New ideas in science can take ages to be understood and accepted

When recently participating in the jury process for the assessment of a student’s PhD thesis on palaeoweathering and surficial albitization in Spain (see previous article;, I summarized the difficulties faced by me and my students over many years in getting our observations and interpretations published and eventually (though perhaps reluctantly) accepted by the geological community in Europe .  This story began almost 50 years ago when my detailed studies of albitization in surficial landscapes across France and elsewhere in western Europe commenced.  The alteration had long been recognized but never seriously investigated.  My story begins:

“During 1976-79 J-J Yerle completed a PhD on uranium deposits hosted in Permo-Carboniferous sediments in Rouergue (SW Massif Central).  It included studies of core from numerous drillholes and was accompanied by extensive mineralogical analyses using X-ray diffraction.  The major results were as follows: a fine-grained facies containing ~90% albite with no quartz or K-feldspar was encountered in the core; it appeared to have developed by albitization accompanied by chloritisation of biotite, but the intensity of the alteration decreased with depth and eventually disappeared.  Dr Yerle initially considered a syn-sedimentary model for the albitization but K-Ar dating pointed to a Triassic age which suggested a palaeoweathering model post-dating sedimentation.  None of our colleagues could accept this interpretation:  five days before the formal defence of Dr Yerle’s thesis one colleague entreated the Institute Director to cancel the proceedings.

“From 1978-86 Dr J-M Schmitt was employed by the Ecole des Mines de Paris and commenced a doctorat es Sciences thesis on a uranium mine hosted in a gneiss in northern Rouergue focussing on albitization.  He was able to demonstrate a clear decrease in the abundance of albite with depth in the profile; the geopetalcharacteristics of the profile, particularly its termination at depth where alteration was restricted only to fractures; and radiochronological data defining a Triassic age for the alteration.  However, even this scholarly work did not convince colleagues and associates.  On the contrary, many petrographers were opposed to the interpretation on the basis that they ‘knew’ that albitization could develop only at depth and at high temperatures – albite ‘could not’ form at low temperatures.

“During 1982-86 J-Y Clément undertook another PhD thesis on uranium deposits hosted in the Permian Lodève Basin, South of Rouergue.  Here, the host sediments are clastics with interstratified ash layers.  The base of the sequence is dark coloured and greenish; the top is red.  This colour change had been thought of as an original facies character of the sequence.  Dr Clément carefully described a profile consisting of an uppermost clay-enriched zone, an underlying zone in which the only feldspar present was pure albite (together with analcime); and a deeper zone containing secondary albite + Kfeldspar.  The alteration did not persist at depth.  All alteration horizons were discordant with the stratigraphy and were preserved under a Triassic sedimentary cover, which led to them being attributed to an infra-Triassic age.  Dr Clement correlated this profile and the accompanying alteration with Dr Schmitt’s Rouergue albitization, the latter occurring on the continental surface upstream of the basin where weathering had persisted after the deposition of the early Trias in the basin.  Yet, these observations and results were not convincing for many of our geologist colleagues.

“During the period from 1986 until 2000, about 15 years, we did little further work on the albitization because of our critics: other angles of ‘attack’ on the alteration profiles had to be found.  One such approach came from numerous hikes in the Hercynian mountains and across Triassic palaeosurfaces.  A first clue came from a visit to the albitized Delamerian (Cambrian) granites on the southern coast of South Australia.  Then some traverses through the Morvan where the hilly terrain made it possible to better appreciate the widespread albitized profiles:  these are characterised by fresh, unaltered granites in valleys and pervasive red albitized facies on higher slopes and hilltops.  The same features were examined further north on the Brittany coast and the Vosges Massif, as well as in every part of the Massif Central, the Maures Massif on the French Riviera, at several places in the Alps, around Mont-Blanc, in Central the Spanish Massif and later in  Morocco.

Red albitised granites on the Brittany coast   

“1997 was the ‘tipping point’ when I went to Barcelona for field work on the Monjuic silification.  Dr David Gomez-Gras showed me the paleoweathering features below the Trias.  At each site I was more and more excited by the red facies thought to be the result of Triassic palaeoweathering:  associated with it were magnificent albitized profiles.  A plan was made to bring Dr David Parcerisa to Fontainebleau to undertake post-doctoral research on the Morvan.

“From 2000-2010, with Dr Parcerisa in Fontainebleau, there was a substantial renewal of energy in research on the Morvan albitized profiles.  The work included substantial field mapping and sampling and detailed petrographic studies supplemented by cathodoluminescence.  This gave a clear demonstration of a geopetal profile for the albitization.  But a paper we submitted for publication describing these observations and data was  rejected by a reviewer known as a specialist in albitization in sandstone reservoirs.  One particular dismissive comment from him was that ‘the authors have no experience in albitization and do not even know what albitization means’.  Unfortunately, this is an entrenched opinion offered by so-called peer reviewers on many papers with new ideas and interpretations submitted for publication nowadays. 

During the same period, I had a PhD student (Catherine Recordel) working on paleomagnetic dating of the Siderolithic palaeoweathering profiles on the Massif Central but we struggled to get results.  I suggested that she try to date the red albitized facies and this was successful and, eventually, so was the palaeomagnetic dating of the Siderolithic palaeoweathering profiles.  Dr Ricordel’s paper on the age of the Morvan profile was accepted and this turned out to be the pass for Dr Parcerisa to publish his paper on his petrographic studies!  One step forward – but yet some colleagues were still not convinced.  One petrologist who worked for 30 years on the episyénite albitized facies in the Massif Central told me that he didn’t believe in paleomagnetic dating!

“From 2005-2010 we continued with paleomagnetic dating.  Management in Mines-ParisTech Geoscience decided to promote research on the albitized profiles before I retired, for which I am grateful.  We started with post-doctoral research by Dr Christine Franke and later complemented it with a PhD study by Kouakou Yao.  Dr Yao’s research was focussed on the Sudetes Massif in Southern Poland.  Paleomagnetic dating was also undertaken in the Sudetes, Vosges and Catalonia Massifs.  All produced Triassic ages for the albitization . Extensive drilling in Norway, and additional drilling programs in the Maures Massif, generated very promising cores through albitized profiles.  Later, causal exploration showed albitized geopetal profiles in Ireland, Cornwall and Galicia.

“During the 2010s Dr Carles Fàbrega started research on his thesis and made a significant contribution by means of radiometric dating and isotope analyses of single minerals.  He confirmed the Triassic age for the albitic palaeoweathering profiles and also generated, for the first time, a temperature evaluation consistent with alteration in a palaeosurface or somewhat deeper regolith environment.  This has been a major additional cornerstone for the subject.

“In conclusion:  Max Plank said: A new truth in science never succeeds in triumphing by convincing its adversaries and bringing them to see the light, but rather because finally these adversaries die and a new generation grows, to whom this truth is familiar.’  There is the hope!

“This story evolved over 45 years and there are some lessons about research that extend from it.

  • First you need a basis in field studies to apply your ideas: without fieldwork ideas remain dreams in geology and there are no new ideas.  Observations in the field dictate what is possible (or not) and provides new facts.
  • You never can predict where or when new ideas will arise, and what they might be.  Progress in research is always due to opportunities, field opportunities, meeting with people with different experiences, and opportunities to insert an idea into another’s research program.  Opportunities must be taken as theyarise.
  • The essence of research is not to find out what others have already shown, but to innovate and to follow different pathways: from this springs the excitement of a quest for the unknown.
  • Finally, there is always risk-taking.  This is one difficulty of the multiple research programs that abound at present.  These research programs all aim to guide researchers and limit risk (mostly financial risk, of course) and so they tend to deviate as little as possible from what is already known.  It is a brave agency who will award funds to those who are either little-known or whose proposal does not conform to the orthodoxy.  This approach does not lead to novelty.  It curbs imagination and creativity. 
  • Research is like an unique artwork, a painting or a poem, and it should embody a quest for understanding and a captivating story.

