Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 251 (2007) 119 – 136

Fluvial response to late Quaternary climate change in
NE Queensland, Australia
Michael F. Thomas a,⁎, Jonathan Nott b , Andrew S. Murray c , David M. Price d
School of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Stirling, Stirling, FK9 4LA, UK
School of Tropical Environment Studies and geography, James Cook University of North Queensland, Cairns, Qld 4870, Australia
Nordic Laboratory for Luminescence Dating, Aarhus University, Roskilde, Denmark
School of Geosciences, University of Wollongong, NSW 2522, Australia
Accepted 27 February 2007


Samples of alluvial and colluvial deposits from the coastal plain and coastal valleys north and south of Cairns (17°S) have been
dated using optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) protocols, with additional thermoluminescence (TL) and Radiocarbon assays.
Coarse fanglomerates from elevated coastal terraces date back to 81 ka, but most are clustered in oxygen isotope stage three (OIS3,
64–28 ka), indicating high-energy conditions during this period. Extensive fans and terraces of finer calibre sediments are widely
represented grading from coarse gravels and cobbles in proximal zones fine sand and silt in distal areas. Dates show that vertical
accumulation of 10–15 m of sediment occurred between ∼ 28 and 14 ka (OIS2), after which the fans were dissected and Holocene
deposits become fragmentary. A number of deposits indicating hillslope instability were successfully dated and these fall mainly
into OIS3 and post 12 ka. These results are interpreted as catchment responses to Late Pleistocene climate and vegetation changes,
documented elsewhere from local pollen and ocean drilling sites. Correlation with these records and with evidence for regional
climate change from the Austral-Asian region is good and indicates that these changes were sufficient to transform fluvial activity
and slope processes.
© 2007 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Late Quaternary environments; Humid tropics; Debris flows; Alluvial fans; Queensland geomorphology

1. Introduction elevations but rises to over 8000 mmy− 1 near the sum-
mit of Bellenden Ker. The rainfall is sufficient to support
The study area extends along 100–150 km of coastal tropical rainforest, which still clothes the landscape in
plain North and South of Cairns in northeast Queensland steep, remote or protected areas, which include the ‘The
and includes the catchments draining the Eastern Wet Tropics’ World Heritage Area. The area exhibits
Highlands (Great Dividing Range) towards the Coral steep environmental gradients today, with areas of trop-
Sea (Figs. 1 and 2). The region belongs to the seasonally ical rainforest giving way inland to (eucalypt) scler-
humid tropics and rainfall is 3000 mmy− 1 at lower ophyll woodland over short distances.
A programme of TL and OSL dating based on sedi-
⁎ Corresponding author. Tel.: +44 1786467840; fax: +44 ments deposited from the east-flowing rivers was carried
1786467843. out to establish the behaviour of stream catchments
E-mail address: (M.F. Thomas). during the Last Glacial Cycle (LGC). Previous reports
0031-0182/$ - see front matter © 2007 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
120 M.F. Thomas et al. / Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 251 (2007) 119–136

Fig. 1. Location map showing the sites between Daintree and Miriwinni. The shaded area denotes the coastal plain deposition. Most of this area is
comprised of alluvial fans and terraces, but it also includes Holocene marine deposits near the coast.

(Nott et al., 2001; Thomas et al., 2001), based on a pollen record at nearby Lynch's Crater (17°37′S,
limited number of sections, indicated the major impact 145°70′E) by Kershaw (1978, 1986, 1992). The major
of late glacial aridity, previously documented from the finding was the formation of numerous alluvial fans
M.F. Thomas et al. / Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 251 (2007) 119–136 121

