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Turbidites and foreland basins: an Apenninic perspective


Franco Ricci-Lucchi*
Department of Earth Sciences, University of Bologna 40127, Italy Received 1 August 2002; accepted 17 February 2003

Abstract Do the Apennines represent a vantage point for studying turbidites? How did research develop in this area? These questions are discussed briey in the following pages from a historical and autobiographical perspective. Some items are emphasized: the shifting of depocentres, the presence of megabeds (basinwide events), the denition of classical turbidites, the facies approach, the recognition and distinction of hyperpycnal ows q 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Turbidities; Hyperpycnal ow; Foreland basins

1. Introduction When Emiliano Mutti and I conceived and wrote our 1972 paper on turbidites, we adopted a decidedly Apenninic perspective, as the title indicated (Mutti & Ricci Lucchi, 1972). Thirty years later, this contribution echoes the old title but the approach is different, that is, essentially historical. In the 1972 paper, the aim was to broaden the concept of turbidite or, if you prefer, to stress both the consanguineity of typical turbidites, as described by the Bouma sequence, with the products of other sediment gravity ows (as they became to be called after the inuential work of Gerry Middleton and others in the same years) and their physical, more or less intimate, contiguity with associated deposits, e.g. hemipelagics. The underlying assumptions were, rst, that the whole family inhabited or, better, was hosted in deep-water settings, and, second, that all, or almost all the clastics, especially the coarser ones, were resedimented, i.e. remobilized and transported en masse after a previous accumulation in some kind of repository or parking area somewhere along the margin of a deep-water basin. We then attempted to review and classify the various facies of turbiditic (latu sensu) deposits, with a main subdivision in mind, between classical or normal turbidites on one hand (our facies C and D), and anomalous turbidites (A, B, and E) on
* Tel.: 39-051-209-4535; fax: 39-05-1354-522. E-mail address: riccil@geomin.unibo.it (F. Ricci-Lucchi). 0264-8172/$ - see front matter q 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/j.marpetgeo.2003.02.003

the other. Differences were mostly explained in terms of depositional processes, including overbanking, which was at difference with purely two-dimensional, downow models. In recent years, both the above cited assumptions have been questioned: shallow-water turbidites are not regarded, at least by many, as a self-contradictory concept, and a direct input of sediment from a land source to a basin, via more or less catastrophic river oods, is advocated not as a mere possibility but as a quasi normal way of feeding a basin in some cases. This can hardly be seen as a surprise: scientic ideas and interpretations evolve by their essence, and historians of science know very well that there are both linear and cyclical developments of thought (with some malice, one might argue that the latter ones are related to the increasingly common habit of not reading papers older than ve-ten years). My purpose here is not, anyway, to delve into historical or philosophical matters per se, but to have look at history for trying to get possible, useful suggestions for today investigators, and stimulate a critical appraisal of what we, as sedimentologists, do, or want to do. In this respect, we need to keep a memory of what has been said and done.

2. The birth of the turbidite concept The hot, passionate debate about the existence of deep water sands and their mode of emplacement, dating back

