Greater Caucasus Tectonics


General introduction to Greater Caucasus Tectonics


The Caucasus orogen lies at Europe’s cross-road with Asia and Arabia, and is one of the world’s outstanding mountain ranges (Figure 1). It consists of the Greater Caucasus, intramontane basins (Kura-Kartli-Rioni), and the Lesser Caucasus. North of the Greater Caucasus the deep sedimentary Terek and Kuban foreland basin (> 6000 m thick; up to 1,600 m elevation) forms the transition to the Scythian platform. NNW of Mount Elbrus, the Stavropol “high” forms a basement uplift, and in the East the northern slope is formed by the Dagestan fold-and-thrust belt. The Greater Caucasus is Europe’s highest mountain range with Mt. Elbrus culminating at 5642 m, and rock uplift of more than 8,000 m in the last 2 Ma. The southern Greater Caucasus foreland, SW of Tbilisi is one of the world’s earliest sites of human society with 1.8 Ma old hominoid remains of Dmanisi (Georgia). The Lesser Caucasus with lower topography (~ 3000 m), is a zone of important volcanic (Mt Ararat – 5165m) and seismic activity, build in a former supra-subduction volcanic arc. In the East and West, the Caucasus topography is bound by two very deep sedimentary basins, the South Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, hosting some of the world’s largest oil and gas provinces.
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The Caucasus orogen, is caused by the north directed movement of the Arabian plate squeezing a Jurassic to Early Palaeogene subduction related volcanic arc (Lesser Caucasus) as well as Jurassic to Pliocene marine sedimentary rocks and sediments (northern Lesser Caucasus, substratum of Kura-Kartli Basins and Greater Caucasus) towards the Scythian plate (Gamkrelidze 1986, Hafkenscheid et al. 2006, Kazmin & Tikhonova 2006, Nikishin et al. 2001, Popov et al. 2004, Stampfli et al. 2001). Recent plate tectonic models and GPS based convergence rates (Gamkrelidze & Kuloshvili 1998, Reilinger et al. 2006, Vernant et al. 2004) suggest a moderate anticlockwise rotational component of convergence (Kadirov et al. 2008), and a complex plate boundary with vertical and horizontal strain partitioning. Recent convergence rates of up to 14 mm/a, strong earthquakes, landslides, active volcanoes, and extreme subsidence and surface uplift rates are indicative for the dynamics of the continent-continent collision. From E to W, the morphological shape and the structural features are strongly influenced by the rotational convergence of the Arabian plate and westward escape of the Anatolian Plate causing distinct tectonic regimes in the Caucasus. The Lesser Caucasus area is dominated at Present by a strike-slip regime made of a complex system of steep faults, whereas the Greater Caucasus is dominated by thrust tectonics with a main NNE-SSW direction of movement (Barazangi et al. 2006, Tan & Taymaz 2006).



The geodynamics of the Greater Caucasus orogen is one of an intercontinental collision zone inverting a deep Mesozoic-Tertiary basin that is not located in a subduction regime, but bordered E and W by super deep sedimentary basins that have their origin in the Mesozoic and are filled with Cenozoic-Quaternary sediments (Black Sea and South Caspian Basin). To the North and South are foreland basins of the Terek-Kuban and the Kura-Kakheti-Kartli-Rioni, respectively (Daukeev et al. 2002, Ershov et al. 1999, Ershov et al. 2003, Mikhailov et al. 1999, Ulminshek 2001); to the east and west the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, respectively (Abrams & Narimanov 1997, Allen et al. 2002, Berberian 1983, Brunet et al. 2003, Ismail-Zade et al. 1987, Mangino & Priestley 1998, Narimanov 1992, Nikishin et al. 1998, Nikishin et al. 2003, Shikalibeily & Grigoriants 1980). It is generally admitted that the Lesser Caucasus – which includes several major units, including an ophiolitic suture zone – is situated above an old, possibly detached subduction slab (Hafkenscheid et al. 2006). An incipient subduction is believed to occur at the northern edges of the Black Sea and south Caspian Sea (Apsheron Ridge). The detailed link to the structures such as the Main Caucasus Thrust (MCT) in the Greater Caucaus remains to be investigated. The depth of the mountain root of the Greater Caucasus has been determined using modelling (Brunet et al. 2003, Ershov et al. 2003). The Moho changes depth from about 40 km beneath the Kura basin to more than 50 km beneath the eastern Greater Caucasus and rises to 40 km again under the northern foreland basin.



Read MoreGeneral view of the Caucasus area on synthetic image based on a digital elevation model combined with a Landsat satellite image; red dots indicate earthquake epicenters. Adjara-Trialet fold and thrust belt is highlighted in yellow.