confirmed these findings, and a more recent pollen
record from nearby Lake Euramoo (Haberle, 2005) has
provided added detail for the last 23,000 years.
Glacial periods have generally seen an expansion of
the sclerophyll woodland (Casuarina, Eucalyptus) over
much of the area covered by rainforest during inter-
glacials. There is evidence for a decline in Araucaria
and the appearance of abundant charcoal after 45 ka in
both NE Queensland and New Caledonia (Stevenson
and Hope et al., 2005), marking a transition towards dry
sclerophyll woodland. Hope (2004) has pointed out that
rainforest taxa may be over-represented in the ocean
sediment record (ODP 820) during ‘dry’ periods as a
result of pollen delivery by rivers bordered by gallery
forest, but draining catchments dominated by open
woodland. It is, therefore, difficult to argue whether
rainforest refugia survived more widely in wetter areas
(N2500 mm) during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM).
A long-term trend with the expansion of Eucalyptus at
the expense of Casuarinaceae is evident from the ODP
Fig. 2. Location map showing sites on Liverpool Creek, Burdekin and 820 core, and this has been linked to the impact of fire
Clark Rivers. (abundance of charcoal) which peaked at 135 ka and
45 ka (Moss and Kershaw, 2000). The replacement of
fronting the east-facing escarpment, in some cases Araucaria forest by Eucalypt woodland on the Atherton
truncated by the present shoreline of the Coral Sea. Tableland appears to have been completed in a period of
Dates (using TL, and 14C protocols) indicated the fans 12,000 years (Kershaw, 1986). Using evidence from soil
started to form after 29–30 ka and continued until 15– charcoal, Hopkins et al. (1993) indicated the substantial
14 ka, when incision of the present stream corridors took area of Eucalypt woodland in the humid rainforest
place. massifs from 27,000 onwards.
Subsequent fieldwork has examined many more A wider survey of the Austral-Asian region shows
catchments and a variety of deposits, mainly using the that higher altitude sites experienced temperature falls of
OSL technique (Tables 1 and 2). Recent published around 4 °C at the LGM and that drying of climate was
research has also provided new information on other also experienced in the Indonesian islands, possibly
pollen sites and on offshore sedimentation, and it is now partly as a result of the exposure of the Sunda–Sahul
possible to discuss our findings in relation to a number shelf during periods of low sea level (Hope et al., 2004).
of other reviews and conclusions regarding the late In the eastern Indian Ocean, where shelf exposure was
Quaternary environments of the Austral-Asian region. less, the dominance of Eucalyptus and Poacaeae from
the Australian mainland in Core G6-4 from the Lombok
2. Palaeoecological background Ridge (Van der Kaars, 1991; Wang et al., 1999) also
suggests an opening of the woodland canopy. The
The area around Cairns is fortunate in having pollen regional picture also tends to confirm periods of abrupt
evidence from the core covering the last ca 200,000 years change 135–125 ka and 45–35 ka according to Hope
at Lynch's Crater, where Kershaw (1978, 1986, this et al. (2004). There is a debate about the possible impact
volume) has demonstrated the long-term deterioration in of Aboriginal use of fire, commencing post 44 ka
the forest cover and climate of northeast Queensland, (Turney et al., 2001; Kershaw et al., 2003) but regional
during the Last Glacial Cycle, intensifying after 45 ka climatic deterioration and/or instability has been docu-
and with rainfall possibly 64% below the present-day mented for this period (45–35 ka), indicating that
average during Oxygen Isotope Stage (OIS) 2, and open human impact was unlikely to be the sole reason for
sclerophyll woodland replacing former forest ecosys- vegetation change (Hope et al., 2004). These authors
tems. An ocean drilling site (ODP 820) in the Coral Sea also cite evidence from NW Australia for expansion of
(16°38′S, 146°18′E ) (Moss and Kershaw, 2000), desert grasses by 34 ka at Carpenter's Gap (O'Connor,
although recording less abrupt changes, has largely 1999) and, at the Lemdubu Rock shelter, Aru Islands,
122 M.F. Thomas et al. / Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 251 (2007) 119–136

Table 1
List of all dated samples arranged by age for the Cairns project area
OSL/TL/14C age — ka Site name (see Fig. 1) Coarse fanglomerate Other fan sediments Slope deposits River terrace Fine Colluvium
0.19 Daintree terrace x
0.33 Daintree terrace x
4.5 14C Miriwinni x
5 Redcliff gully x
5.1 Reynolds Rd x
5.5 Kewarra fan x
7.8 Redlynch x
9.4 Mulgrave R x
9.4 Redlynch Estate x
11.4 Anderson Rd x
13.9 Redlynch Estate x
14.1 Wangetti x
14.4 Kewarra fan x
15.2 Freshwater Creek x
16.4 Redlynch x
16.5 MtPeter Rd x
16.9 TL Burdekin R x
17 14C Miriwinni x
17.4 Behana Ck x
17.6 14C Miriwinni x
17.9 Mulgrave R x
18 Reynolds Rd x
18.5 Freshwater Creek x
18.8 Daintree River x
19.7 Wangetti x
20 14C Miriwinni x
21.3 14C Liverpool Creek x
23.1 Mowbray R x
23.9 MtPeter Rd x
25.7 Kewarra fan x
25.9 Mulgrave R x
27 Mossman R x
29 Wangetti x
29 Redcliff x
29.7 Freshwater Creek x
29.8 TL Liverpool Creek x
30 Mt Peter Rd x
30 Redlynch N x
30.4 Jungarra x
30.5 TL Clarke R x
30.6 Daintree R x
34 Jungarra x
34.3 TL Clarke R x
37 Yule Pt x
37.9 TL Liverpool Creek x
43 Redlynch x
45 Redcliff x
46.1 Clarke R x
47 Jungarra x
49 Redcliff x
51 Yule Pt x
57.2 Burdekin R x
69 Redcliff tce x
81 Redcliff tce x
Anomalous⁎ OSL Dates From Liverpool Ck
54 Liverpool Creek x
58.3 Liverpool Creek x
88 Liverpool Creek x
M.F. Thomas et al. / Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 251 (2007) 119–136 123

