Thursday 26 January 2012

How cold was it? Glaciers in New England?

I was very, very pleased to receive this comment by Bob (a physical geographer by ‘trade’) a bit more than a week ago. Bob posted the comment on my blog about Point Lookout and has been reproduced below:


You and your readers might be interested in a discovery made around Ebor and Guyra just last week, when I was working with a team of glacial buffs from UQ and UT. We found definite evidence of periglacial activity, presumably from the Last Glacial Maximum, ~20 000 years ago. The best examples were at Guyra on the slopes around Malpas Dam -- clear evidence of solifluction lobes, rock glaciers, snow hollows, and other freeze-thaw features, and what could only be described as incipient cirques -- ponds and bogs sapping back into the escarpment and probably still holding some snow in the frigid Guyra winters. The curious point is that they were between 1200 and 1300 metres, not at the highest points above 1500m where we were expecting them, but all on steep south facing escarpments.

One intriguing feature near Point Lookout, on the road up where it crosses the Little Styx River and at 1450m, was what looked very like a terminal moraine. This of course is a glacial, not a periglacial feature, so it is very hard to believe-but have a look at it, and see what you can make of it. There were at least 16 glacial cycles in the Pleistocene, so maybe one of them at least was really severe, and glaciated this far north. Otherwise, you have to go back to the Permian...

Bob H."

probable solifluction lobes and terraces on hill slope at Malpas Dam
This is exciting stuff to hear about because to my knowledge there is little or no evidence of cold climate landforms in the region. In fact I think the areas of the Tasmania are probably the only areas in Australia were these are frequent, though they have also been possibly identified in the Southern Alps and areas of Victoria. Certainly authors such as Petherick et al. (2011) and Hope (2005) did not identify such equivalent indicators of how far north such extreme cold could be detected. I understand that the cold climate landforms that Bob mentions have been found by researchers various universities such as from the University of Queensland, University of Technology, Sydney and the University of Tasmania. Acting on the tip off from Bob, I found an example of solifluction right on the northern side of Malpas Dam using Google Maps, this one is actually visible from the lookout on the southern side of the dam too (sorry about the quality of the photos, it was a long time since I took them and I didn’t realise what I was looking at that time). Get on Google maps and visit the dam yourself and have a look.

Same solifluction lobes visible south of the hill (same hill as picture above)
Solifluction is caused from the thawing of surface layers of permafrost during the summer leading to the thawed part of the soil profile slipping over the un-thawed permafrost and creating ‘lobes’ of soil. The cold climate structures that have been identified near Guyra are present on the southern side of the hill slopes where the sun was unable to melt much of the ice in the soil and therefore creates conditions of permafrost. Permafrost is not present anywhere on the Australian mainland today and demonstrates a significant change in climate has occurred (though those that know Guyra will still argue it is still uncomfortably cold there!).

What Bob appears to have found near point lookout is even more incredible, as a moraine is formed through the action of glaciers which are accumulations of ice on the surface that slowly moves through a landscape under the action of their own weight. Glaciers in Australia were thought to be limited to Tasmania and the Snowy Mountains. No doubt we will expect to see some published papers on the structure and context of these cold climate features in the region some time in the near future. I can't wait to read the published work that comes from this discovery. 

For further information on the individual cold climate features described above by Bob  visit the glossary, an online encyclopeadia or a good physical geography book such as Geosystems by Christopherson. If you are a little unclear about the locations of these sites and how they fit into a ‘Northern Rivers’ blog then it is worth mentioning this part of the New England, at Guyra and Malpas Dam are right at the head waters of the Gara River which is a tributary of the Macleay River that runs through Kempsey. The New England Highway in the Guyra area is pretty close to the actual crest of the catchments of the northern rivers, with the rivers to the west of it flowing into the Murray-Darling Basin and those to the east to the Pacific Ocean. Point Lookout is in the headwaters of the Bellinger River which runs trough Bellingen and is also part of the headwaters of the Macleay too.