The Greater Caucasus is considered a doubly verging mountain-belt (Figure 2) with two external fold-and-thrust belts (FTP) and a complex nascent axial zone (Khain 1997, Sholpo 1993). The predominantly southward propagating foreland FTP forms the pro-wedge (front) of the orogenic wedge (Adamia et al. 1981, Adamia et al. 1977, Gamkrelidze 1986, 1997, Gamkrelidze & Shengelia 2005, Khain 1975, Philip et al. 1989).  Unlike in the western Greater Caucasus, a broad north-directed foreland FTP develops in the East, in Dagestan and is part of the retro-wedge (Djavadova & Mamula 1999, Dotduyev 1986, Kopp & Shcherba 1985, Sobornov 1994, 1996, Zonenshain et al. 1990).

The Kura-Kartli and possibly also the Rioni basins are dissected by and incorporated into the outward propoagating foreland FTB to the south of the main range. Deep seated southward migration of the orogenic front, causing the accretion prism, led to the inversion of the Pliocene to Late Pleistocene sediments, and the transport of the Alasani basin as a piggy-back basin towards the south. The northern foreland basin (Terek) subsided since the early Pliocene more than 4,000 m, and recently exhibits pitted gravels of Early Pliocene age at 1,600 m elevation. As in the southern foreland, the orogenic front (retro wedge) is propagating into the foreland basin in the Dagestan area.

 Whereas the axial zone of the Greater Caucasus comprises Jurassic sedimentary rocks (Azerbaijan), a pre-Mesozoic basement (Georgia, Russia) and Pliocene intrusions, both external fold-and-thrust belts consist mainly of Cretaceous and Tertiary sedimentary rocks (Khain 1997). The Greater Caucasus basin has developed in a back-arc setting to the southerly subduction-related volcanic arc of the Lesser Caucasus. Intrusive rocks are frequently found up into the Early Tertiary, but mainly affect the southern parts of the basin. Volcanoclastic series derived from the Lesser Caucasus volcanic arc are now found in the southern slope of the Greater Caucasus where they form distinct tectono-sedimentary units (Kangarli 1982, 2005). In situ intrusives remain however rare and are associated with igneous activity on the margins to the south of the Greater Caucasus Basin (Chalot-Prat et al. 2007, Mengel et al. 1987, Mustafayev 2001).


Pliocene to Quaternary igneous activity is found in the central part of the mountain range, in the border areas between Georgia and Russia (Tchechenia). The most outstanding example is of course Mount Elbrus with 5642 m, and further East Mount Kazbek (5047m). These intrusions are mainly late-collisional, subalkaline granitoids that roughly range between 4.5 and 1.5 Ma (Gazis et al. 1995, Hess et al. 1993, Lebedev & Bubnov 2006, Nosova et al. 2005), and culminate with Quaternary volcanism reaching into the Holocene (Chernyshev et al. 2006, Lebedev 2005).

 Several subsequent tectonic events are documented in the Greater Caucasus sedimentary record. Precambrian and Palaeozoic (pre-Hercynian and Hercynian) tectonic phases are recorded in the pre-Alpine basement or Palaeozoic core (for discussion and references see (Gamkrelidze & Shengelia 2005, Kazmin 2006, Saintot et al. 2006a, Saintot et al. 2006b, Somin 1997, Somin et al. 2006) and are followed by palaeotectonic events related to the Tethyan oceans (Palaeo- and Neotethys; Nikishin et al. 1997). These palaeotectonic events included extensional structures recorded throughout the Mesozoic cover of the Greater Caucasus Basin (Dotduyev 1986), but also unconformities considered to result from compressive phases such as the “Eo-Cimmerian” and the “Mid-Cimmerian” which is well documented in northern Azerbaijan. The link of the latter unconformity to possible orogenic events remains speculative and debated. Distinct tectonic zones, from N to S, are separated by major thrusts. They correspond to the original palaeogeographic setup build actively upon inherited, pre-existing structures (Dotduyev 1986, Egan et al. 2009). The central part of the orogen – where the oldest series outcrop, and topography is the highest – represents a distal basin between a platform domain to the N and a distant domain with a structural high (tilted block) to the S. The foreland basins are filled with Tertiary and Quaternary sediments. In the south they build on top of the former distal, stretched continental margin (Greater Caucasus basin). During the growth of the orogen since early Tertiary the thrust front is propagating out into its own foreland basin. The latter develops into a succession of piggy-back foreland basins, subsequently and progressively abandoned (relic thrust fronts) as the orogenic front migrates southward. A typical example of an abandoned basin is the Tertiary-Quaternary Alasani Basin (Philip et al. 1989).