Indonesia (6°S). O'Connor et al. (2002) recorded of rocks, which range from argillite and slate to
sclerophyll woodland 30–14 ka on the Arafura Plain, greywacke, phyllite and schist. Early Triassic upheaval
now surrounded by rainforest. affected the coastal ranges, forming the Russell–
Post-glacial warming may have begun before 18 ka, Mulgrave Shear Zone (248–235 MA), within which
and widespread evidence indicates significant global the meteasediments have been deformed and shattered
change by 17 ka, but effective climate change towards (Willmott et al., 1988; Willmott and Stephenson, 1989).
warmer and wetter conditions in the humid tropics can North of Cairns, towards Port Douglas frequent out-
be demonstrated from a variety of sites ca. 15 ka. crops of foliated and sheared granite and coarse meta-
Around this time the rate of sedimentation increased at sediment maintain the steep escarpment of the Macalister
Lynch's Crater, glacier retreat is recorded in Papua New Range, which rises abruptly from the coastline. South of
Guinea (Hope et al., 2004), and it has been suggested Cairns the shear zone is marked by the Mulgrave corridor
(Turney et al., 2004, 2006) that the West Pacific Warm that separates the granites of the Malbon–Thompson
Pool was established around 14.2 ka, stimulating ENSO coastal range from the Tinaroo and Bellenden Ker
activity, which would have driven weather systems Granites of the Great Dividing Range.
progressively towards Holocene-recent patterns. Inland, the Atherton Volcanic Province exhibits
The Pleistocene–Holocene transition (15–11 ka) has widespread late Cenozoic (mostly Quaternary) volca-
been shown to be critical for stream sedimentation in the nism, and some of the basaltic lavas extend into the east-
tropics (Thomas and Thorp, 1995, 2003), and this is draining valleys. In the Johnstone River gorge near
equally true for many pollen sites (Hope et al., 2004; Innisfail these lavas are dated at 2 Ma. In addition, an
Turney et al., 2006). But these authors note that the isotopic date of just under 1 Ma was obtained for
record is fragmentary with many hiatuses, and this volcanic rocks at Green Hill in the Mulgrave River
echoes studies of stream sedimentation in Kalimantan corridor, indicating the early or pre-Quaternary origins
Barat, Indonesia (Thorp et al., 1990; Thorp and Thomas, of the major valleys, while their deep penetration into
1993). However, the site at Lake Euramoo, on the the mountain escarpment provides circumstantial sup-
Atherton Plateau (N 700 m), indicates the re-appearance port for this interpretation. Quaternary alluvium in the
of wet sclerophyll forest after 16,800 BP, persisting until vicinity of Cairns is widespread and has previously been
8600 BP, when warm temperate rainforest was re- mapped, in some detail, but without dates (Willmott
established. After 5000 BP, dry subtropical forests ap- et al., 1988; Willmott and Stephenson, 1989).
pear at this site, becoming degraded after 70 BP with the
arrival of European settlers (Haberle, 2005). Hopkins 3.2. Geomorphic setting
et al. (1993), however, found Eucalyptus charcoal wide-
spread until 3500 BP. Several regionally important rivers drain the Great
Dividing Range towards the Coral Sea. The Daintree
3. The study area River marks the northern limit of our investigations,
which also encompass the Mossman, Barron, and
3.1. Geology Mulgrave catchments to the south (Fig. 1). A few addi-
tional samples were taken from large terraces of the
The geology of the region is dominated by Middle Burdekin and Clark rivers and from Liverpool Creek,
Palaeozoic metasediments, which form an undulating south of Innisfail (Fig. 2). Significant spreads of alluvium
plateau at 700–1200 m (a.s.l.). These rocks have a N–S and colluvium also extend from all the smaller catchments
trend and are intruded by Carboniferous–Lower Per- draining the east-facing escarpment and many of these
mean, Mareeba granites that outcrop irregularly through- were sampled.
out the ranges and form most of the higher summits Sedimentation has produced a series of major fans
(ranging from 1337 m at Black Mountain in the north, to where streams exit from the escarpment on to the coastal
1622 m at Bartle Frere in the south). Devonian– plain, and thick alluvial accumulations occur within the
Carboniferous tectonism was responsible for the com- larger valleys of the Daintree and Russell rivers (Nott
pression of sediments leading to the present arrangement et al., 2001; Thomas et al., 2001). The Mulgrave Fan is