*Christopherson, R.W., 1997. Geosystems Wiley.
*Hope, P. 2005. The Weather and Climate of Australia During the Last Glacial Maximum. University of Melbourne, PhD Thesis, unpubl.
*Petherick, L.M., Moss, P.T & McGowan, H.A., 2011. Climatic and Environmental Variability During the Termination of the Last Glacial Stage in Coastal Eastern Australia: A Review. Australian Journal of Earth Science V.58.

Monday 23 January 2012

More on the Tweed Volcano

I had the pleasure in obtaining a copy of a University of New England honours research thesis by Howden (2009) a week ago. For one thing, I'm pleased to see that there is still some research being conducted on the Tweed Volcano and Focal Peak Volcano, despite the state of our Country's university science faculties these days. Howden has put a great deal of effort into distinguishing between the mafic rocks of the volcano (basalts) including some detailed petrographic and geochemical analysis. One of the points of interest to me is the attempt to distinguish between the Blue Knob Basalt and Lismore Basalts, sadly, the work undertaken by Cotter (1998) was unavailable (lost to the world until recently) to her. This would have clarified some issues which were difficult to resolve in her thesis.

Previous authors such as Duggan & Mason (1978) noted that there appeared to be very little (if any) distinction between the Blue Knob and Lismore Basalts except for their apparent stratigraphic location. Duggan & Mason (1978) determined that the Blue Knob Basalt appeared to overlay the Nimbin Rhyolite and the Lismore Basalt under it. However, Duggan & Mason and other authors such as Smith & Houston (1995) suggested a possibility that the Blue Knob Basalt could actually be inter-collated with rhyolite flows indicating that it was possible that the basalts were really just occasionally interrupted by flows of the Nimbin Rhyolite.

Howden (2009) has through comprehensive geochemical and petrological study of the Lamington Volcanics demonstrated that the only way to distinguish between the two basalt units was on the basis of phenocryst size with the Blue Knob Basalt showing larger grains of plagioclase feldspar. In the absence of any other geochemical or petrological distinguishing characteristics this shows a very uninspiring difference between them, I would suggest, insufficient to say that they were in fact different.

Because of the absence of significant differentiating features it is likely that the Blue Knob Basalt is really just the Lismore Basalt which continued to erupt at various times with intervening periods of large rhyolitic eruptions of the Tweed Volcano. This means that this can be confirmed if flows of basaltic lava can be identified between rhyolite. In Queensland the equivalent of the Nimin Rhyolite, the Binna Burra Rhyolite shows intercollated flows of Hobwee Basalt (the equivalent of the Lismore Basalt). The plagioclase phenocryst grain size difference probably just reflects slightly different magma residence periods in the magma chamber becoming more obvious at the volcano became older. This is also demonstrated as the Hobwee Basalt in Queensland shows the upper flows have larger phenocrysts.

Slowly we are gaining a clearer picture of our present day landscape and the mechanisms that made it. Sometimes difference between the way we think they have occurred and they way we later find out seems quite minor, yet the implications are significant in understanding how the landscape actually behaves under the ground. The small areas of 'Blue Knob Basalt' were thought to be a last spurt of eruption of the Tweed Shied Volcano (either centred on present day Mount Warning, or other vents on the flanks of the volcano), I think that Howden (2009) has presented us with enough evidence how to say that the way the volcano formed included two different types of lavas (basalt and rhyolite) erupting at essentially the same time.


*Cotter, S. 1998. A Geochemical, Palaeomagnetic and Geomorphological Investigation of the Tertiary Volcanic Sequence of North Eastern New South Wales. Masters Thesis, Southern Cross University.
*Duggan, P.B., Mason, D.R. 1978. Stratigraphy of the Lamington Volcanics in Far Northeastern New South Wales. Australian Journal of Earth Sciences V25.

*Howden, S. 2009. An Evaluation of Mafic Extrusives Spatially Assoicated with the South-Western Aspect of the Tweed Shield Volcano, BSc(Hons.) thesis, University of New England, Armidale.
*Smith, J.V. , Houston, E.C. 1995. Structure of lava flows of the Nimbin Rhyolite, northeast New South Wales. Australian Journal of Earth Sciences V42(1) p69-74.

