Thursday 12 September 2013

A history of unstable North Coast sea levels?

Last summer much of the northern rivers area had been hit hard by summer storms. These storms often caused erosion on the fore-dune systems behind some beaches. For example, at Kingscliff this has become a major problem. At other locations this erosion has revealed some hidden features.

In the last few months I had a trip to Coffs Harbour where I was able to walk along some of the lovely beaches. On Diggers Beach I noticed a strange looking band through the exposed face of a dune system that had been recently been eroded away by stormy seas. Upon closer inspection the band was a layer of fine gravel and shell fragments. Underlying this layer of gravel and shell was sand with some isolated gravel which graded into the previous layer. The top of the layer was distinct and comprised of fine well-sorted sand, typical of a dune system. I noted another exposed gravel layer about 50 metres further south along the beach at roughly the same height.

Evidence of a palaeo-beach on present day Diggers Beach.
What struck me about the layer below the dune sand was the similarity of the materials when compared with the deposits of fine gravel and shells that exist on Diggers Beach. The gravel and shells have in places been deposited in the berm by the action of wave swash. I could not help think that what I was looking at was an old berm, some of the remnants of a palaeo-beach (an old preserved beach). The sand on beaches is dynamic. Sand moves inland or seaward because of storms and sediment supply (amongst other things). The difference between this old beach was approximately 1.1-1.2 metres above the present high tide mark.

The height of the palaeo-beach seems to indicate that maybe it was formed by a higher sea level, or a lower ground level. Tectonically eastern Australia has been very stable for millions of years so I think it unlikely that the earth has been uplifted. The most likely explanation in my mind is that the sea level was higher.

Thom & Roy (1983) suggested that Holocene sea levels have been very stable. However, sea levels varied in the time period before the Holocene. The Pleistocene sea levels were much higher and much lower than today. In the Pleistocene on north coast NSW sea level variations were first documented in detail by authors including Den Exter (1974) and Drury (1982). The apparent Holocene sea level low-fluctuation and high-stability of Thom & Roy (1983), if true, would be an aberration.

Baker et al (2001b) used fixed biological indicators to attempt to reconstruct Holocene sea levels. Baker et al (2001b) dated the remnants of tubeworms, barnacles and oysters that occurred above their natural ecological limit (i.e. above the intertidal zone). These indicators can be used to trace sea level changes. Baker et al (2001a & 2001b) undertook this work up and down eastern Australia and compared them with other sites including those in Brazil. The resulting information showed that Holocene sea levels have not been as stable as first thought. The sea level changes have been shown by earlier authors (e.g. Thom & Roy 1983) to occur during periods of known palaeo-climate change.

According to Baker et al (2001a & 2001b) the last time the sea level was 1 metre higher than present was around 2400-1800 years ago. Maybe, the layer is a preserved berm from a beach that existed at the time of the Roman Empire (sometimes referred to as the Roman Warm Period). I don’t know for sure, but to my thinking it seems quite plausible.


*Baker. R.G.V, Haworth, R.J. & Flood, P.G. 2001a. Inter-tidal fixed indicators of former Holocene sea levels in Australia: a summary of sites and a review of methods and models. Quaternary International v83-85 p247-273.
*Baker. R.G.V, Haworth, R.J. & Flood, P.G. 2001b. Warmer or cooler late Holocene marine palaeoenvironments? Interpreting southeast Australian and Brazilian sea-level changes using fixed biological indicators and their d18O composition. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology v168 p249-272.
*Den Exter, P. 1974. The coastal morphology and Late Quaternary evolution of the Camden Haven district, NSW. Australia. PhD Thesis, University of New England, Armidale.
*Drury, L.W. 1982. Hydrogeology and Quaternary stratigraphy of the Richmond River valley, New South Wales. PhD Thesis. University of New South Wales. Kensington.
*Thom, B.G. & Roy, P.S. 1983. Sea Level Change in New South Wales over the past 15 000 years. In: Hopley, D. Australian Sea Levels in the Last 15,000 Years: a review. James Cook University, Townsville.