(See also preceding companion article)

Dr Medard Thiry, December 2020

Surficial albitization – palaeoweathering preserved beneath the extensive Triassic unconformity in Western Europe

One form of albitization consists of the replacement (albitization) of Ca-bearing plagioclase by secondary Na-plagioclase (i.e. albite) and is typically accompanied by alteration of biotite to chlorite and the staining of the rock by iron oxide pigments.  In crystalline rocks, albitization is rather widespread but is traditionally considered result from deep and high-temperature metasomatic alteration linked to magma cooling during exhumation.  Studies of albitization have principally been undertaken by petrologists who are mostly interested in the origin and emplacement of granites and naturally focus on aspects of their petrography and the details of their parageneses in this context.  They interpret albitization to be a ‘window’ to post magmatic processes. 

But albitization can also be a consequence of surficial weathering.  The example we studied in Spain (Fig. 1) is widespread and spatially and temporally associated with a Triassic palaeosurface.  Its occurrence forces a completely different point of view about this form of alteration.  A major gap separates the two points of view about albitization and our findings have exposed a ‘cultural barrier’ that has to be breached in order to advance knowledge about this process, particularly where it is found in crystalline rocks.  Key foci in the scientific exchange ought to include the geometry of the alteration in the field, petrographic observations detailing stages in the alteration, and the dating of these stages.

Figure 1. Field locations of albitized granites below the Triassic unconformity in Spain. (a) Guilleries Massif. (b) Roc de Frausa Massif. CCR: Catalan Coastal Ranges. From Fabrega et al. (2019).
Figure 1. Field locations of albitized granites below the Triassic unconformity in Spain. (a) Guilleries Massif. (b) Roc de Frausa Massif. CCR: Catalan Coastal Ranges. From Fabrega et al. (2019).

The outcrop scale

The albitization we have studied in granites is characterised by reddening due to impregnation of the feldspars by iron oxides (Fig. 2).  It results in: (1) a pervasive coloration distributed rather homogeneously within the rock volume, (2) fracture-bound red to pinkish granite facies or (3) spotting when the alteration is weak, resulting in pinkish spots distributed within non-reddened rock.

Figure 2. Strongly albitized Variscan red granites below the Triassic unconformity in the Guilleries Massif, NE Spain.
Figure 2. Strongly albitized Variscan red granites below the Triassic unconformity in the Guilleries Massif, NE Spain.

In terms of structure, a vertical profile of albitized granite, with a typical thickness around 150-200 m, occurs below the Triassic unconformity in the Guilleries and Roc de Frausa Massifs in NE Spain (Fig. 3).  The most intense alteration occurs at the top, immediately below the unconformity, and progressively decreases in intensity with depth.  From the top to the bottom, the alteration facies change from red to pink and ultimately spotted.  Unaltered granites are found below (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Vertical structure and facies evolution of the albitization profile. Intensity of alteration decreases with depth. (a) Mesozoic sedimentary cover. (b) Red facies. (c) Pink facies. (d) Spotted facies. After Parcerisa et al. (2010).

The microscope scale

Microscope observations of the albitized granites show a suite of reactions in the major minerals including plagioclase albitization, K-feldspar microclinization, biotite chloritization and quartz recrystallization.  Albitization affects the primary plagioclase, where the Ca-bearing cores of the crystals are pseudomorphosed by secondary albite along twin planes and micro-fractures (Fig. 4a, b).  Within this secondary albite, part of the calcium released during plagioclase replacement forms small patches of secondary calcite.  Primary K-feldspar crystals are partially pseudomorphosed by secondary microcline (Fig. 4a).  Biotite and is replaced by secondary chlorite (which contains large numbers of apatite inclusions compared with primary biotite; Fig. 4c), secondary titanite and anatase.  Clusters of rare-earth carbonate minerals, probably synchisite-Ce, can be seen inside the secondary porosity of albitized plagioclase and microclinized orthoclase in backscattered electron-microscope images (Fig. 4d).  Secondary quartz partially replaces primary quartz in the upper part of the profile (Fig. 4e).  Primary and secondary monazite occur at the reaction front between albitized and unaltered granite (Fig. 4f).

Figure 4. Cathodoluminescence and SEM images of albitized granite. Ab1: Primary plagioclase. Ab2: Secondary albite. Ap: Apatite. Cal2: Secondary calcite. Chl2: Secondary chlorite. Kfs1: Primary K-feldspar. Kfs2: Microclinized K-feldspar. Mnz1: Primary monazite. Mnz2: Secondary monazite. Qtz1: Primary quartz. Qtz2: Secondary quartz. Syn2: Secondary Synchysite-(Ce). Tit2: Secondary titanite. From Fabrega et al. (2019).

Age dating

Dating of albitized profiles has been conducted at different sites through Europe using a variety of dating methods, including: (1) K-Ar dating of albite and K-feldspar (Bonhomme et al., 1980; Schmitt et al., 1984); (2) palaeomagnetism of Fe-oxides (Ricordel et al., 2007; Parcerisa et al., 2010; Thiry et al., 2011; Yao et al. 2011, Franke et al., 2011, Yao, 2013) and, most recently, (3) K-Ar microprobe dating of albite and K-feldspar and electron microprobe U-Th-Pb dating of monazite (Fabrega et al., 2019).  All have established that the albitization and associated alteration occurred during the Late Permian to Early Triassic, around 250 Ma, while the Variscan granites were exposed at the landsurface. 

Thus, the red-stained albitization relates specifically to the Triassic palaeosurface and was preserved beneath it by a Mesozoic and Cenozoic sediment cover.  The alteration profiles are palaeoweathering features relating to surficial weathering and were nor much eroded.  The  geopetal organization (decreasing intensity of albitization with depth ending in alteration confined to fractures) is characteristic of weathering and alteration under the influence of geomorphology, climate, and groundwater.

Palaeoenvironmental setting of the alteration

The morphology of the alteration profile and its proximity to the Permo-Triassic palaeosurface suggests that the responsible fluids were Na-rich groundwaters (Fig. 5a).  The depth of the alteration profile, the long-lasting tectonic stability in the region, and the continental scale abundance of saline environments in the Permo-Triassic period were probably key factors in the development of this near-surface weathering event across Europe.  The albitization profiles remained preserved below the Triassic sedimentary cover or, in some cases (Fig. 5b), directly at the surface.  In contrast to the non-albitized granites usually decompose to sandy material when exposed to surface conditions, the albitized granite has an increased resistance to weathering and erosion.

Figure 5. Permo-Triassic setting that facilitated the development (a) and preservation (b) of albitization. From Fabrega et al. (2019.

Extent of the Late Permian to Early Triassic palaeoweathering

Thus far, this form of palaeoweathering has been observed in Morocco, the Catalan Coastal Ranges, Eastern Pyrenees, Galicia and La Mancha in Spain; Corsica, the Maures, French Central Massif (Fig. 6), Morvan, the Alps, the Vosges and Brittany in France; in Germany; Great-Britain and Ireland; Sudetes in Poland; and in the Oslo Fiord in Norway.