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to the early Fifties of last century, marks the birth of the turbidity current and turbidite concepts, and practically coincides with the birth of sedimentology itself, if considered not from the viewpoint of pioneers but as a practiced profession and an established academic eld. The seminal paper by Kuenen and Migliorini (1950) gave vent not only to a lot of verbal and written discussion but also, and more importantly, to a burst of eld work started by Dutch students (soon followed by Polish, Swiss, British, etc.). The hunt (or sh) for turbidite outcrops began in mountain belts, where ysch was known (Migliorini and Signorini were among the pioneers in Italy), with the objective of checking the hydrodynamic model, to nd evidence of paleodepth, to compare ancient and modern examples, and to challenge conventional paleogeographic interpretations. An impressive amount of data on sedimentary structures, bedding patterns, and paleocurrent directions was accumulated in the following years e.g. ten Haaf, 1959. The term turbidite became increasingly familiar in the Sixties, when the Bouma sequence (Bouma, 1962) and the proximality distality criterion (Walker, 1967) were introduced: increasing attention was paid to the internal anatomy of beds, in terms of both vertical and lateral partitions and facies changes. The rst wave of studies was an exciting season, indeed (also because we were young), with a lot of lively discussions during eld trips and meetings. A whole generation of sedimentologists was born in this way. They were nicknamed yschermen, because ysch was the current name of main turbidite bodies at that time. The term had been introduced by Studer in 1827 in Switzerland, and was then used in Europe as a facies to indicate thick clastic sequences deformed by compressional tectonics during mountain building. Alpine-type chains (Alps, Apennines, Carpathians, etc.) provided the best known, historical examples. The repetitive character of bedding, with the alternation of two or, at most, three lithotypes was considered a typical feature of ysch, but this facies was never unambiguously dened because of its mixed connotation, partly observa , 1970). As a genetic tional and partly interpretative (Hsu term, it was considered a syn-orogenic deposit but not the product of a specic sedimentary environment in uniformitarian terms. That is why it was called a tectofacies, and was strictly associated with another not well dened concept, that of geosyncline (see Aubouin, 1965). The geosyncline, introduced by Hall and Dana in the US, and Haug in Europe, was, according to the proponents, the berth, or the embryo, of a mountain range, the basin destined to give birth to it through a sequence of tectonic, sedimentary and magmatic-metamorphic events; it was located on a weak crustal zone. Sediments deposited in the geosyncline were thus, necessarily, by denition, syn-tectonic or, in this case, syn-orogenic.

3. From ysch to turbidite basins, from geosyncline to plate tectonics The geosyncline theory was developed by M. Kay in the US and H. Stille, then J. Auboin in Europe, and culminated in a complicated and rather articial classication of basins. It had many pitfalls and did not stand the impact of the new ideas of plate tectonics in the 1960s 1970s. The geosyncline was thus superseded by Plate Tectonics, and abandoned, not without resistance. The ysch was maintained for a while in the new schemes (as in the initial concept of the Wilson cycle) but it gradually faded away, too. It was recognized, in fact, that turbidites can be laid down in both tectonically active (plate margins) and passive or quiescent (plate interiors) settings; for example, at the foot of passive continental margins or on the ocean oor. Even if the ultimate fate of passive environments and associated turbidites was to be involved in orogeny, because oceans are consumed at subduction zones and continental margins are deformed by collisions, turbidites could not be considered as syn-orogenic from the start, as in the geosyncline theory. Moreover, whether or not, and when, they will be involved, cannot be predicted from initial conditions. Turbidite sedimentologists, however, were too much concentrated on outcrop and mesoscale studies, and on their process-oriented approach (Middleton and Hampton, 1973), to pay due attention to what was happening in the world of geodynamics and general geology; their neglect for basin scale analysis (with the exception of a few people working in the oil industry) made them rather insensitive to the revolution in thought that was taking place, and they did not contribute to it. Exemplary of this attitude is an otherwise excellent article written by Philip Kuenen (1967), in which the author summarizes all kind of pros and cons of turbidity currents. Turbidites are still called there ysch-type sand beds, with barely a mention of their geologic settings. The transition from ysch to turbidites in geological usage can appreciated, for the Apennine case, in the special volume of Sedimentary Geology edited by Sestini (1970). Still in 1974, when plate tectonics was already accepted by most of the geological community, sedimentologists worked within the frame of the old paradigm, as shown by the title of SEPM Special Publication No.19: Modern and ancient geosynclinal sedimentation (Dott & Shaver, 1974). History is funny, sometimes, because this volume, conservative as it is in terms of geological ideas, is a landmark paper from the viewpoint of sedimentology, inasmuch as it represents an effort of intellectual innovation concerning turbidites. The innovation consisted of a shift in focus passing from a process to an environment oriented approach. Interpretation of turbidites in terms of environment and depositional system was of more concern, in the articles published therein, than their descriptive or mechanistic aspects. And there was a new entry, the deep-sea fan model, actually introduced by Normark (1970) and gaining

