Subduction can be associated either with accretion or with removal of material from the overriding plate. These two processes can either coexist or alternate in time along the same margin. Their inception has the potential to change the dynamic equilibrium of a marginal wedge resulting in the development of out-of-sequence thrusts, normal and strike-slip faults, or large submarine landslides in the frontal part of the subduction zone.

In this work we investigate the effects of the transition from frontal accretion to frontal erosion on the stability of a subduction complex through the study of an ancient example from the northern Apennines (Ligurian subduction complex).

New structural data suggest that in the early Neogene (Aquitanian), the removal and underthrusting of the toe of the wedge, formed by both the accreted oceanic sediments and the overlying wedge-top basin fill (i.e., the Subligurian units), implied a process of frontal tectonic erosion. The presence, on top of the subduction complex, of a complete succession of mid-late Eocene to late Miocene slope-apron sediments—i.e., the Epiligurian succession—facilitates a reconstruction of the sedimentary response to this event.

In the Aquitanian, large areas of the wedge were denuded from the lower-slope sedimentary cover through extensive gravitational mass movements. The subsequent deposition of a thick body of submarine debris flows is documented. The mass-wasting deposits are interpreted as the sedimentary response to the underthrusting of the frontal part of the Ligurian subduction complex formed by the Subligurian units.

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