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Featured article from geoscience journal

Geomorphology, 2013, Vol 184, p. 51-63
Development of a deep karst system within a transpressional structure of the Dolomites in north-east Italy

The Piani Eterni karst system is one of the longest and deepest caves of Italy situated in the southern sector of the Dolomiti mountain range. The area where the cave was formed displays peculiar structural settings confined in a tectonic transpressive corridor between two regional thrusts (Belluno and Valsugana). During Miocene uplift of the range the inheritance of Mesozoic structures led to the formation of a deep and wide upward-branching flower (or palm tree) structure cutting the carbonate sequence and exposing the surrounding surface to karst processes after erosion. The relative lowering of the hydrologic base level, due both to the uplift of the area and then to the carving of deep glacial valleys in the Quaternary, allowed the formation of paleo-phreatic conduits at subsequently deeper levels, interconnected by vadose shafts and canyons.

This work gives a detailed tectonic interpretation of the transpressive structure and picks out the tectonic features most favorable to the karst development. A detailed statistical analysis of the distribution and orientation of the karst conduits was performed using 31 km of 3D surveys showing that the development of the cave was strictly guided by a few favorable surfaces of stratigraphic and tectonic origin. These features are known in the literature as inception horizons and tectonic inception features, respectively. Cave levels are usually related to lithologic favorable conditions associated with standings of the paleo-water table. Here we suggest that some tectonic surface geometries could have led to the opening of voids in the active tectonic phase leading to the formation of the original proto-conduit network. Different types of tectonic inception features identified in the cave were described in terms of geometry and kinematics. Tensional fractures, as well as fault plane undulations and flexural slip surfaces between beds, are described as the most favorable tectonic surfaces for the development of the conduits. Finally, we discuss why transpressional settings and related flower structures in soluble rocks can enhance the karst process allowing the formation of huge and deep karst systems.