The role of rheology in extensional basin formation modelling

M. Fernàndez*, G. Ranalli

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

75 Citations (Scopus)


The rheology of the lithosphere determines its deformation under given initial and boundary conditions. This paper presents a critical discussion on how rheological properties are taken into account in extensional basin modelling. Since strength envelopes are often used in models, we review the uncertainties (in temperature and rheological parameters) and assumptions (in type of rheology and mode of deformation) involved in their construction. Models of extensional basins are classified into three groups: kinematic, kinematic with rheological constraints, and dynamic. Rheology enters kinematic models only implicitly, in the assumption of an isostatic compensation mechanism. We show that there is a critical level of necking that reconciles local isostasy with the finite strength of the lithosphere, which requires a flexural response. Kinematic models with rheological constraints make use of strength envelopes to assess the initial lateral variations of lithospheric strength and its evolution with time at the site of extension. Dynamic models are the only ones to explicitly introduce rheological constitutive equations (usually in plane strain or plane stress). They usually, however, require the presence of an initial perturbation (thickness variations, pre-existing faults, thermal inhomogeneities, rheological inhomogeneities). The mechanical boundary conditions (kinematic and dynamic) and the thermal boundary conditions (constant temperature or constant heat flux at the lower boundary of the lithosphere) may result in negative/positive feedbacks leading to cessation/acceleration of extension. We conclude that, while kinematic models (with rheological constraints if possible) are very successful in accounting for the observed characteristics of sedimentary basins, dynamic models are necessary to gain insight into the physical processes underlying basin formation and evolution.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)129-145
Number of pages17
Issue number1-4
Publication statusPublished - 15 Dec 1997
Externally publishedYes


  • Deformation
  • Isostasy
  • Strain
  • Stress
  • Velocity structure


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