Origin of an extensive network of non-tectonic synclines in Eocene limestones of the Western Desert, Egypt

Barbara J. Tewksbury
Elbamy Tarabees
Charlotte J. Mehrtens


Satellite images of the Western Desert of Egypt display conspicuous sinuous color patterning that previous workers have interpreted as erosional flutes formed by catastrophic flooding. Our work with high resolution satellite imagery shows that the patterning is not erosional but, rather, the result of a network of thousands of narrow synclines in the Eocene bedrock capping the Limestone Plateau. Synclines form as isolated, 200-400 meter-wide downwarps in otherwise flat-lying strata. Limb dips are shallow, and doubly plunging hinges form multiple basin closures along syncline lengths. Anticlines form “accidentally” in inter-syncline areas where two adjacent synclines lie close together. Synclines have two dominant orientations, WNW-ESE and NNW-SSE, parallel to two prominent joint and fault sets, and synclines branch, merge, and change orientation along their lengths. Synclines are all at the same scale with neither larger structures nor parasitic structures and are best described as non-tectonic sag synclines. An Egypt-wide inventory reveals that these synclines are both confined to Eocene limestones and developed, albeit it sporadically, over nearly 100,000 km2. The syncline network predates plateau gravels of the Katkut Formation, which have been interpreted as Oligocene or early Miocene in age, and the network is cut by faults related to Western Desert extension associated with Red Sea rifting. The mechanism that caused sag of overlying layers is not clear. Modern karst collapse, subsurface dissolution of evaporites, and collapse of paleokarst are all unlikely mechanisms given the timing of formation and the underlying stratigraphy. Silica diagenesis and downslope mobilization of underlying shales are possibilities, although uncertainty about the origin of silica in the limestones, plus the consistency of syncline orientations over large areas, make these models problematic. Hypogene karst, perhaps related to aggressive fluids associated with basaltic intrusions, may be the model most consistent with the admittedly limited data we currently have for the network.