Geochronology of the Australian Cenozoic: A history of tectonic and igneous activity, weathering, erosion, and sedimentation

P. M. Vasconcelos*, K. M. Knesel, B. E. Cohen, J. A. Heim

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The development and application of geochronological tools suitable for dating Cenozoic rocks and processes have been instrumental to our understanding of the modern history of Australia. Geochronology reveals a dynamic continent that traced a long and rapid trajectory from a position adjacent to Antarctica in the early Cenozoic to its present position near the tropics. The average travel velocity along this path is revealed by the age of hotspot volcanoes, derived by the K-Ar method, and is complemented by measured geomagnetic pole positions on dated igneous rocks and sedimentary deposits. K-Ar dating of volcanic rocks also provided constraints on rates of landscape evolution before and after volcanism and the timing and pattern of dispersion of life-including human inhabitation. K-Ar geochronological results reveal a history of faunal and floral evolution suggestive of a continent undergoing progressive cooling and dehydration with a few brief warm and humid excursions. In contrast, 40Ar/39Ar, SHRIMP U-Pb, fission-track thermochronology, luminescence techniques, and cosmogenic-isotope methods have played relatively minor roles in reconstructing the chronology of Cenozoic volcanism in Australia. Integrated application of these techniques will be critical to providing more precise constraints on the volcanic history of the continent and its climatic and biological evolution. While Cenozoic volcanism, uplift, and denudation were active along the eastern and southeastern margins, a significant part of Australia west of the Tasman Line remained relatively quiescent. The history of this part of the continent is marked by slow and subdued uplift and subsidence, with subtle displacements along major continental structures, and occasional invasion by shallow seas. Despite the general absence of Cenozoic igneous rocks west of the Tasman Line, Australia (east and west) is blanketed by Cenozoic sedimentary covers and weathering profiles. If we consider weathering as a fourth rock-forming process (in addition to igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary), Australia has one of the most complete Cenozoic rock covers of any continent. Retrieving information recorded in these weathering profiles is essential for unravelling its Cenozoic history. Paleomagnetic studies, calibrated δ18O curves, and weathering geochronology by K-Ar, 40Ar/ 39Ar, and (U-Th)/He provide insights into the imprint of climatic events and tectonic processes and illustrate the importance of erosion and weathering to the formation or enrichment of ore and mineral deposits. Except for diamondiferous lamproites of Western Australia and sapphire-rich volcanic rocks in eastern Australia, all other Cenozoic ore and mineral deposits in Australia are related to weathering and erosion. The widespread weathered blanket in Australia suggests low Cenozoic erosion rates. Numerical constraints on chronology and erosion rates are derived from the cooling and denudation histories retrieved from apatite and zircon fission-track and, more recently, (U-Th-Sm)/He thermochronology and cosmogenic isotope studies. Geochronological studies of veneers of sediments, lake and cave deposits, marine carbonates, organic matter and groundwaters provide information on sediment provenance, subtle tectonic movements, and the Australian Cenozoic climatic history. These studies reveal a continent sensitive to global climatic cycles and subject to active, but subtle, tectonism and erosion. This record shows that Australia suffered periods of extreme aridity during cyclical glaciation at high latitudes and precise dating of carbonate sediments and speleothems reveals the exact timing and duration of these glacial and interglacial periods. Cosmogenic isotopes also provide constraints on the age and migration paths of Australia's limited and finite groundwater resources. Lastly, age information extracted from surficial deposits reveals a protracted history of human occupation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)865-914
Number of pages50
JournalAustralian journal of earth sciences
Issue number6-7
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2008


  • Australia
  • Climate
  • Erosion
  • Geochronology
  • Magmatism
  • Sedimentation
  • Weathering


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