • Reflection seismics
  • Rhine Graben
  • Seismicity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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