We have demonstrated that the albitized facies are of surficial origin and bound to the weathering (geochemical) environment linked to the Triassic palaeosurface.  This dramatically changes ideas about the geomorphic evolution of the basement areas over a large part of western Europe and is a major contribution to the geodynamic modeling of the region.Indeed, reconstruction of palaeosurfaces is a unique tool in unravelling the evolution of ancient continents.  Extending age data from the better-known sedimentary basin deposits to adjacent crystalline basement landscapes (particularly of palaeoweathering features) provides the possibility to set the correct framework for geodynamical models (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. Occurrence of dated palaeoweathering profiles on the French Massif Central crystalline basement. After Thiry et al. (2012).


  • Bonhomme, M., Yerle, J.-J., Thiry, M., 1980. Datation K-Ar de fractions fines associées aux minéralisations. Le cas du bassin uranifère permo-houiller de Brousse-Broquiès (Aveyron, France).- C.R. Acad. Sc., Paris, 291, sér. D, p. 121-123.
  • Fàbrega, C., Parcerisa, D., Thiry, M., Franke, M., Gurenko, A., Gòmez-Gras, D., Solé, J., Travé, A., 2019. Permian–Triassic red‑stained albitized profles in the granitic basement of NE Spain: evidence for deep alteration related to the Triassic palaeosurface. International Journal of Earth Sciences,
  • Franke, C., Yao, K.F.E., Thiry, M., Gomez-Gras, D., Ihlen, P., Kadzialko-Hofmokl, M., Jelenska, M., Parcerisa, D., Fabrega, C., Lagroix, F., Turniak, C., Szuskiewicez, A., 2011. Réstitution de la paléosurface triasique par datation des ré-aimantations inscrites dans les massifs paléozoïques européens. 13ème Congrès français de Sédimentologie, Dijon, Publ. ASF, Paris, 68, p. 137.
  • Parcerisa, D., Casas, L., Franke, F., Gómez-Gras, D, Lacasa, G., Nunez, J.A., Thiry, M., 2010. Geomorphological stability of Permo-Triasic albitized profiles – Case study of the Montseny-Guilleries High (NE Iberia). Geophysical Research Abstracts, 12, EGU2010, EGU General Assembly 2010, 2 p.
  • Parcerisa D, Thiry M, Schmitt JM (2010b) Albitization related to the Triassic unconformity in igneous rocks of the Morvan Massif (France). Int J Earth Sci 99:527–544. doi: 10.1007/s00531-008-0405-1.
  • Ricordel, C., Parcerisa, D., Thiry, M., Moreau, M.‑G., Gómez-Gras, D., 2007. Triassic magnetic overprints related to albitization in granites from the Morvan massif (France). Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 251, p. 268-282, doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2007.04.001.
  • Schmitt, J.-M., Baubron, J.-C., Bonhomme, M.-G., 1984. Pétrographie et Datations K-Ar des Transformations Minérales Affectant le Gîte Uranifère de Bertholène (Aveyron—France). Mineralium Deposita, 19(2), 123-131.
  • Thiry, M., Franke, C., Vercruysse, C., Kissel, C., Edel, J.-B., Bruhlet, J., 2011. Datation des paléoaltérations du massif cristallin des Vosges : implications pour l’évolution géodynamique du massif. 13ème Congrès français de Sédimentologie, Dijon, Publ. ASF, Paris, 68, p. 318
  • Thiry, M., Ricordel-Prognon, C., Franke, C., Brulhet, J., 2012. Modernité des paléosurfaces : leur rapport à la géodynamique. in : Cojan I., Grosheny D., Parize O. (eds) Expression de l’innovation en géosciences, Une journée avec Bernard Beaudoin, Paris, Presses des Mines, Collection Sciences de la Terre et de l’Environnement, p. 113-125.
  • Yao, K.F.E., 2013. Albitization and oxidation of the granitoïd rocks related to the Triassic paleosurface in the Sudetes (SW Poland). Thesis École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Paris in Paris (France) and Państwowy Instytut Geologiczny – Państwowy Instytut Badawczy in Warsaw (Poland). 164 p.
  • Yao, K.F.E ., Franke, C., Thiry, M., Aleksandrowski, P., Szuszkiewicz, A., Turniak, K., 2011. Albitization as record of the Triassic Paleosurface in the Sudetic Crystalline basement (Poland). Geophysical Research Abstracts, 13, EGU 2011, EGU General Assembly 2011, Vienna, Austria, Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 13, EGU2011-5930.

See also the companion article following ( )

Dr Carles Fàbrega (Departament d’Enginyeria Minera, Industrial i TIC, Escola
Politècnica Superior d’Enginyeria de Manresa, Spain)

Boulder lags in Rosetta Bay at Victor Harbor, South Australia


The significance of strewnfields of large granite erratics throughout the Inman Valley was discussed in an earlier note (Milnes, 2019).  They essentially pinpoint outcrop or subcrop of in-situ glacigene diamictite from which they have been exhumed, or within which they still remain partly encased.  The diamictite is generally plastered over smoothed and striated Cambrian Kanmantoo Group bedrock.

Good examples of these boulder lags occur on the beach at Rosetta Bay and were recognized early on as glacial erratics eroded from glacial till (for example, Howchin (1910; Fig. 1).  Milnes (2019) located and photographed remnants of the source diamictite underlying these boulder lags (Figs 2, 3).  However, recent drone photographs taken in the area by Isaac Forman ( have shown that significant boulder lags occur on the landward side of Wright Island (Fig. 4) and, based on the forms visible beneath the sea surface, may also exist on the seabed in the Bay between the shore and the Island.

One implication of this observation is that the bedrock (Petrel Cove Formation, Cambrian Kanmantoo Group) is at a relatively shallow depth and that the glacial till from which the boulders were eroded (or within which they may be partly embedded) remains close to the sea floor.  Another is that the early held view that the granite landforms (particularly Wright Island and Rosetta Head) were ice-moulded during the Permian glaciation about 300 million years ago is probably correct.  And, finally, it may still be possible to find direct evidence of glacial pavements on parts of these granite landforms, like that discovered fortuitously many years ago at Port Elliot (Milnes & Bourman, 1972).

Fig. 1 (L) – Map from Howchin (1910) showing location of erratics in Rosetta Bay. Fig. 2 (C) -Boulder lag of mainly granite erratics on the beach near the boat-ramp, Rosetta Bay.  Fig. 3 (R) – Boulder lag of granite and other rock-type erratics on the beach at Petrel Cove.


Fig. 4 – Isaac Forman ( drone photo of Wright Island and the seabed on its landward side showing the boulder lag of granite erratics on the landward side of the Island and similar forms on the seabed (centre left).


Howchin, W., 1910, The glacial (Permo-Carboniferous) moraines of Rosetta Head and King’s PointTransactions and Proceedings and Report of the Royal Society of South Australia 34, pages1-12; plates 1-17.

Milnes, A.R., 2019, What’s the significance of the large granite erratics scattered through the Inman Valley in South Australia?

Milnes, A.R.,  BOURMAN, R.P., 1972), A Late Palaeozoic glaciated granite surface at Port Elliot, South AustraliaTrans. R. Soc. S. Aust. 96, 149-155.


Dr Tony Milnes

Studies of floral ecology & minesite rehabilitation on Christmas Island, Indian Ocean


Two technical reports1 detailing aspects of the floral ecology of Christmas Island were recently uploaded into ResearchGate and Academia.  The observations and data were initially gathered over several years of study and later assembled in a Draft Environmental Impact Assessment submitted to the Australian Government2 seeking approval to proceed with further mining of phosphate on the Island.  The information is too extensive to be condensed into journal papers and too important to be left languishing in the EIS document (which was in fact published and subjected to public review).  The reports capture the two main components of the research.

The first report details studies of the composition, ecology and structure of vegetation on Christmas Island.  Many features of the Island’s native vegetation are quite remarkable.  These new data and observations provide the basis for effective and sustainable rehabilitation of areas in which, over a period of more than 100 years, the phosphate-rich regolith has been mined and landscapes that are completely changed from the original have been left.