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attention and popularity in the following years. Facies analysis, which had been and was being successfully developed in uvial, nearshore and shallow marine sediments, was then applied to turbidites. Problems arose, however, when it was realized that the uniformitarian approach, which is at the core of facies analysis, suffered from severe limitations in the case of deep-sea environments, where the record was not so straightforward. Fan models had been actually erected when scarce data on modern fans were available, and as more data became available, it became more and more clear that they showed a great variety of systems, hardly comparable and categorizable into well dened types (see Bouma, Normark & Barnes, 1985; Piper, Hiscott, & Normark, 1999). Every fan, or deep-water clastic system, seemed to be a story apart. Sedimentologists remained a little bewildered and out of balance: what to do next? The enthusiasm for deep-sea fans declined, and with it, apparently, much of the interest for turbidites. Not so many papers on turbidites were published in the last 15 years of the century; some of them were concerned with modern environments, but most were about (again!) hydrodynamics, mechanisms and internal structures (see, for example, Kneller & Branney, 1995; Mulder & Syvitski, 1995). Turbidites were almost deserted by eld geologists, attracted by other targets or converting to computer modelling.

4. Turbidites and foreland basins The theme of syn-tectonic and syn-orogenic sedimentation made a new appearance under the framework of plate tectonics, which lead to a reclassication of sedimentary basins (Bally & Snelson, 1980; Dickinson, 1974, 1988). The term geosyncline was not resurrected but its concept was partly resumed under the category of foreland basin, which had already been known as foredeep in previous times, with the meaning of a basin characterizing the late orogenic stage of the geosyncline and accommodating the erosional products of a newly emerged chain. The Oligo-Miocene molasse basin to the north of the Alps was regarded as a sort of prototype. And it was in the middle of this basin that the new interest on orogenic sedimentation was celebrated in 1985, when a meeting on Foreland Basins was organized in Fribourg by Peter Homewood and Philip Allen. Subsidence in a foreland basin is induced by tectonic loading of advancing and stacking thrusts and nappes, so sedimentation in this kind of basin is truly syn-tectonic. The origin and history of foreland basins have been modelled through computer simulation (Beaumont, Cloething, Karner, etc.); models were quite successful and accurate in reproducing the salient features of Cordilleran basins, but not so much for the Alpine-Tethys types. Mediterranean orogens are smaller, more fragmented and rotated in comparison with bigger and more linear systems, i.e. Himalaya, Appalachians, Rocky Mountains and Andes.

Differences were already apparent when the geosyncline was the dominant paradigm: the American type, mainly lled by shallow-water to continental clastics, was contrasted with the Alpine type, dominated by marine sediments, in particular ysch and pelagics. Concerning the Apennines, this small, young collisional chain is denitely one of the best places for looking at turbidites, mostly of Tertiary age. Flysch formations form its backbone, and their exposures are so overwhelming that Studer himself indicated them as typical examples (he referred to Macigno sandstone for the siliciclastic variety, and to alberese for the calcareous one, more or less corresponding to the Helminthoid group, familiar to Alpine gelogists). They are now reinterpreted as foredeep wedges, clastic wedges or, more simply, turbiditic bodies or turbiditic formations. However, the history and structure of the Apennines are far from simple (see, for recent syntheses, Argnani & Ricci Lucchi, 2001; Boccaletti et al., 1990). The foreland is a slice of Africa, which was previously involved in the collisional event that built up the Alps, and it is highly deformed by the two subsequent orogenies. The foreland basin (the nal, present stage of it) is represented by the Po Plain, whose subsurface shows part of the complex deformation alluded to above. Modellers (Royden & Karner, 1984) found that the foreland was excessively bent after taking into account thrust and sediment loading, but the cause of this extra load has been only a matter of speculation. Previous stages of the Apennine Foredeep (Oligocene and Miocene) were inferred from stratigraphic evidence and analogies with the Plio-Quaternary inll of the Po Plain, whose geometry is preserved, at least partially. The resulting story is one of a migrating thrust belt/foreland basin system (Ricci Lucchi, 1986), but little is known about its original width, possible subdivision into subbasins, rate of migration, regular pace or stepwise nature of this migration and of subsidence, elastic rigidity or weakness of underlying lithosphere, and other kinematic and dynamic aspects. From the standpoint of sedimentology and physical stratigraphy, some major trends can be recognized in the outcropping Tertiary turbidite bodies of northern Apennine (subsurface turbidites are not considered here): vertical trends: a ning upward trend is observed in the oldest unit (Tuscan Macigno) form stacked sandstone sheets to mudstone-dominated facies; the next unit (Marnoso-arenacea Fm) is composed by two distinctive facies associations, an older one (Mid-Miocene), vertically trendless and rich in mudstone with interbedded sheetlike sandstone bodies gradually thinning downcurrent and megabeds (including the Contessa), and a younger one (upper Miocene), sand-rich and more lenticular than previous units, lacking basinwide beds and probably deposited in narrower and separated furrows. The lower Marnoso-arenacea is interpreted as

