Central Europe II
Western Carpathians

Advanced Tectonics
James S. Aber

Table of Contents
Overview Poland
Slovakia References

Tectonic overview of the Carpathian Mountains

Eastward from the Alps, the Carpathian Mountains extend as a great loop across central and southeastern Europe. The western Carpathians are found in Slovakia and southernmost Poland; eastern Carpathians trend through the Ukraine into northern Romania; southern Carpathians run across central Romania. The latter are also known as the Transylvanian Alps. North of the Alps/Carpathians are several reactivated blocks of older (Paleozoic) crust—Bohemian massif, Silesian Mountains, Holy Cross Mountains, etc. On the southern side, the Pannonian sedimentary basin is situated within the Carpathian loop, centered in Hungary—see

Topographic map of southernmost Poland and northern Slovakia. High Tatrys and Low Tatrys are separated by the Paleogene Basin, and the Outer Flysch zone lies to the north. The High Tatrys are supported by granite nappes thrust northward over sedimentary strata. This is the northernmost extent of the Carpathian Mountain system.

The Carpathians are a classic thrust mountain belt with associated flysch and molasse phases of development. Paleozoic crust north of the Carpathians was strongly affected during mountain thrusting. Complicated horst-and-graben structures were formed and large crustal blocks were uplifted and subjected to strong secondary mineralization. Andesitic volcanism is typical along much of the Carpathian system, in contrast to the Alps. However, little or no metamorphism and limited volcanism took place in the western Carpathians of southern Poland and northern Slovakia. In terms of overall sequence of tectonic stages and resulting rocks and structures, the western Carpathians resemble the Ouachita Mountains in many ways (Golonka et al. 2003).

High Tatry Mountains – Kite aerial photographs
Slovak Tatrys. Left: from southwestern end looking toward northeast. Right: from south looking northward with touristic and sports facilities. Highest peaks exceed 2600 m (>8500 feet).
Left: Slovak Tatrys from southeastern end looking toward the northwest. Right: Polish Tatrys on northern side looking toward the city of Zakopane in the center at the mountain front.

Structural and sedimentary development of the Carpathian Mountains parallels that of the Alps; however, the Carpathians are generally younger than the Alps. Structural phases display a systematic age trend along the Carpathian system—oldest in the west, younger in the east, and youngest in the south. The western section is largely stable today, while the southern section remains somewhat active (earthquakes). Janocko et al. (2006) identified four tectonic factors related to the western Carpathians.

Generalized section through the western Carpathians
Adapted from MECC'08, based on Picha (1996)

The peculiar loop-shaped pattern of the Carpathians is difficult to explain in a simple subduction zone model for plate collision. Evidently both the location and direction of convergence shifted along the system, migrating from the western section to the east and south during the middle and late Cenozoic. In similar manner with the Alps, the western Carpathians were likely the results of a microplate or terrane collision. The Pieniny Klippen Belt represents the suture zone in which a former sea was closed by convergence between the European and Apulian plates.

Western Carpathians – Poland

Historical entrance to the salt mine at Wieliczka, near Kraków (left). Miocene salt is exploited from a series of deformed and disconnected masses. Underground cathedral carved in salt chamber (right). This huge cathedral was carved within a single salt mass
Left: massive, little-deformed Jurassic limestone, karst terrain north of the Carpathian Mountains, Ojców valley. The limestone column is known as Brama Krakowska (the Cracow gate). Right: entrance to Wierzchowska Cave, a national monument, near Bialy Kosciól,
Eocene flysch section, near Stary Sacz. Thick sandstone beds and thin shale and siltstone interbeds characterize this section (left). Close-up view of flysch section (right). These strata were deposited in a marginal marine basin and subsequently deformed during initial uplift of the western Carpathians.
Andesite dike is the dark rock in quarry center with contact metamorphic rocks on either side (left). Close-up view of porphyritic andesite in dike (right). One of the few examples of volcanic activity in southern Poland, near Czorsztyn.
Left: limestone klippe near Nowy Targ. The klippe is an erosional remnant of a thrust sheet that rests on younger flysch deposits. Right: cliff section in Triassic dolostone, in the valley below Morskie Oko, Tatry Mountains.
Left: vertical section of Triassic dolostone, Chocholowska valley, Tatry Mountains. The Triassic dolostones are ~800 meters thick (Bac-Moszaszwili and Szostak 1992). Right: nappe of granite at Kasprowy (foreground) thrust over sedimentary strata below (background). View northward from mountain ridge toward Zakopane.
High cliffs along the Dunajec River (left), and complexly folded limestone (right). Jurassic and Cretaceous limestones were emplaced by thrust faulting into a long, narrow zone known as the Pieniny Klippen Belt, which separates the inner and outer portions of the Carpathians (see cross section above).

Panoramic view of High Tatrys looking north toward Zakopane.
Taller peaks and ridges are composed of Triassic dolostone.
See Kasprowy-Zakopane cross section.

Western Carpathians – Slovakia

Vysoké (High) Tatry and Belianské (White) Tatry ranges. High Tatrys are capped by granite thrust from the south over sedimentary strata. Belianské Tatry are Mesozoic carbonate rocks thrust onto the eastern side of the Tatrys.
Prominent alluvial fans and foreslope along the southern flank of the Vysoké Tatry are underlain by glaciofluvial gravel up to 400 m thick. Kite aerial photographs near Spišska-Bela looking westward.
Views from the top of Lomincky Peak at 2633 m altitude. Granite (left) forms the highest peaks of the Tatrys. Alpine glaciers eroded these peaks into steep-sided horns. Mesozoic carbonate strata (right) outcrop in lower ridges on the flanks of the mountain range.
Left: Belianské Tatry range seen from Zdiar. Uplifted Mesozoic carbonate strata form the eastern flank of the Tatrys. Right: High Tatrys seen over the lake at Strbské Pleso, a well-known touristic resort.
Left: overview of the Pieniny Klippen Belt (right) and Inner Carpathian Paleogene flysch basin (left). The klippen belt consists of Jurassic and Cretaceous sedimentary strata that are strongly deformed and mixed into a megabreccia or melange. Right: close-up shot of limestone hogback within the klippen belt.
Left: limestone complexly deformed along with red shale and sandstone in the klippen belt. Right: strongly folded sandstone and shale of Inner Carpathian flysch. These strata were deposited in submarine fans during the Eocene and subsequently deformed by the collision between Europe and the Apulian terrane.
Vineyards extend across southern slopes of the Zemplinske Hills in the Tokaj wine region. View southwest toward the Pannonian Basin in Hungary (left), and close-up shot of vineyards (right) growing in Neogene volcanic deposits.

The Inner Carpathian Paleogene Basin is situated immediately south of the Pieniny Klippen Belt—see geologic map. Most of the clastic sediment fill was deposited by turbidity currents into a deep-marine environment. Strata thickness exceeds 3 km in places, and age ranges from Eocene to early Miocene (Janocko et al. 2006). This basin includes the Liptov Depression, a broad valley that separates the High Tatry and Low Tatry mountain ranges.

Panoramic view looking eastward in the Liptov Depression near L'ubel'a.
Low Tatry mountains to right; High Tatry mountains in left background.


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Notice: Advanced tectonics is presented for the use and benefit of students enrolled at Emporia State University. Others are welcome to view the course webpages. Any other use of text, imagery or curriculum materials is prohibited without permission of the instructor. All text and images © J.S. Aber (2016).