Interpreting structural geometry in fold-thrust belts: Why style matters

Robert W H Butler* (Corresponding Author), Clare E Bond, Mark A Cooper, Hannah Watkins

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

63 Citations (Scopus)
10 Downloads (Pure)


Structural interpretation in fold-thrust belts has become reliant on a few idealized geometric models (i.e. fault-bend, fault-propagation and detachment folding) and their quantitative methods for section construction and validation.

We couple historical review with selected outcrops to show that there is a substantially greater range of solutions available for interpreting the geometry and evolution of thrust belt structures than implied by these idealized models.

Examples are documented, and lessons drawn, from comparing structural interpretations developed in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies with those in the Western Alps. Both show a range of structural geometries with regional variations that reflect variations in the pre-kinematic stratigraphic template. Locally, fold-thrust development can localize on pre-existing structures. Thus consideration of the precursor geology is essential for structural interpretation. Using a case study from the Papuan Fold Belt we show that even with seismic data, assessing the role of basement in structural development can be uncertain.

The idealized models offer only a narrow range of possible geometries for constructing cross-sections and developing structural understanding in fold-thrust systems. Failure to consider alternatives, and the inherent interpretation uncertainty, has biased understanding of thrust systems leading in turn to over-optimistic risk assessment and repeated drilling surprises.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)251-273
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of Structural Geology
Early online date23 Jun 2018
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2018

Bibliographical note

The Fold-Thrust Research Group is funded by InterOil, Oil Search and Santos. We thank David Ferrill and Chris Morley for robust reviews of an early draft of this paper. We also thank Bill Dunne for his patience and his usual editorial rigor – although of course authors alone are responsible for the views expressed here.


  • thrust belts
  • folding
  • interpretation uncertainty
  • fold thrust structures


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