The Messinian salinity crisis is typically recorded by evaporites in the abyssal plains of the Mediterranean Sea and by canyons incised into the Mediterranean margins and their hinterlands. However, the impacts of crisis on geomorphology and surface dynamics lasted, until canyons were filled by sediments in the Pliocene (fig. 2).
In the mid-Rhône valley, the Ardeche Cretaceous carbonate platform is incised over 600 m by the Rhône Messinian canyon. The canyon thalweg is located – 236 m bsl (below sea level) in the borehole of Pierrelatte [Demarcq, 1960; fig. 1]. During the Pliocene, this canyon was flooded as a ria and infilled by a Gilbert type fan delta [Clauzon and Rubino, 1992; Clauzon et al., 1995]. The whole Messinian-Pliocene third order cycle [Haq et al., 1987] generated four benchmark levels.
The first two are [Clauzon, 1996]: (i) The pre-evaporitic abandonment surface which is mapped around the belvedere of Saint-Restitut (fig. 1). This surface is synchronous [Clauzon, 1996] of the crisis onset (5.95 Ma) [Gautier et al., 1994; Krigjsman et al., 1999] and, consequently, is an isochronous benchmark. (ii) The Messinian erosional surface is also an isochronous benchmark due to the fast flooding [Blanc, 2002] of the Rhône canyon, becoming a ria at 5.32 Ma [Hilgen and Langereis, 1988]. These surfaces are the result of endoreic Mediterranean sea level fall more than a thousand meters below the Atlantic Ocean.
A huge accommodation space (up to more than 1000 m) was created as sea-level rose up to 80 m above its present-day level (asl) during the Pliocene highstand of cycle TB 3.4 (from 5.32 to 3.8 Ma). During the Lower Pliocene this accommodation space was filled by a Gilbert fan delta. This history yields two other benchmark levels: (i) the marine/non marine Pliocene transition which is an heterochronous surface produced by the Gilbert delta progradation. This surface recorded the Pliocene highstand sea level; (ii) the Pliocene abandonment surface at the top of the Gilbert delta continental wedge.
Close to the Rhône-Ardeche confluence, the present day elevations of the four reference levels are (evolution of base-level synthesized in fig. 4): (1) 312 m asl, (2) 236 m bsl, (3) 130 m asl, (4) 190 m asl.
The Ardèche carbonate platform underwent karstification both surficial and at depth. The endokarst is characterized by numerous cavities organised in networks. Saint-Marcel Cave is one of those networks providing the most complete record (fig. 5). It opens out on the northern side of the Ardeche canyon at an altitude of 100 m. It is made up by three superposed levels extending over 45 km in length. The lower level (1) is flooded and functionnal. It extends beneath the Ardeche thalweg down to the depth of 10 m bsl reached by divers. The observations collected in the galleries lead us to the conclusion that the karst originated in the vadose area [Brunet, 2000]. The coeval base-level was necessarily below those galleries. The two other levels (middle (2) and upper (3)) are today abandoned and perched. The middle level is about 115 m asl and the upper one is about 185 m asl. They are horizontal and have morphologies specific to the phreatic and temporary phreatic zone of the karst (fig. 6).
In literature, the terracing of the Saint-Marcel Cave had been systematically interpreted as the result of the lowering by steps of the Ardeche base-level [Guérin, 1973; Blanc, 1995; Gombert, 1988; Debard, 1997]. In this interpretation, each deepening phase of the base level induces the genesis of the gravitary shaft and the abandonment of the previous horizontal level. The next stillstand of base level leads to the elaboration of a new horizontal level (fig. 7). This explanation is valid for most of Quaternary karsts, that are related to glacioeustatic falls of sea-level. However our study on the Saint-Marcel Cave contests this interpretation because all the shafts show an upward digging dynamism and no hint of vadose sections. The same “per ascensum” hydrodynamism was prevailing during the development of the whole network (figs. 8 and 9).
We interpret the development of the Ardeche endokarst as related to the eustatic Messinian-Pliocene cycle TB 3.4/3.5 recorded by the Rhône river. The diving investigations in the flooded part of the Saint-Marcel Cave and also in the vauclusian springs of Bourg-Saint-Andeol reached - 154 m bsl. Those depths are compatible only with the incision of the Messinian Rhône canyon at the same altitude (−236 m bsl). The Saint-Marcel lower level would have develop at that time. The ascending shaping of levels 2 and 3 is thus likely to have formed during the ensuing sea-level rise and highstand during the Pliocene, in mainly two steps: (i) the ria stage controlled by the Mediterranean sea level rise and stillstand; (ii) the rhodanian Gilbert delta progradation, that controlled the genesis of the upper level (fig. 10).