Fig 2_Paper 1

The second report describes comprehensive vegetation surveys, based on the ecology and distribution of unique flora on Christmas Island, of proposed (but subsequently not approved) new areas for phosphate mining.  Detailed analysis of the data and observations are used to assess the potential impacts of disturbance by mining.

Fig 3_Paper 1

The research may be of interest to those working more widely on aspects of minesite rehabilitation, a perennial problem in many countries.


1 REDDELL, P, ZIMMERMANN, A & MILNES, A R (2019)  Floral ecology of Christmas Island, Indian Ocean: key to self-sustaining phosphate mine rehabilitation.  Unpublished Technical Report

REDDELL, P, ZIMMERMANN, A & MILNES, A R (2019)  Vegetation surveys to assess potential impacts of phosphate mining, Christmas Island, Indian Ocean.  Unpublished Technical Report

2 Phosphate Resources Limited Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Christmas Island Phosphate Mines (9 sites). EPBC 2001/487. November 2005.  Main Report & Technical Appendix F. (EIS prepared by EWL Sciences P/L & Tallegalla Consultants P/L; edited by A R Milnes & D Gillespie).  The research was undertaken by P Reddell, A R Milnes & A Zimmermann from EWL Sciences P/L.

Dr Tony Milnes, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Adelaide

What’s the significance of the large granite erratics scattered through the Inman Valley in South Australia?


The earliest studies of glacial sediments and landforms of the Inman Valley, starting with Selwyn (1859), made much of the smoothed and striated bedrock pavements (which we now know to have been generated by the westward movement of ice sheets from continental regions that abutted southern Australia around 300 million years ago), and the large granitic and other erratics scattered throughout the valley.   Much of the available information at the time, and hypotheses attached to it, were summarized by Professor Walter Howchin in 1926.  Howchin’s map of the Inman Valley showed the locations of large boulder erratics (principally coarse grained, porphyritic granite similar to that exposed along the coast at Encounter Bay) and striated bedrock pavements, on which the directions of movement of the glacial ice could be measured.  As might be expected, in-situexposures of glacigene sediments were observed directly overlying the pavements in some of these localities.  Howchin remarked on the fact that changes in the courses of the Inman River and subsidiary streams over time continued to variously expose and also obscure rock pavements and overlying glacial deposits, and this situation has continued to the present day.

As well as at sites at which conspicuous large erratics occurred and striated bedrock pavements were located, Howchin assigned the sedimentary fill throughout the Inman Valley and adjacent areas to ‘Permo-Carboniferous’ glacigene deposits. This was partly due to borehole data that indicated diamictitic fill above bedrock in parts of the valley, but also because there were exposures of diamictite associated with the scattered striated pavements and erratics shown on his map (Fig. 1).  This view was promulgated by successive geologists and dominates even the most recent geological maps of the area.  However, as pointed out by Bourman & Milnes (2016), the fill in the valley is complex.  It includes the remnants of glacigene deposits extensively eroded and reworked during Mesozoic and Cainozoic times as well as younger fluvial and alluvial deposits such as the peaty sediments of Pleistocene marshlands and sandy sediments resulting from post-European settlement erosion and aggradation.  The soils map of the area (Fig. 2) is a good indication of this complexity as it presents at the modern landsurface.

171009_Howchin erratics map_enhanced_cropped
Enhanced map of ‘greater’ Inman River valley by Howchin (1926) showing his locations of erratics (red dots) and striated pavements (with directions of ice movement – purple arrows). Region coloured in yellow was assigned to ‘Permo-Carboniferous glacial’ deposits; other coloured areas are bedrock of various types and ages.
171005_erratics vs soils_cropped
Map of soils in the Inman Valley & surrounds showing locations of erratics (red dots – Howchin 1926; purple dots – recent field observations). Yellow indicates the dominant soil type – ‘G3: Thick sand over clay’ which corresponds closely to Howchin’s ‘Permo-Carboniferous glacial’ deposits and is promulgated on recent geological maps on which the soil mapping was based. Red = areas of ‘L1: Shallow soil on rock’ where bedrock is exposed or close to the surface on the steep slopes. Green = areas of ‘K: shallow to moderately deep acidic soils on rock’. Brown colours = areas of ‘F2: Sandy loam over poorly structured brown or dark clay’ soils, ‘E3: Brown or grey cracking clay’ soils, and F1: Loam over brown or dark clay in the modern stream valleys.

Erratic strewnfields

Recent field observations demonstrate that the strewnfields of large, mostly granite erratics (Howchin’s 1926 map, to which there are more recently added occurrences shown in Fig. 2), essentially pinpoint outcrop or subcrop of in-situglacigene diamictite from which they have been recently exhumed, or within which they still remain partly encased.  The diamictite is generally plastered over smoothed and striated Cambrian Kanmantoo Group bedrock and may be ‘lodgement till’.  Good examples of this are on the beach at Rosetta Bay, in dam excavations east of Mt Alma road, in the Inman River channel at Inman Valley township and for some kilometres eastwards, and at the site known as ‘Glacier Rock’.  Elsewhere, Permian glacigene sediments have long been eroded and substantially reworked, and the granite erratics that have been exhumed from them have largely disintegrated and the weathering products dispersed.  The stages in this process can be observed in some granite erratics now being exhumed from glacigene diamictite. Weathering and disintegration of granite erratics in association with Permian glacial diamictites does not occur to anywhere near the same extent in coastal environments, such as on beaches at Rosetta Bay, just north of Port Vincent and at Port Moorowie on Yorke Peninsula, and at Hallett Cove south of Adelaide.


Howchin (1926) referred to the diamictite as ‘.. glacial sandstone and boulder clay..’ and it is quite distinctive, as shown in the accompanying photographs.  In locations near the coastline, for example in Rosetta Bay, the diamictite tends to be bluish in colour, with some bleaching and iron-staining, suggesting that weathering is not pervasive.  In the main part of the Inman Valley, however, and particularly in the river channel, exposures are generally yellowish-white and bleached of colour.  In the earliest reports (Tate et al., 1898), the glacigene sediments were described as being to be so dark in colour that they were thought to be potentially coal-bearing, and this led to exploration drilling of three bores in Back Valley by the Victor Harbour Coal Company.  Carbonaceous glacigene sediments are known elsewhere, for example at Port Moorowie on southern Yorke Peninsula, but have not been observed recently in the Inman Valley. The beds of glacial origin that Howchin (1926)2referred to as being typically ‘.. tenacious blue clays..’  have also not been observed recently although the diamictite that is periodically exposed at low tide in Rosetta Bay and which underlies the conspicuous lags of large granite erratics, is bluish in colour.

The sandy-clay matrix of bluish-coloured diamictite is dominantly quartz, with feldspars and muscovite or biotite.  Unexpectedly, in the samples examined so far, the clay is dominated by poorly crystalline 14Åmontmorillonitic material: no kaolinite was observed.



1.  Strewnfield of large granite erratics west of Mt Alma.  2.  Lag of granite & metamorphic rock erratics on diamictite, Rosetta Harbor.  3.  Lag of granite & other erratics over diamictite, bed of Inman River, east of village.  4.  Disintegrating granite erratic eroding from diamictite, Strangways Hill.  5.  Large granite erratic in diamictite on glaciated pavement, Glacier Rock.  6.  Large granite & other erratics embedded in diamictite on glaciated pavement, bed of Inman River, east of village.  7.  Bluish sandy-clay diamictite (‘lodgement till’) beneath lag of granite erratics, Rosetta Harbor.  8.  Bluish sandy-clay diamictite with embedded granite & other clasts, Rosetta Harbor.