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a relatively wide basin plain (maybe the largest of the whole migrating succession, judging from the present outcrop and subsurface extent); continuity of sedimentation: shifting of depocentres and subsidence axes seems to have occurred in a rather continuous way (even if punctuated by large submarine slides of both intra- and extra-basinal material), with two notable exceptions. The rst one is represented by the closure of the Tuscan basin, whose turbidites were sealed by a mud drape with chert and tephra horizons, indicating a reduced sedimentation rate and interruption of coarse clastic input (see siliceous lithozone of Lower Miocene: Amorosi, Ricci Lucchi & Tateo, 1995), to be resumed in the next depocenter to the NE (start of Marnoso-arenacea deposition). The second discontinuity is less pronounced (varying from a clear submarine erosional surface to a rapid increase of sand content) and separates lower (inner) and upper (outer) Marnoso-arenacea. This transition, at difference with the previous one, does not reect an interruption of turbiditic sedimentation, but rather a structural reorganization of the basin with attendant change in source areas. Remarkable is the change in turbidite facies, as shown by lenticular and amalgamated beds, high frequence of clay chips, dewatering structures, convolutions, intra-bed debris ows, absence of hemipelagic interbedding, etc. These features induced Mutti and myself, in1972, to emphasize the presence of anomalous or nonBouma turbidites to be included in the spectrum of sediment gravity ows and assumed resedimented deposits. Presently, Mutti (pers. comm.) sees them in a different light, i.e. as representative of a distinct family of mass ows, those introduced directly by catastrophic stream oods (hyperpycnal density currents); lateral trends: the rarity of suitable markers makes stratigraphic correlation difcult in sand-rich bodies like the Macigno and the upper Marnoso arenacea; on the contrary, the lower Marnoso arenacea has plenty of markers, represented by (presumably) basinwide layers with at least three distinctive lithologies. A certain degree of wedging towards the foreland can thus be demonstrated at the scale of 100 300 m thick bundles. This supports the view of a wedge-shaped, asymmetrical basin section, but, unfortunately, this kind of evidence is not widespread and generalizable at the moment.

5. Circular reasoning or cyclical reasoning? The change in facies from lower to upper Marnosoarenacea, which is reected also by lithology (color, degree of cementation and weathering) was noticed by old

authors, who interpreted it as the passage from ysch to molasse, which meant from shallow marine (I am speaking of pre-1950 times) to littoral-deltaic facies; actually, a shallowing-up trend. In the late Sixties of last century, the new tribe of young yschermen said: but no! ysch is made of turbidites, i.e. deep-sea sands, and the molasse, if you look carefully and ignore the diagenetic overprint, are also turbidites, even if not so typical. Now, if we reinterpret these atypical turbidites as hyperpycnites, their environment of deposition is not necessarily deep. Are thus we going back to the shallowing-up trend of pre-turbidite times? This sounds quite ironic, and suggests that cycles in evolution of thought do exist, even if they do not reproduce identical situations. And what about the typical or classical turbidites? Well, if they are represented by sheetlike, extensive, possibly basin-wide individual layers, showing the Bouma sequence, and by tabular, very gradually thinning and shaling out sandstone bodies (in other words, if they have a basinal look), we must conclude that these are features of old, respectable ysch, as originally dened in the XIX century. In fact, where do we nd these features? In the Apenninic Macigno and lower Marnoso arenacea, which are among the typical examples indicated by Studer. Another historical loop? Letting the ironical implications of history aside, we are now faced with the problem of redening turbidity currents, turbidites and turbidite-like deposits. The crucial point is to nd reliable diagnostic criteria for distinguishing resedimented deposits from those related to hyperpycnal ows or, according to Piper (pers. comm.), to separate different types of ow initiation. To what amount can they be checked in individual layers, in bedsets and facies sequences, or in stacking patterns and basin architecture? The discussion of this question is outside the scope of the persent paper, and I would like to express here just an impression. The feeling is that the classical turbidites of the Apennines, representing the main lling of a foreland basin (Macigno and lower Marnoso arenacea) are true products of resedimentation processes on the basis of the features described by Ricci Lucchi and Valmori (1980). Even the sandier beds have low thickness gradients both down ow and across ow, and become gradually mud-rich at their distal ends. These features should indicate a at basin oor (basin plain) invaded by ows of huge volume from different provenances and rich in mud, largely bypassing base-ofslope and fans (or not building fans at all). The estimated volume of individual layers (one to some tens of cubic kilometers, without correction for compaction) seems to exceed the maximum peak discharges of catchment areas, and exclude the possibility of direct immission of hyperpycnal ows, unless one invokes a igniting or

