Published online by Cambridge University Press: 01 April 2016
The River Rhine and its tributaries represent one of the largest drainage systems in Europe. Its prominence among other fluvial systems is due to the location of its headwaters within the central Swiss Alps, which were repeatedly glaciated during the Quaternary, and the concurrence of major parts of the River Rhine course with the European Cenozoic Rift System. Sediments of the Rhine have thus recorded both changes in climate and tectonic activity as well as sea level change in the lower part of the river course.
The River Rhine is composed of different subdivisions characterised by distinct geographical and geological settings. Vorder-and Hinterrhein in the headwaters are inner-alpine rivers frequently influenced in their course by tectonic lines and the blockage of valley floors by the deposits of mass movements. The Alpenrhein is located in a main Alpine valley that drains into a large foreland basin, the Bodensee (Lake Constance). The Hochrhein flows out of the lake following the Jura Mountains in a western direction. All these areas display a series of geological features such as moraine ridges and outwash plains, which directly reflect Quaternary glaciations of the Alps. The Oberrhein (Upper Rhine) Valley, as a graben structure, is part of the rifting system that started to develop during the middle Tertiary. The northern end of the graben is represented by the triple junction of the Mainz Basin, which is mainly characterised by the remains of marine transgressions that occurred during the initial rifting phase. The Rhine continues following the western branch of the tectonic system by passing through the Rhenish Massif. Uplift in this so-called Mittelrhein (Middle Rhine) area is well documented by a flight of late Tertiary to Quaternary river terraces. This region is also characterised by young volcanic activity as found, for example, in the Eifel volcanic field. The Niederheinische Bucht (Lower Rhine Embayment), especially the Roer Valley Rift System, represents the northern continuation of the rifting system. This area is characterised by differential uplift in the southern and subsidence in the northern part of the basin, which continues into the Netherlands. Here, the main stream of the River Rhine is separated into different branches developing an active delta at the coast of the North Sea. When the North Sea Basin was covered by ice during the Elsterian, Saalian and probably also the Weichselian glaciation and global sea level was low, the Rhine continued its course through the English Channel and flowed into the North Atlantic off Brittany.