The strewnfields of large granite and other erratics in the Inman Valley are considered to represent vestiges of extensive Permian glacial diamictite.  Remnants of these sediments in localities along the north-central and eastern parts of the valley have been exposed close to the ice-moulded bedrock walls and floor that have been progressively exposed by erosion.  As downwasting continues, it is expected that the large granitic erratics now exposed in the boulder lags will gradually weather and disintegrate, as is common in terrestrial environments.  New occurrences could emerge if riverine erosion exposes more of the original bedrock valley. On the other hand, rising sea-levels may trigger aggradation and the burial of the now exposed strewnfields of erratics, the associated diamictites, and the underlying glaciated bedrock pavements.

Although there have been many investigations of facets of the Permian glaciation, including landforms and sedimentary deposits, starting as early as Selwyn (1859)1, evidence of post-Permian geological processes in the Inman Valley up until the Quaternary has not been recognised.  Some soil mapping linked with Howchin’s (1926) observations and more recent data reported by Bourman & Milnes (2016)2is the most recent information.  Opportunities to discover more of the history of this complex landscape clearly exist.


Selwyn R.C., 1859, Geological notes of a journey in South Australia from Cape Jervis to Mount Serle, No. 20, p. 4.

Howchin W., 1926, Geology of the Victor Harbour, Inman Valley and Yankalilla districts, with reference to the great Inman Valley glacier of Permo-Carboniferous age. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, 50, p. 89-116.

Bourman, R.P. & Milnes, A.R., 2016, The geology and landforms of the Inman River Catchment.  Report to Inman River Catchment Landcare Group, Government of South Australia Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources, December 2016.  237pp.

Tate R., Howchin W., David T.W.E., 1898, On the evidence of glacial action in the Port Victor and Inman Valley districts, South Australia.  Report of Research Committee No. 5, Australasian Association Advancement Science, 7thmeeting, Sydney 1898, p.  114-127.

Dr Tony Milnes

The beach cliffs north of Stansbury

North of Stansbury on Yorke Peninsula (South Australia), towards Port Vincent, there is an interesting hike along the beach at low tide.  Prominent cliffs of yellowish fossiliferous limestone overlain by reddish sand and mottled clay are in places capped by white carbonate-rich silts and hard limestone called ‘calcrete’ (1).  The cliffs are up to 20m high except where broken in a few places by gullies that mark once active, short streams.  At high tide the sea laps at and erodes the base of the cliffs across a shore platform cut into the limestone. Version 2

The limestone beds (Port Vincent Limestone) were deposited in Oligocene to Miocene times, roughly 20-30 million years ago.  The overlying reddish sands and clays (Hindmarsh Clay) are probably around 700,000 years old (Pleistocene age) and the white carbonate (lime) capping is even younger.

At the Stansbury jetty, the cliffs are mostly of Port Vincent Limestone.  The original bedding in the limestone is outlined in places by thin rubbly layers and elsewhere by shell-rich beds.  The limestone was deposited in shallow seas that once occupied the St Vincent Basin. Conspicuous amongst the fossils are whole-shell sea-urchins (echinoderms), bivalves (clams and oysters) and bryozoa in a sandy matrix that is largely made of shell fragments (4).  The cliffs show spectacular evidence of former caves, sinkholes, pipes and other solution features: these are obvious because they are filled with mottled green, yellow and red sandy clays (2, 3).   Undercutting by the sea has progressively collapsed the limestone to expose these structures and in places wash out the clays.  The caves and pipes characteristically have smooth surfaces dating from a time when lime-rich solutions seeping over their walls precipitated calcite on evaporation. Version 2

Version 2

Version 2

In the section from Beach Point (Long Beach) northwards, the Port Vincent Limestone is overlain by Hindmarsh Clay, a thick band of mottled green-yellow clays and deep red sandy clays.  In contrast to the marine origin of the limestones, these were deposited during the Pleistocene in fluvial environments.  The boundary between the two formations is important as it represents a large time break of several million years, during which the seas retreated from St Vincent Gulf to well south of Kangaroo Island.  As this was happening, in the Late Tertiary period, the changing conditions exposed the limestones at the landsurface and subjected them to erosion, weathering and dissolution to generate a significant karst (caves, sinkholes, pipes, and the like) landscape.  Major riverine and lake environments later became established in the former gulf.  The river systems drained highlands to the north and generated widespread alluvial and lacustrine deposits of sand and clays over the karst limestone, filling the caves and sinkholes to produce the remnants we see in the cliffs today.

It’s interesting to speculate as to whether the remains of any fauna (including megafauna) occur within this cave and sinkhole landscape.  It did, after all, form at about the same time as the extensive cave systems in the limestones of the South East and the Nullarbor which contain abundant mammalian and other fossils.

A feature of the Hindmarsh Clay is the occurrence in places of white bands of the mineral alunite (potassium aluminium sulfate).  Towards the northern end of Long Beach it was sufficiently abundant for local entrepreneurs to begin to mine it to produce potassium sulfate fertilizer (according to a report by RL Jack, Assistant Government Geologist, in 1918),  which was in short supply during the First World War, but the venture failed.   Remnants of mining operations can still be seen at the base of the cliffs behind sand dunes (5).  The alunite was formed from a reaction between acid groundwater and potassic clays in the sediments.  The process in detail is unclear, but the occurrence of alunite in superposed near-horizonal seams suggests that appropriate conditions may have related to flow of local acid groundwater.Version 2

Above the Hindmarsh Clay in most of the cliff-line is a ‘blanket’ of younger Pleistocene lime deposits.  These consist of unconsolidated silts with interlayers of hardened calcrete.  The youngest calcrete is exposed as sheets over large areas of the landsurface on this part of Yorke Peninsula, and was exploited in earlier days for the local production of quicklime.  It remains an impediment to cropping but is progressively being crushed and disaggregated by farmers using heavyweight rollers hauled behind large tractors.  The unconsolidated carbonate silts are considered to be a loess-like aeolian deposits whereas the calcrete bands are likely to represent the remnants of ancient soils that formed at successively younger times.

What else can we note about the geology of the Stansbury cliffs?

Projecting the top of the cliffs seawards provides an indication of the former extent of the Pleistocene landscape that has now been disrupted and incised as the St Vincent ‘valley’ was drowned by rising seas.

Fallen blocks accumulated at the base of the cliffs is the result of mass collapse of limestone and calcrete in the cliffs caused by back-wasting under the attack of waves.  Some rock fragments are very large; others are small and part of a lag concentrated by tides at the back of beach.  Many are angular, which indicates that they have relatively recently fallen from the cliff; some are rounded and smoothed which indicates that they have been washed around in the surf zone for a long period of time.   It’s interesting to speculate about the time that it takes the cliff to retreat under the attack of the rising sea.  Only observations over the long-term (mapping of fallen blocks or reference to old photographs to compare with the present) might answer this question.  However, most cliff erosion is likely to take place at comparatively rare times of severe storms and powerful wave and wind attack, whereas little change occurs under usual weather conditions.

The cliffs in some places are coated with a ‘wash’ of sediment from higher in the sequence, and this sometimes obscures the geology and makes it difficult to pinpoint breaks in the rock sequence. This coating varies from a thin surface veneer to substantial talus deposits, and usually occurs in places where the cliff is less exposed to wind and waves.  As well, in places, the red sand and clay fill in the old caves and pipes has spilled out from the cliffs where erosion has exposed them.

Collapsing masses of rock, spilling of sands and clays from less coherent deposits, breaking apart and exposure of karst features, and wash over cliff surfaces, are all components of cliff retreat in this region.