Different tectonic zones have been described throughout the Greater Caucasus (Dotduyev 1986). Lateral correlations and differences have been investigated in numerous detailed studies between the western region in Crimea (Saintot & Angelier 2000, Saintot et al. 1998, Saintot et al. 2006a), through Georgia (Adamia et al. 1977, Banks et al. 1997, Gamkrelidze & Gamkrelidze 1977, Gamkrelidze & Rubinstein 1974) to the Caspian Sea (Allen et al. 2003, Egan et al. 2009, Kangarli 1982, 2005). Of particular interest is that the Adjara-Trialet FTB in Georgia which forms the southern limit of the Greater Caucasus in Georgia (Banks et al. 1997, Gudjabidze 2003) and is thrusting towards the North (Gamkrelidze & Kuloshvili 1998). One of the major structural features found along strike over more than 1000 km is the Main Caucasus Thrust (MCT) (Dotduyev 1986). Displacement on this major thrust fault is to the South, possibly in excess of 30 km in some places. In the West in Russia and Georgia, the MCT separates the Palaeozoic Metamorphic core of the mountain range from the Jurassic cover series to the South. Further east in Georgia, Dagestan (Russia) and Azerbaijan it is found in the core of the orogen separating rocks of different Jurassic ages. The definition of the MCT used here is according to Dotduyev (1986). In eastern Azerbaijan, east of mount Bazardüzü (the higherst summet in Azerbaijan), we lose the trace of the MCT and fieldwork has shown that is relayed by a string of fault-related folds.

In the Lesser Caucasus several models of tectonic units were proposed in the past (Milanovsky 1962, Satyan 1991). Up to three oceanic domains and two suture zones have been proposed (Knipper & Khain 1980, Zakariadze et al. 1983). The most recent investigation show that between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, the Lesser Caucasus in Armenia represents a Tethyan mountain belt, which is composed – from the southwest to the northeast -by three main litho-stratigraphic and tectonic units: i) an accreted terrain (the South Armenian Block: SAB), ii) ophiolites, and iii) the Eurasian margin (Sosson et al. 2009).

In the South Armenian Block (the Gondwanian Block), sedimentary formations ranging from the Late Devonian to the Late Triassic, unconformably overlie a Proterozoic metamorphic basement. Some evidence of rifting during the Lower Jurassic can be deduced from the volcanic rocks contained within the series. Reef limestone and marls of the Lower Cretaceous to Turonian overlie those previous formations. Higher up, a Lower Coniacian sedimentary mélange obducted ophiolitic units in the Vedi area. Finally, the Late Cretaceous platform carbonates unconformably overlie the SAB and the ophiolites. These carbonates evolve northeastward to a deeper marine environment. The Late Jurassic ophiolitic complexes (peridotites, gabbronorite pods, plagiogranite, basalts and radiolarites) are present in the area of Stepanavan, Sevan-Akera and Vedi. Ophiolite rocks correspond to oceanic lithosphere relics. According to the structural and biostratigraphic data, the three Armenian ophiolitic complexes correspond to only one oceanic lithosphere and one suture zone (Sevan-Akera, Stepanavan ophiolites) (Agamalyan 2004, Sosson et al. 2009). The outcropping magmatic rocks of the Eurasian margin in the Lesser Caucasus indicate magmatic arc-type activity ranging in the age from the Late Jurassic to the Early Cretaceous. The Late Cretaceous to Late Eocene rocks, which unconformably overly the SAB, the obducted ophiolites and the intra-oceanic arc, are made of pelagic limestone and turbidites characteristic of a basin environment that was deeper in the NE than in the SW.

Collision of the SAB with the Eurasian margin occurred during the Paleocene to the Early Eocene and resulted in the folding of the ophiolites, arc and Upper Cretaceous basin sediments (Sosson et al. 2009). Extensional tectonics occurred during the Late Eocene, coeval to widespread magmatic activity on both the SAB and the Eurasian plate (Jrbashyan 1981, Sosson et al. 2009).Finally, during the Late Miocene to the Quaternary, the Lesser Caucasus region was evolving by the NNE-SSW shortening, denudation, uplift and intense magmatic activity (Karapetian 1969). In the Late Miocene-Early Pliocene, tectonic stress regime in the Arabia-Eurasia collision area re-organized, changing from the thrusting and reverse-faulting (compressional-contractional) to strike-slip faulting (transtension-transpression) (Avagyan et al. 2005, Facenna et al. 2006). The recent stress field has produced a wide range of active faults in the region under consideration in response to N-S to NNE-SSW-trending convergence of the Arabian and Eurasian plates (Dewey et al. 1986, Jackson & McKenzie 1984, Karakhanian et al. 2004, Philip et al. 2001).  Four simultaneously existing major active faults form large top to the North structural arcs in the Lesser Caucasus area. The outer part of the arc is defined by the two active faults: Zheltorechensk-Sarighamish Fault (ESF) and Pambak-Sevan-Sunik fault (PSSF). The Zheltorechensk-Sarighamish fault is a left-lateral strike–slip structure, and the Pambak-Sevan-Sunik fault is right-lateral strike–slip fault. The inner part of the arc is defined by the left-lateral strike–slip Akhourian fault (AF), and right-lateral strike–slip Garni fault (GF) (e.g. Karakhanian et al. 2004).


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