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In order to investigate the development of structures at scales smaller than that of an entire belt, we examined aspects of the mechanics of thin-skinned fold-and-thrust belts in cross section using an arbitrary Lagrangian-Eulerian frictional-plastic finite-element model. A series of models, beginning with the deformation of a thick uniform layer above a thin weak layer on a fixed base, sequentially illustrates the effects of including flexural isostatic subsidence, strain-softening, multiple layers of strong and very weak materials, and finally erosion and sedimentation. These continuum models develop thin shear zones containing highly sheared material that approximate fault zones. The corresponding structures are similar to those in fold-and-thrust belts and include: far-traveled thrust sheets, irregular-roof and smooth-roof duplexes, back thrusts, pop-ups, detachment folds, fault-bend folds, break thrusts, and piggyback basins. These structures can develop in-sequence or out-of-sequence, remain active for extended periods, or be reactivated.

At the largest scale, the scale of the wedge, the finite-element model results agree with critical wedge solutions, but geometries differ at the sub-wedge scale because the models contain internal structures not predicted by the critical wedge stress analysis. These structures are a consequence of: (1) the complete solution of the governing equations (as opposed to a solution assuming a stress state that is everywhere at yield), (2) the initial finite-thickness layers, (3) the spatial and temporal variations of internal and basal strength, and (4) the coupling between surface processes and deformation of the wedge. The structural styles produced in models involving feedback with surface processes (erosion and sedimentation) are very similar to those mapped in the foothills of the southern Canadian Rockies and elsewhere. Although syndeformational sediments have been removed by postorogenic erosion across the foothills belt, evidence of the interaction between surface processes and deformation is preserved in the structural style.

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