It’s interesting that the cliffline can be traced from actively eroding beach cliffs north of the jetty at Stansbury to a subdued hillslope at the back of the town to beach cliffs again south of the cemetery. The townsite is actually an embayment that was filled by shallow water shelly limestones (deposited around 10,000 years ago in seas that were at a slightly higher level than today) and covered by more recent sand dunes.  It seems to have been a quirk of nature that preserved the embayment, in much the same way that winds, tides and seawater circulation on this eastern side of the gulf produced distinctive, recurved sand and mud spits that protect other bays like Stansbury.

Further reading.

RP Bourman, CV Murray-Wallace, N Harvey (2016)  Coastal Landscapes of South Australia.  (University of Adelaide Press: Adelaide).  423pp.

AR Crawford (1965)  The Geology of Yorke Peninsula.  Bulletin No. 39.  Department of Mines, Geological Survey of South Australia. 139pp.

RL Jack (1918)  Alunite deposits, Section A. Hundred of RamsayInSouth Australia Department of Mines, Mining Review No. 28 for the half-year ended June 30th, 1918.  pp51-53.

AR Milnes, JT Hutton (1983)  Calcretes in Australia – a Review.  In ‘Soils: an Australian Viewpoint’, Chapter 10, 119-162. (CSIRO, Melbourne/Academic Press, London).

WJ Stuart (1970)  The Cainozoic stratigraphy of the eastern coastal area of Yorke Peninsula, South Australia.  Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia 94, 151-178.

Dr Tony Milnes – Earth Sciences, University of Adelaide

Sir Douglas Mawson, University of Adelaide


Douglas Mawson was born on May 5, 1882 at Shipley in Yorkshire and migrated in 1884 to Australia with his parents Robert and Margaret and older brother William.  From 1895 to 1898, William and Douglas attended Fort Street Model Public School in Sydney, one of the best public secondary schools in Australia.  From 1899 to 1901, Douglas Mawson studied Mining Engineering at the University of Sydney, graduating on April 19, 1902.  Mawson’s best results were in geology under the influence of TW Edgeworth David, the charismatic Professor of Geology at the time. This was the start of a lifelong friendship and professional association, which ended only on David’s death on August 28, 1934 (Corbett 1998, 2000).

In 1902 Mawson commenced a Bachelor of Science degree, majoring in geology.  This was interrupted by him spending several months (April to September 1903) studying the geology of the New Hebrides (modern Vanuatu) at the behest of Edgeworth David.  Mawson graduated with a Bachelor of Science in early 1905 and commenced an appointment as Lecturer in Mineralogy and Petrology at the University of Adelaide on March 1, 1905.  The only other geologist at Adelaide University at the time was 60 year old Walter Howchin.

After arrival in Adelaide, Mawson was very active and in particular studied the geology of the Broken Hill area and the neighbouring Olary area in South Australia.  Here Mawson found Precambrian rocks that he considered to have been deposited by glacial action.  He wished to see modern glacial activity and in late 1907 contacted Edgeworth David, and through him, Ernest Shackleton, the leader of the 1907-1909 British Antarctic Expedition (BAE).  As a result, he was appointed as physicist to the expedition.  The BAE was based on Ross Island.  Highlights of this expedition for Mawson were participation in the first ascent of Antarctica’s only active volcano, the 3794m high Mt Erebus, and membership of the first party (with Edgeworth David and Alistair Mackay) to reach the vicinity of the South Magnetic Pole.  David and Mawson returned to Australia as heroes.

Later in 1909, Mawson found time to continue his Broken Hill studies and completed his doctorate before the end of the year.  While working in Broken Hill, Mawson met Paquita Delprat, a daughter of Guillaume Delprat, the General Manager of BHP, whom he later married.  Mawson visited London in late 1909 and unsuccessfully tried to persuade Scott to land him at Cape Adare, in order to study the geology of the area.  He then organised the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE), the story of which has been well documented by Mawson (1964), Ayres (1999), Hall (2000), Fitzsimons (2011) and particularly by Riffenburgh (2011) who gives the most comprehensive account.  The AAE was most notable for Mawson surviving and struggling back to the base at Commonwealth Bay after the deaths of Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz, his sledging companions on the Far Eastern Party.  The boat had already left and Mawson was obliged to stay in Antarctica for another twelve months with six members of his party, led by Cecil Madigan, who had stayed behind.  As part of the AAE, bases were also established on Macquarie Island and the Shackleton Ice Shelf.  The AAE saw the first use of radio communications with Antarctica.

Mawson was knighted in 1914. He was in the UK from 1916 as part of the war effort, returning to Adelaide in April 1919 where he was appointed Professor of Geology and Mineralogy at the University of Adelaide in 1921, a position he held until his retirement in 1952.  For the next few years Mawson was involved in raising funds to pay off the debts of the AAE and in organising the publication of the scientific reports resulting from the expedition.  He was an enthusiastic field geologist and did considerable field work in the Broken Hill/Olary and Flinders Ranges areas, usually accompanied by students.

In the summers of 1929-30 and 1930-31, Mawson led the ship-based British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) using the Discovery, the ship used by Scott in his first expedition in 1901-04.  This was a largely marine science, oceanography and biology expedition, but included landing on Heard Island and a visit to Mawson’s old headquarters at Commonwealth Bay.  On the second voyage, Mawson claimed formal possession of King George V Land on behalf of Britain.  This is the basis of the present Australian claim to what is termed the Australian Antarctic Territory, which represents about 40% of Antarctica.

Mawson continued his field work in the Flinders Ranges in the 1930s and 1940s.  He was a driving force in the establishment of ANARE (Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions) that still runs the Australian Antarctic research activities.  He continued to publish research papers until his death on October 14, 1958.


The University of Adelaide and the adjacent South Australian Museum have displays where Mawson memorabilia can be viewed.

The Tate Museum in the Mawson Laboratories in the University at the corner of Frome Road and Victoria Drive has a display showcasing Mawson’s Antarctic activities on its southern wall.  Some of the rocks collected on the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-14 are housed in the display cases and there is a substantial further collection in the basement crypt archive (where some sample boxes containing these specimens are as yet unopened).  One of the AAE sledges is on the north wall of the Tate Museum.

On North Terrace, at the entrance to the University just west of the Bonython Building, there is a bust of Mawson which was unveiled in 1982 on the occasion of the Fourth International Symposium on Antarctic Earth Sciences, held in Adelaide to commemorate the centenary of Mawson’s birth.  At the foot of the bust are two large boulders: one is charnockite from near Mawson Station in Antarctica and the other is pegmatite from Arkaroola in the northern Flinders Ranges.

A recently revamped Australian Polar Exhibit at the South Australian Museum, just to the west along North Terrace, deals with Mawson’s three visits to Antarctica, as well as his work in the Flinders Ranges.  There are numerous artifacts from this work as well as some general information on Antarctica.  There is also reference to the other two major Australian polar explorers from the pre-World War II era, namely Hubert Wilkins and John Rymill, both of whom were born in South Australia.

