Alpine-type orogens are characterized by three distinct convergent tectonic phases: subduction with deformation that has primarily single vergence, a transition from subduction to collision, and continental collision with double vergence. Although the Cenozoic history of the European Alps has additional complexities, a mechanical explanation for these three phases would provide the necessary crustal-scale framework in which to develop an understanding of the smaller-scale processes. We present results from a simple numerical model, which explain the mechanics of these three phases as a consequence of the changing buoyancy of the lithosphere subducted beneath the orogen. The development and exhumation of a subduction complex, suture zone, and basement nappe stack (Piemont suture, Penninic Nappes); the presence of a crustal-scale back fold and thrust (Insubric Line); and uplift of basement on the pro- (European) side of the orogen (external basement massifs) may be explained as a simple consequence of changing dynamics during the transition from subduction to collision.

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