Restored sections provide not only a measure of the viability of structural interpretations but also have the ability to recreate the geometry of the structures through geologic time. Geologists have known for a long time that section balancing is more difficult in salt structures because of the ability of the salt to flow in and out of the plane of section and also to dissolve and thereby violate constant volume considerations. However, the surrounding sediments generally deform by brittle-plastic processes and are less able to flow out of the plane of a properly chosen section. The pragmatic approach is to restore sections by assuming constant-area conditions for the sediment structures alone and to leave the salt area as gaps that may change in area through time. Most restorations of salt structures suggest that throughout long periods of geologic time, salt remains at or close to the depositional surface and that volume reductions of up to 50% are possible in nature.
Salt structures usually involve regional displacements of the salt and its surrounding sediments so that extension in one place has to be balanced by basement extension or cover contraction in another. A key aid to the recognition of contraction and extension is the regional elevation of reference horizons. Generally, salt withdrawal and extensional faulting drop reference beds below regional elevation, whereas salt pillowing, salt sheet formation, and contraction will raise beds above regional elevation. In the Gulf of Mexico, the updip extensional growth faulting and salt withdrawal are balanced by the formation of downdip allochthonous salt sheets and fold and thrust belts, so that the total linear strain across the sediment cover is zero. The extension and contraction are linked by a series of salt and fault welds that lie at several structural levels.
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Salt Tectonics: A Global Perspective
The conceptual breakthroughs in understanding salt tectonics can be recognized by reviewing the history of salt tectonics, which divides naturally into three parts: the pioneering era, the fluid era, and the brittle era.
The pioneering era (1856-1933) featured the search for a general hypothesis of salt diapirism, initially dominated by bizarre, erroneous notions of igneous activity, residual islands, in situ crystallization, osmotic pressures, and expansive crystallization. Gradually data from oil exploration constrained speculation. The effects of buoyancy versus orogeny were debated, contact relations were characterized, salt glaciers were discovered, and the concepts of downbuilding and differential loading were proposed as diapiric mechanisms.
The fluid era (1933–1989) was dominated by the view that salt tectonics resulted from Rayleigh-Taylor instabilities in which a dense fluid overburden having negligible yield strength sinks into a less dense fluid salt layer, displacing it upward. Density contrasts, viscosity contrasts, and dominant wavelengths were emphasized, whereas strength and faulting of the overburden were ignored. During this era, palinspastic reconstructions were attempted; salt upwelling below thin overburdens was recognized; internal structures of mined diapirs were discovered; peripheral sinks, turtle structures, and diapir families were comprehended; flow laws for dry salt were formulated; and contractional belts on divergent margins and allochthonous salt sheets were recognized. The 1970s revealed the basic driving force of salt allochthons, intrasalt minibasins, finite strains in diapirs, the possibility of thermal convection in salt, direct measurement of salt glacial flow stimulated by rainfall, and the internal structure of convecting evaporites and salt glaciers. The 1980s revealed salt rollers, subtle traps, flow laws for damp salt, salt canopies, and mushroom diapirs. Modeling explored effects of regional stresses on domal faults, spoke circulation, and combined Rayleigh-Taylor instability and thermal convection. By this time, the awesome implications of increased reservoirs below allochthonous salt sheets had stimulated a renaissance in salt tectonic research.
Blossoming about 1989, the brittle era is actually rooted in the 1947 discovery that a diapir stops rising if its roof becomes too thick. Such a notion was heretical in the fluid era. Stimulated by sandbox experiments and computerized reconstructions of Gulf Coast diapirs and surrounding faults, the onset of the brittle era yielded regional detachments and evacuation surfaces (salt welds and fault welds) along vanished salt allochthons, raft tectonics, shallow spreading, and segmentation of salt sheets. The early 1990s revealed rules of section balancing for salt tectonics, salt flats and salt ramps, reactive piercement as a diapiric initiator resulting from tectonic differential loading, cryptic thin-skinned extension, influence of sedimentation rate on the geometry of passive diapirs and extrusions, the importance of critical overburden thickness to the viability of active diapirs, fault-segmented sheets, counter-regional fault systems, subsiding diapirs, extensional turtle structure anticlines, and mock turtle structures.