Sunday 1 September 2013

The right age for Mount Warning

In previous posts on the Tweed Volcano, especially those relating to the Mount Warning Central Complex I indicated that there were some strange anomalies to do with the dating of these intrusions. Graham (1990), in his natural history summary of the Tweed region illustrated how confusing the dates recorded for the rocks that made up the Mount Warning Central Complex could be.

Mount Warning Central Complex from the southern rim of eroded shield
Wellman and McDougall (1974) summarised existing and provided new evidence for the date of the Mount Warning Central Complex and the surrounding Lamington Volcanics. Wellman and McDougall (1974) and earlier researchers used a very good technique of dating called potassium-argon dating (K-Ar dating). This is a radiometric dating method based on measurement of the radioactive decay of an isotope of potassium (40K) into argon (40Ar). Note, that the numbers in front of the chemical symbol for each element refers to the number of neutrons in the atoms nucleus. The decay rate of 40K to 40Ar is known accurately because the time it takes for half of the 40K to turn into 40 Ar is about 1.25billion years (the half-life). Therefore, the ratio of the two can be used to determine just how old the rock is.

The accuracy of using the K-Ar dating method is very good, but has some provisos. The most important being that the rock sample must be very 'fresh'. There must be no weathering, alteration or metamorphism of the sample. Because potassium is more reactive than argon and it can be removed or added respectively during weathering and alteration. Additionally, the K-Ar dating 'clock' can be reset during any recrystallisation during metamorphism.

K-Ar dating by Wellman and McDougall (1974) and earlier authors showed that the intrusive complex at Mount Warning was emplaced between ~23.7Ma and 23.0Ma and the surrounding lavas erupted from ~22.3Ma to ~20.5Ma. This doesn't make a lot of sense because an intrusion of magma needs to intrude into something else (otherwise it is not an intrusion!). In the case of shield volcanoes this intrudes the earlier lava that was erupted before. The K-Ar dating shows this is apparently not the case.

What is going on? No one could suggest any reasonable ideas. Cotter (1998) suggested a possibility there may have been a large volume of pre-existing Palaeozoic and/or Mesozoic sedimentary rocks that have now been eroded away. However, Cotter (1998) did date a sample of basalt lava from the Terania Creek area at ~23.9Ma (using K-Ar). This suggested maybe the dating by Wellman and McDougall (1974) and earlier authors might have either missed later lavas or maybe there was something else wrong.

Cohen (2007) spent a lot of time resampling the K-Ar dated volcanic rocks of eastern Australia. This time instead of using K-Ar he used another technique called 40Ar-39Ar dating. This is similar to K-Ar dating in concept. It instead measures the abundance of two isotopes of argon and is much less affected by any effects of weathering and alteration (though not metamorphism). What did he find? He found some of the K-Ar dates were wrong.

Cohen (2007) found the actual date of the lavas was within the range ~24.3 to ~23.6 million years, about 2 million years older than first thought. Though the 40Ar-39Ar date of the Mount Warning Central Complex was quite close at ~23.1Ma it fell within the range of the K-Ar dating (23.7-23.0Ma). This reverses the idea the intrusion of the Mount Warning Central Complex was before the lavas. So, now we know that the final intrusions of the Mount Warning Central Complex does indeed fit the model for shield volcanoes. That is, the intrusions were likely to have been emplaced into already erupted volcanic rock. They were also erupted and emplaced over a period much quicker than first thought. The new dating shows volcanism possibly lasting 1 million years instead of the 3 million previously suggested.


*Cohen, B.E. 2007. High-resolution 40Ar/39Ar Geochronology of Intraplate Volcanism in Eastern Australia. PhD Thesis, University of Queensland.
*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.
*Graham, B.W. 1990. A Natural History - Tweed Gold Coast Region. Tweed River High School Library.
*Wellman, P. & McDougall, I. 1974. Potassium-argon Dates on the Cainozoic Volcanic Rocks of New South Wales. Journal of the Geological Society of Australia v21.