Selected references

  • Ayres, P, 1999. Mawson. A life. (The Miegunyah Press, Carlton South).
  • Cooper, BJ & Jago, JB, 2007. Mawson’s earliest (1906) report on the geology of the Flinders Ranges. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, 132, 167-174.
  • Corbett, DWP, 1998. Douglas Mawson: The geologist as explorer. Records of the SouthAustralian Museum, 30,107-136.
  • Corbett, DWP, 2000. A staunch but testing friendship: Douglas Mawson and T.W.Edgeworth David. Records of the South Australian Museum, 33,49-70.
  • Fitzsimons, P, 2011. Mawson and the Ice Men of the Heroic Age: Scott, Shackleton andAmundsen. (William Heinemann, North Sydney).
  • Hall, L, 2000. Douglas Mawson: The life of an explorer. (New Holland, Sydney).
  • Jacka, FJ, 1986. Mawson, Sir Douglas (1882-1958). Australian Dictionary of Biography. (
  • Jago, JB & Pharaoh, MD, 2016. Pre-Antarctic Mawson in South Australia and western New South Wales. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, 140, 107-128.
  • Jago, JB, Pharaoh, MD & Wilson-Roberts, CL, 2005. Douglas Mawson’s first major geological expedition: The New Hebrides, 1903. Earth Sciences History, 24,93-111.
  • Mawson, D, 1915. The Home of the Blizzard. 2 volumes.  (William Heinemann, London).
  • Mawson, P, 1964. Mawson of the Antarctic.  (Longmans, London).
  • Riffenburgh, B, 2011. Aurora. Douglas Mawson and the Australian Antarctic Expedition1911-14. (The Erskine Press, Norwich).
  • The Adelie Blizzard: Mawson’s Forgotten Newspaper, 1913, edited by Archie McLean. Reproduced by The Friends of the State Library of South Australia, 2010.

Author:  Professor Jim Jago, School of Natural and Built Environments, University of South Australia.

Gulf St Vincent & Adelaide beaches

Over the last million years in southern Australia, sea levels have fluctuated between about 120m below present sea level, during the Ice Ages, to about 2m above during the interglacials.  As humans first arrived in Australia more than 50,000 years ago, the sea level fluctuated between 60 and 40m below present, and vast coastal areas were exposed for settlement.  Gulf St Vincent has a maximum depth of 40m so, during those times, it had the form of a flat landscape of alluvial plains veneered with calcrete and covered by thin sandy soils and sporadic desert dunes gently sloping towards a central oblong saline swamp (Fig. 1).

Around 30,000 years ago the Earth plunged into a severe Ice Age that lasted until about 15,000 years ago, with sea levels dropping to 120m below present.  A warming climate then caused rising sea levels, so that by around 9,700 years ago the sea encroached into the land to form the Gulf (Fig. 2).  Continued climate warming and further sea level rise progressively filled the Gulf.  The warm shallow seas enabled prolific growth of algae and marine grasses that were nurseries to a rich ecology of fish, shellfish, starfish, sponges, calcareous algae and some corals.  Sand-sized foraminifera were abundant, especially in the nearshore and intertidal zones (corresponding to the mangrove-rich areas north of Adelaide).

By around 6,500 years ago the sea had reached its present level and the Gulf achieved its current shape.  Abundant shells and shell grit were deposited to form a meter-thick veneer of calcareous sediment covering the now drowned landscape.  Predominant south-southwesterly winds created waves that eroded these sediments, for example around Port Norlunga and Maslins Beach, and quartz sand winnowed from them mixed together with more recent shell grit to create the modern beaches (Figs 3, 4).  Some quartz sands came from more ancient deposits that are now exposed at Hallett Cove.

Frequent southwesterly storms drove coastal sands northward from Marino Rocks and Glenelg to form a coastal dune series that enclosed the Patawalunga and Westlake depression.  This wave-dominant dune system continued to grow northward creating the present Le Fevre Peninsula where around 10m of sand has accumulated (Fig. 5).

European settlement since 1836 has altered the coastal zone by building on or removing most sand dunes, thus allowing storms to attack roads and residences. Placement of rocky rip-rap with the aim of protecting the shoreline has in fact increased wave turbulence and lowered the beach profile by removing additional sand.  Replenishment of beach sands to maintain amenity is a continuing Government-funded activity.  Tennyson Dunes is one of a few tiny remnants that provide a glimpse of the original Adelaide metropolitan coastline.


Bourman RP, Murray-Wallace CV, Harvey N. 2016. Coastal Landscapes of South Australia.Available as a free ebook from

Fuller MK, Gostin VA. 2008. Recent coarse biogenic sediments of Gulf St Vincent.InSA Shepherd et al. (eds) Natural History of Gulf St Vincent.  Ch.3 , 29-37. (Royal Society of South Australia).

Harvey N, Belperio AP, Bourman RP. 2001.  Late Quaternary sea-levels, climate change and South Australian coastal geology.  InV Gostin (ed.) Gondwana to Greenhouse: Australian Environmental Geoscience. Geol. Soc. Aust. Spec. Publ. 21, 201-213.  (Geological Society of Australia: Sydney).

James NP, Bone Y. 2011. Neritic Carbonate Sediments in a Temperate Realm, (Springer Science+Business Media).

Author: Dr VA Gostin

Paradigms in astronomy & Earth history are not absolute

Not a week passes that a new astronomical discovery is announced in the popular as well as the scientific press.  Our vision and appreciation of our living and cosmic environment is continually changing.  Old, long-held views – for example, that our solar system is the only example of planetary systems – continue to be replaced by new ideas and concepts.  During the 1960s and 1970s, we witnessed a similar paradigm shift from the notion of a very solid, relatively stable Earth, on which oceans and continents would periodically subside or emerge from beneath sea-level, to a vigorous Plate-Tectonic Earth, on which oceans are continually created and removed.  We now know that light and buoyant continents are essentially carried as ‘passengers’ on the ever-circulating, dense, underlying mantle.  It took decades before most (but not all) earth scientists were convinced by the evidence for this concept.

New astronomical techniques

Recent astronomical discoveries that challenge former theories are particularly fascinating.  Looking out into the far reaches of our Universe, researchers have now detected a radio signal from the first stars formed.  Because such distant red-shift signals fall in the FM radio electromagnetic spectrum, Judd Bowman, of the Arizona State University’s discovery team, had to use the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in the ultra-quiet region of Western Australia, to detect the weak signal.  This discovery, as indeed most astronomical information, comes to us via exploration of the whole electromagnetic spectrum.

In contrast, a whole new way of exploring the universe by observing gravitational waves (first reported in April 2016) has recently been proved.  Andrew Grant has called this the beginning of multi-messenger astronomy (Physics Today, October 2017).  Seconds after the gravity wave recorders (LIGO and VIRGO) detected gravitational waves, the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope spotted a gamma-ray burst.  Many observatoriesconfirmed this event. The observations suggest that gamma-ray bursts result from colliding ultra-dense neutron stars, the enormous energy release from which is sufficient to create heavy elements like gold and uranium via the fusion of lighter elements.


This stunning image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, shows the individual galaxies UGC 1810 (right) and UGC 1813 (left) in the process of colliding. Together, this pair of interacting galaxies is known as Arp273. Image courtesy of NASA/ESA/HHT

In the past year, there have also been breakthroughs in the study of cosmic rays that continually bombard the earth.  While most are light protons, some are ultra-high energy cosmic rays made of iron nucleii that may originate from supermassive black holes in the centre of distant galaxies.  In addition to cosmic rays, our planet is immersed in charged particles emanating from the Sun in what is termed the solar wind.  This reacts with the Earth’s magnetic field and creates numerous transitory phenomena including the aurorae, sprites and lightning.  The solar wind controls spaceweather and climate.  On the other hand, retention of the Earth’s atmosphere is generally attributed to theplanet’s strong magnetic field which prevents widespread stripping of the volatile gasses by the solar wind.  A review of the Earth’s electromagnetic environment was published by Catherine Constable in 2016 (Surveys in Geophysics37, p27-45).

When some massive stars are at the end of their life cycle they become supernovae that violently explode, expelling gas at high speed into space.  These explosions are strong enough to hurl matter across vast distances into neighbouring galaxies.  Our own Milky Way galaxy has apparently grown significantly by capturing material from its satellite galaxies, namely the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds (A. Woodward, New Scientist, August 2017). We clearly live in a complex interactive universe, but the time scales are vast in comparison to the brevity of human experience.

