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Previous works have proposed gravitational collapse as the driving mechanism of extensional deformation of thickened continental crust. In this work we investigate the physical plausibility of this interpretation for the most important orogenic belts of the world by computing the spreading force induced by lateral variations of crustal thickness and the possible resisting forces. Two collapse mechanisms, one involving the upper crust only and the other the whole crust, have been considered. Particular attention has been devoted to constrain the uncertainty affecting such computations, mostly due to the large variability of the thermal and mechanical properties of rocks. The results obtained show that gravitational collapse is not a plausible mechanism in the four Mediterranean orogens here considered (Northern Apennines, Calabrian Arc, Hellenic Arc and Carpathians). For the other orogenic zones we have taken into account (Western U.S. Cordillera, Central Andes, Himalayas and Central Alps), the large uncertainty that affects the estimate of spreading and resisting forces does not allow to firmly assess the feasibility of gravitational collapse.
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