Abstract

This historical perspective provides an overall view of the main steps that led to the acceptance of the concept of mantle exhumation accompanying lithosphere stretching and extreme crustal thinning. We first remember that the presence of exposures of mantle rocks along oceanic spreading ridges was early reported in the 60’s due to the results of sediment cores and dredge hauls collected along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. In the meantime, detailed analysis of the relationships between oceanic sediments of Late Jurassic age and their primary basement in the Apennine ophiolites led many authors to point to the importance of exhumation of mantle rocks on ancient seafloors. By contrast to the thick sections of classical ophiolites (e.g. Oman), the Alpine-Corsican-Appennine ophiolites are characterized by a relatively small amount of mafic rocks (gabbros and basalts), by the absence of any sheeted dyke complex and by the frequent occurrence of oceanic sediments stratigraphically overlying mantle-derived peridotites and associated gabbroic intrusions. They display some of the characteristics of slow-spreading ridge systems, but, due to their highly tectonized character, they have been interpreted successively either as remnants of oceanic fracture zones of «normal» ocean or as remnants of very-poorly organized, «abnormal» oceanic basement. This review shows how the concept of mantle exhumation has been elaborated more or less in the same period both by marine geoscientists and by geologists conducting investigations in ophiolitic units of the Alps-Apennines mountain belt. Dredging and diving results from the Gorringe Bank, the Iberia margin, the Thyrrenian Sea and the Central Atlantic in the 1980’s and 1990’s provided additional proofs that the mantle is currently exhumed in various oceanic environments, including distal continental margins, back-arc basins and slow-spreading ridges of wide oceans. It is shown finally how renewed cross-information from mountain belts and the oceans, multiplying the examples of sedimentary reworking of mantle material, help better constrain the mechanisms of mantle exhumation. This mechanism progressively appeared as a fundamental step during the processes of extension of both continental and oceanic lithospheres in numerous geological situations worldwide.

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