Collapse of a single planetary paradigm

The old paradigm of planetary origins based on our Solar System has collapsed with the discovery of hundreds of other planets with very different orbits.  An article by Ann Finkbeiner (Planets in Chaos: Nature, July 2014) describes this astronomical puzzle.  Planets in their early years collided, interacted, migrated and grew in size, before ultimately settling into some relatively stable arrangement. This turbulent and chaotic impact history during the early assemblage of planets resulted in the expulsion of some planets into the cold emptiness of space, away from their parent stars.  Some stars, like our own Sun, have large families of planets.  As of December 2017, researchers have identified 3,567 exoplanets.  Two telescopes planned to be launched in 2018 will search for signs of other planets by observing their crossings in front of parent stars (J.N. Winn, Scientific American, March 2018, p26-33).

Meteors and impacts on Earth

Recent observations confirm that meteorite impact on Earth is a dynamic process that continues and directly influences our environment.  The planet is continually showered by meteors of various sizes from microscopic space dust and visible sand-sized meteorite grains, up to fragments, some kilometers in diameter, of rarer asteroids or comets.

Some asteroids with unusual fractured shapes and compositions have recently whizzed past our planet on hyperbolic (i.e. non-returning) orbits, and continued onto other stellar rendezvous (K. Cooper, New Scientist, February 2018).  The estimated number of such interstellar objects may be in the thousands.  More relevant of course, have been those visitors that have made direct hits on Earth. Much of Earth’s history since Proterozoic times has in fact been shaped by catastrophic meteorite impacts that have triggered mass extinctions of living creatures and other biological effects.  The immense impact some 63 million years ago that spelt the extinction of dinosaurs, as well as ammonites and other marine creatures, is well known, as perhaps is the atmospheric explosion at Tunguska, in central Siberia only a century ago (1908).  Recognition of the importance of major meteorite impacts on Earth history has been yet another paradigm shift in our understanding.

A cometary catastrophe

Less well known is the discovery that fragments of a disintegrating ~100km-diameter comet collided with the Earth some 12,800 years ago in what is known as the Younger Dryas period (named after a signature Arctic flower).  The collision triggered a rapid return to glacial conditions which lasted about 1,400 years, interrupting the gradual warming of the planet after the Last Glacial Maximum around 20,000 years ago.  In a two-part publication in 2018, Wendy Wolbach (and 31 co-authors) presented a detailed analysis of evidence of this most unusual climatic episode gathered over the last decade (W.S. Wolbach et al.,Journal of Geology126, p165-184 & p185-205).  Data was gathered from ice-cores in Greenland, Russia and Antarctica as well as from lake, marine and terrestrial sediments.  Contemporaneous layers of charcoal and dust in these geographically dispersed cores confirm this cosmic impact event.  These specific layers are enriched in platinum and other impact-related elements.  They also contain glassy spherules and nano-diamonds, and are anomalously high in ammonia, nitrate, and other compounds that represent a major period of extensive biomass burning.  Sea levels rose a few metres due to major melting of the North American Ice Cap and this surge of fresh water disturbed the oceanic circulation that began a period of cooling.

YDB field

YDB = Younger Dryas boundary field. graphic from C.R. Kinzie et al. The Journal of Geology, 2014, v122, p475–506.

Evidence points to numerous fragments of a disintegrating comet detonating above and/or colliding with ice-sheets, oceans, and land on at least four continents centred on North America.  The radiant and thermal energy from multiple explosions triggered extensive wildfires that are estimated to have burned about 10% of the planet’s biomass, considerably more than that accompanying the meteorite impact that caused the demise of the dinosaurs.  The burning created long-lived atmospheric soot, blocking most sunlight and creating an ‘impact winter’ and acid rain.  The reduced vegetation caused a major crisis in the ecosystem and may have contributed to many megafaunal extinctions including mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths and American horses, along with many birds and smaller mammals.  Human population declined for about a thousand years and the demise of the Clovis hunters ensued.  This synchronicity of multiple events makes the Younger Dryas interval one of the most unusual climatic/ecological episodes during the last two million years.  It also raises the importance of supporting the Near Earth Asteroid Survey in defence of future serious impacts on our planet.

Our changing paradigms

The rapid acquisition of new and exciting knowledge about astronomy and Earth history requires paradigm shifts in our thinking and interpretation.  We should always be prepared for new scientific observations and revelations and continue to adapt our ideas and concepts to better explain our cosmic and earthly environments.

Dr Vic Gostin

Tate Museum attracts young scientists

The Tate Museum, at the University of Adelaide, is considered to be the largest and best Australian university geology museum.  Although established in the 1880s by Professor Ralph Tate, the foundation Elder Professor of Natural Sciences at the University (1875 – 1901), the Museum was named in his honour in 1902, after his death.  It was moved into its current location in the Department of Earth Sciences’ Mawson Laboratories in the early 1950s.  The history of the Museum, which is an important part of University Collections, has been well documented by Dr Barbara Kidman.

The extensive assemblage of minerals, meteorites, Antarctic rocks and memorabilia relating to Sir Douglas Mawson’s expeditions, as well as rocks and fossils that record important aspects of Australian and South Australian geology, are presently being catalogued and recorded using digital tools not available in past decades.  New displays are also being designed.  Much of the work is being undertaken by volunteers in lieu of a Museum Curator, a position that has not existed in the Mawson Laboratories for many years.


Tate Museum with specimens housed in cabinets  matching those made for the first-generation of the museum in the 1880s.

Visitors to the Museum, which occupies a ‘foyer’ to the Mawson Lecture Theatre, include University students attending lectures, attendees at Learned Society meetings, parties of school students and off-the-street visitors. All express delight that a historical Museum such as this exists.  Research students and staff from within the University, and also overseas, are surprised at the breadth of the mineral and meteorite collections, and occasionally request subsamples for specific research purposes.  In this manner, the Museum has an ongoing role in assisting new research and, at the same time, receiving new data and information about its specimens.

Visits by parties of school students are especially noteworthy.  On Tuesday 8th May, twenty enthusiastic young (7-12years) Science Club students from the Woodcroft State School visited the Museum.  Dr Vic Gostin, who often hosts visitors to the Museum, talked to them about the work of Professor Ralph Tate, who studied and maintained collections of Type Specimens of molluscs (including fossil forms) found in South Australia.  As well, his analysis of the ancient glacial features on Fleurieu Peninsula eventually led to a total paradigm shift to ‘Plate Tectonic’ theory.  The students were encouraged to visit the Hallett Cove Conservation Park to view the scientific evidence.  Dr Gostin also pointed out the pioneering exploratory work of Sir Douglas Mawson in Antarctica, as illustrated by displays of his Antarctic specimens and memorabilia.

A special display of hand-sized meteorites and Australites enabled the students to ask questions and become aware of the asteroid/space connection.  Finally, they were allowed to handle and be photographed with the Nakhla Martian meteorite and so, in great excitement, ‘got their hands on another planet’!

The 90-minute visit of this keen group of Science Club students was peppered with exclamations and insightful questions, including many about the variety of spectacular minerals on display.

The Tate Museum and its collections are recognised by many visitors as an important University asset and scientists like Dr Gostin, who know of its history, say that it generates great interest and provides encouragement for current and potential future earth scientists.

Additional reading:

Kidman, B P (2015).  Ralph Tate, his Natural History Museum at the University of Adelaide and the ‘Tate Museum’.  Historical Records of Australian Science, 2015, 101-121. (CSIRO Publishing).

Dr Tony Milnes, Dr Vic Gostin