Monday 9 January 2012

A westward Wilsons River

The Wilsons River flows from east to west between Booyong and Lismore which is unusual for coastal rivers in the region. You’d expect a river to find the path of least resistance and head to the sea quite quickly, in the case of the Wilsons River the path of least resistance appears to have been away from that range of hills or mountains in the Alstonville area and away from the sea.

In his masters research, Cotter (1998) discovered that the landform of the tweed volcano was more complex than the simple shield volcano model proposed by earlier researchers. The shield volcano model essentially shows a radial drainage pattern from the centre of the shield a bit like the spokes on a bicycle wheel. While this does hold up well for the remaining skeleton of the Tweed Volcano of particular interest is the area to the south where a previously unidentified Cenozoic volcanic unit was discovered and shows that pre-existing structures explain the river drainage. Cotter (1998) suggested the name of Alstonville Basalt for the new Cenozoic (up to 41 Million Years old) unit as it appeared to pre-date the tweed volcano (23 Million Years). Additionally, it has been identified that the even older Mesozoic Chillingham Volcanics (but here consisting of basalts rather than the rhyolites that are seen further north) occur on what was once considered the southern flank of the volcano.

Brodie and Green (2002) observed that the dip of the Alstonville Basalt is to the north west which to me seems to indicate a volcanic centre further to the south east (in the opposite direction for lavas from the Tweed Volcano) assuming that not too much deformation has occurred since the rocks were erupted. Taken together this implies that during the Mesozoic hills existed to the south of the present day Alstonville Plateau and that during the early Cenozoic volcanic hills were emplaced and created a barrier for southerly or easterly discharge.

Cotter (1998) suggests that the Wilsons River has actually roughly followed its current path since the Late Mesozoic. The diatomite deposits located at Tintenbar and Wyrallah are of lacustrine origin and may be the result of lakes forming on the newly erupted Alstonville Basalt as the Wilsons River was intermittently impounded by the existing hills of the Chillingham Volcanics. It has been following a westerly course certainly before the Tweed Volcano (c. 23 Million Years) for the Chillingham Volcanics and Alstonville Basalt has stopped the Wilsons from flowing south or east. This continuity of flow direction implies that any lavas from the Tweed volcano would have cut through the Lamington Volcanics of the Tweed volcano unless the lava was of significant enough volume to change river direction. This volume of lava appears unlikely given the distance of this area from the centre of the volcano now represented by Mount Warning.

Putting all the background together shows that the section of the Wilsons River from Booyong to Lismore may have been flowing away from the sea for more than 40 Million Years, yet, additionally it is worth noting that the majority of the length of the Wilsons River, Richmond River and even Clarence River is north-south parallel to the coast. This implies some form of pre-existing structural control, probably associated with the deposition of the Clarence Morton Basin or even older Palaeozoic basement rocks, in turn; suggesting that the northern rivers have been following similar flow paths for a long, long time. However, this is a discussion for another post.


*Brodie, R.S. & Green, R. 2002. A Hydrogeological Assessment of the Fractured Basalt Aquifers on the Alstonville Plateau, NSW. Australian Bureau of Rural Sciences, Australia
*Cotter, S. 1998. A Geochemical, Palaeomagnetic and Geomorphological Investigation of the Tertiary Volcanic Sequence of North Eastern New South Wales. Masters Thesis, Southern Cross University.
*Ferrett, R. Australia's Volcanoes. New Holland Publishers 2005.

Sunday 1 January 2012

Nimbin Rocks!?

Sadly, I don't visit Nimbin even though I live quite close. This is mainly because you do risk your health through passive (hemp) smoking, getting beaten up if you stumble across someones 'crop' while trying to find geological features in the bush, or just threatened with a knife for money so they can get their family birthday presents (or something important like that). Another thing too is the distrust that many people have in the area for geologists thinking in their ignorance of what I am trying to find may lead to a gas well in their front yard and assuming that I have to be working for a coal seam gas company.