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avalanche effect, i.e. a ow growing bigger by incorporation of sediment along the way (which can be excluded at least in the case of the distinctive allochthonous detritus in Contessa-like beds).

References
Amorosi, A., Ricci Lucchi, F., & Tateo, F. (1995). The Lower Miocene siliceous zone: A marker in the palaeogeographic evolution of the Northern Apennines. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 118, 131 149. Argnani, A., & Ricci Lucchi, F. (2001). Tertiary siliciclastic turbidite systems of the northern Apennines. In P. Martini, & G. B. Vai (Eds.), Anatomy of an orogen (pp. 327350). Dordecht: Kluwer. Aubouin, J. (1965). Geosynclines. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 335 pp. Bally, A. W., & Snelson, S. (1980). Realms of subsidence. In A. D. Miall (Ed.), Facts and principles of world petroleum occurrence (pp. 994). Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists Memoir. Boccaletti, M., Ciaran, N., Deiana, G., Gelati, R., Massari, F., & Moratti, G. (1990). Migrating foredeep-thrust belt system in the northern Apennines and southern Alps. In M. Boccaletti, & G. Moratti (Eds.), Neogene paleogeography of the Perityrrhenian area (77(1)) (pp. 314). Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. Bouma, A. H. (1962). Sedimentology of some ysch deposits. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 168 pp. Bouma, A. H., Normark, W. R., & Barnes, N. E. (1985). Submarine fans and related turbidite systems. Berlin: Springer, 351 pp. Dickinson, W. R. (1974). Tectonics and sedimentation. SEPM Special Publication, No. 22, 204. Dickinson, W. R. (1988). Provenance and sediment dispersal in relation to paleotectonics and paleogeography of sedimentary basins. In K. L. Kleinspehn, & C. Paola (Eds.), New perspectives on basin analysis (pp. 325). Berlin: Springer. Dott, R. H., & Shaver, R. H. (1974). Modern and ancient geosynclinal sedimentation. SEPM Special Publication, No.19, 380. ten Haaf E (1959), Graded beds of the northern Apennines. Ph. Thesis, University of Groningen, 102 pp. , K. J. (1970). The meaning of the word Flysch. Geological Association Hsu of Canada Special Paper 7, 1 11. Kneller, B. C., & Branney, M. J. (1995). Sustained high-density turbidity currents and the deposition of thick massive sands. Sedimentology, 42, 607 616. Kuenen, P. H. (1967). Empacement of ysch-type sand beds. Sedimentology, 9, 203243. Kuenen, P. H., & Migliorini, C. I. (1950). Turbidity currents as causes of graded bedding. Journal of Geology, 58, 91127. Middleton, G. V., & Hampton, M. A. (1973). Sediment gravity ows: Mechanics of ow and deposition. SEPM Pacic Section Short Course Notes, 138. Mulder, T., & Syvitski, J. P. M. (1995). Turbidity currents generated at river mouths during exceptional discharge to the world oceans. Journal of Geology, 103, 285299. Mutti, E. (1985). Turbidite systems and their relation to depositional sequences. In G. G. Zuffa (Ed.), Provenance of arenites (pp. 65 94). NATO-ASI Series, Riedel Publ. Co. Mutti, E. (1992). Turbidite sandstones. AGIP-Istituto di Geologia ` di Parma, 275. Universita Mutti, E., & Ricci Lucchi, F. (1972). Le torbiditi dellAppennino Settentrionale: Introduzione allanalisi di facies. Memoir Societa Geologica Italia, 11(2), 161 199. Normark, W. R. (1970). Growth patterns of deep-sea fans. AAPG Bulletin, 54, 21702195. Piper, D. J. W., Hiscott, R. N., & Normark, W. R. (1999). Outcrop-scale acoustic facies analysis and latest Quaternary development of Hueneme and Dume submarine fans, offshore California. Sedimentology, 46, 47 78. Ricci Lucchi, F. (1986). The Oligocene to Recent foreland basins of the Northern Appennines. In P. A. Allen, & P. Homewood (Eds.), Foreland