One of the Nimbin Rocks, Cathederal Rock
 But one feature stands out near Nimbin and that is the Nimbin Rocks which tower above the surrounding valleys. 'Google' "Nimbin Rocks" and you will find lots of short snippets on these grand rock formations. Unfortunately, I've found that these descriptions are technically wrong. For instance wikipedia (and many, many travel websites) use terms to describe the Rocks as being derived from a dyke and also as being extrusive. Well, technically, a dyke is an intrusive body only and extrusive rocks are better known as lavas. So what is correct?

The Nimbin Rocks are comprised mainly of the quartz rich volcanic rock called rhyolite overlying a section of agglomerates (reworked volcanic rock) and volcanic glass known as perlite. Below the perlite lies basalts of the Kyogle Basalt. And here may lie the clue. The rocks appear to be layered because they are deposited on top of each other. First the Kyogle Basalt, then the perlite and agglomerates and then the rhyolite lavas (with some bands of perlite within it). The rhyolitic lavas are referred to as the Georgica Rhyolite Member according to Duggan and Mason (1974), or historically and more recently as Nimbin Rhyolite according to McElroy (1962) and Cotter (1998) and others.

If the Nimbin Rocks were related to a dyke they would have formed through pushing through the surrounding rocks such as those of the Kyogle Basalt or the Clarence Moreton Basin sediments, metamorphosing them and displaying different diagnostic textures than those I know about. However, it is still quite possible that the rocks may have been vents since the nearest identified vents seem to be about 8km away to the north east in the Nightcap Ranges and rhyolite lava flows tend to not move great distances, indeed rarely greater than 5km. However, the vents located further into the Nightcap Ranges are characterised by thick erosion resistant units of rhyolite which we don't see so much near Nimbin other than the Nimbin Rocks themselves. But conversely, the shape of the rock monoliths does imply a dyke.

So, what is the answer? Well the Nimbin Rocks are either one or more volcanic vents or they are the remnants of thick lava flows possibly from vents in the nightcap ranges located on the flanks of the Tweed Volcano. Which is almost not an answer at all. But one thing is obvious, it is interesting just how little we know about the landscape in which we live, work and see.

Blog Note: I like to provide photos for these sort of posts but recently where I store photos (skydrive and/or GoogleDocs) has changed its method for providing URLs to allow embedding of these files and Blogger doesn't like the new URLs. So, these next blogs might be a bit more bland looking until I figure out a better way to store and embed photos.

Since writing the above I have come across a report by Relph (1958) which says the following:

“Quartz-feldspar porphyry [granite, the intrusive equivalent of rhyolite] has intruded the sediments at Lillian Rock and the eastern portion of the Nimbin Rocks area. In the latter occurrence the porphyry forms two prominent pinnacles, with columnar jointing evident, and outcrops to the east, and in the bed of Goolmangar Creek. In neither case have the surrounding sediments been affected to any marked degree, but it is thought that it is intrusive and of dyke or plug form rather than of extrusive nature. Under the microscope this rock revealed no sign of flow structure.”

Although Relph considered two of the Nimbin Rocks intrusive he did not find any diagnostic evidence of them being either intrusive or extrusive.


*Cotter, S. 1998. A Geochemical, Palaeomagnetic and Geomorphological Investigation of the Tertiary Volcanic Sequence of North Eastern New South Wales. Masters Thesis, Southern Cross University.
*Duggan, P.B., Mason, D.R. 1978. Stratigraphy of the Lamington Volcanics in Far Northeastern New South Wales. Australian Journal of Earth Sciences V25.
*McElroy, C.T. 1969. The Clarence-Moreton Basin in New South Wales. In Packham, G.H.(ed) - The geology of New South Wales. Geological Society of Australia. Journal V16
*Relph, R.E. 1958: Geology of the Nimbin area. Technical Report. Department of Mines NSW, 3.
*Smith, J.V. , Houston, E.C. 1995. Structure of lava flows of the Nimbin Rhyolite, northeast New South Wales. Australian Journal of Earth Sciences V42(1) p69-74.