6. Summary and conclusions After several decades of stratigraphic, structural, and sedimentological studies of the Tertiary turbidites of the Apennine, the essential features of the main bodies (qualied as ysch in the old literature) can be safely outlined: namely, gross stacking pattern, sedimentation rates, provenance and dispersal of detritus, facies and facies associations, biostratigraphy. Uncertainties and problems still persist concerning paleogeographic location, stratigraphic subdivisions and correlation of the most deformed, older units, particularly in pelitic horizons and so-called chaotic bodies. The overall pattern is one of migrating depocentres, with progressive involvement of portions of the foreland area in subsidence, turbidite accumulation, submarine sliding and tectonic deformation. A distinctive break in this shifting pattern, i.e. a quiescent phase, is recognized in the early Miocene, when turbidite and coarse clastic sedimentation stopped everywhere, and silica-rich muds draped previously active structures. The foreland basin system (main foredeep plus satellite basins) formed when the Apennine orogeny started (Oligocene) and was fed mainly by sources placed outside the developing chain, which remained mostly submerged until the end of the Miocene. The thrust belt contribution to the basin ll consisted in exceptional episodes of mass ow (individual high volume beds or megaturbidites) and sliding (both intra- and extra-basinal masses). The backbone of the Apennines emerged and supplied detritus to the foredeep starting from Tortonian and Messinian times: late Miocene and Plio-Pleistocene turbidites thus form a molasse with respect to the previous ysch phase. This is a peculiar, relatively deep-water molasse: nearshore and continental deposits completed the basin ll only in the Quaternary, when turbidites were still present but restricted to minor depocentres in the Po PlainAdriatic domain. Historically, the turbidite bodies of northern Apennines represent a unique data base, which was utilized, at rst for the denition of the ysch concept (see Macigno or Alberese sandstones in Studer, 1827), then for the denition of the turbidity current concept (Kuenen & Migliorini, 1950) and, more recently, for the recognition and characterization of facies schemes (Mutti & Ricci Lucchi, 1972) and the modeling of deep-water depositional systems (Mutti, 1985, 1992; Ricci Lucchi & Valmori, 1980).

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F. Ricci-Lucchi / Marine and Petroleum Geology 20 (2003) 727732 Sestini, G. (1970). Flysch facies and turbidite sedimentology. Sedimentary Geology, 4, 559597. ognostiques sur quelques parties de la Studer, B. (1827). Remarques ge chaine septentrionale des Alpes. Annales Sciences Naturelles Paris, 11, 1 47. Walker, R. G. (1967). Turbidite sedimentary structures and their relationship to proximal and distal environments. Journal of Sedimentary Petrology, 37, 25 73.

basins (pp. 105 139). International Association of Sedimentologists Special Publication 8, Oxford: Blackwell Scientic. Ricci Lucchi, F., & Valmori, E. (1980). Basin-wide turbidites in a Miocene, over-supplied deep-sea plain: A geometrical analysis. Sedimentology, 27, 241 270. Royden, L. H., & Karner, G. D. (1984). Flexure of the lithosphere beneath the Apennine and Carpathian Foredeep basins: Evidence for an insufcient topographic load. AAPG Bulletin, 68, 74712.