Notes to Table 1:
Age determinations by OSL protocol unless otherwise stated.
*OSL ages from this site are not in sequence and conflict with the single AMS date and with nearby TL dated samples. The sediments are granitic
sands and the K feldspar content may be the cause.
124 M.F. Thomas et al. / Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 251 (2007) 119–136

Table 2
Details of all sites sampled for TL, OSL and radiocarbon dating in the Cairns project area
Laboratory Method Field site Deposit type Depth (cm) Dose (grays) (n) Dose rate (grays/ka) Moisture (wt.%) Age (ka)
code no
(A) Luminescence dated samples (TL and OSL)
W2418 TL Behana Ck Alluvium 200 80.3 ± 9.3 4.604 ± 65 3.3 17.4 ± 2.0
W2409 TL Mulgrave 2 Alluvium 200 54.0 ± 4.5 3.015 ± 59 0.6 17.9 ± 1.5
W2410 TL Mulgrave 1 Alluvium 750 88.2 ± 10.8 3.407 ± 57 3.1 25.9 ± 3.2
W2422 TL Mulgrave 1B Alluvium 300 39.8 ± 3.0 4.228 ± 66 9.3 9.4 ± 0.7
W2411 TL Freshwater Creek 2 Flow 150 58.2 ± 6.9 3.838 ± 61 8.4 15.2 ± 1.8
W2412 TL Freshwater Creek 1 Flow 600 65.2 ± 10.7 3.522 ± 59 12.2 18.5 ± 3.1
W2419 TL Kewarra Fan 1 Colluvium 100 24.2 ± 1.7 4.380 ± 70 7.0 5.5 ± 0.4
W2420 TL Kewarra Fan 2 Alluvium 250 56.2 ± 5.1 3.899 ± 68 7.5 14.4 ± 1.3
W2421 TL Kewarra Fan 3 Alluvium 150 108.0 ± 18 4.198 ± 72 4.9 25.7 ± 4.2
W3552 TL Liverpool Ck 1 Alluvium 50 146 ± 9 4.885 ± 64 3.7 29.8 ± 1.8
W3553 TL Liverpool Ck 2 Alluvium 330 156 ± 11 4.124 ± 63 3.4 37.9 ± 2.8
W3554 TL Burdekin R. 2 Alluvium ∼ 200 68 ± 3.8 4.038 ± 80 3.4 16.9 ± 1.0
W3559 TL Burdekin R. 1 Alluvium ∼ 700 232 ± 11 4.062 ± 86 1.8 57.2 ± 2.9
W3560 TL Clarke R. 1 Alluvium ∼ 400 129 ± 6 2.799 ± 77 0.5 46.1 ± 2.5
W3561 TL Clarke R. 2 Alluvium ∼ 150 166 ± 8 5.428 ± 83 2.9 30.5 ± 1.5
W3562 TL Clarke R. 3 Alluvium ∼ 200 182 ± 8 5.296 ± 86 2.9 34.3 ± 1.6
021401 0SL Redcliff gully 1 Fanglomerate 360 174 ± 9 34 3.55 ± 0.34 19 49 ± 5
021402 OSL Redcliff gully 2 Alluvium 160 19.8 ± 5 21 3.96 ± 0.37 19 5 ± 0.5
021403 OSL Reynolds Rd 2 Slope failure 250 57 ± 6 36 3.18 ± 0.29 20 18 ± 3
021404 OSL Ryenolds Rd 1 Colluvium 60 8.4 ± 0.2 24 1.65 ± 0.15 20 5.1 ± 0.53
021405 OSL Freshwater Creek 1 Fanglomerate 600 25.9 ± 2 24 2.56 ± 0.25 13 29.7 ± 3
021406 OSL Redlynch North 1 Fanglomerate 300 35± 2 24 1.15 ± 0.09 26 30 ± 3
021407 OSL Redlynch North 2 Fanglomerate 150 22.2 ± 1 24 1.36 ± 0.11 26 16.4 ± 1.6
021408 OSL Redcliff terrace 2 Fanglomerate 650 162 ± 7 26 3.57 ± 0.31 26 45 ± 5
021409 OSL Redcliff terrace 3 Fanglomerate 500 123 ± 7 11 4.24 ± 0.41 16 29 ± 3
021410 OSL Redlynch 1 Slope failure 150 107 ± 4 27 2.50 ± 0.22 22 43 ± 4
021411 OSL Redlynch 2 Colluvium 300 13.6 ± 0.4 27 1.75 ± 0.15 23 7.8 ± 0.7
021412 OSL Redcliff terrace 1 Fanglomerate 500 219 ± 11 24 3.17 ± 0.28 23 69 ± 7
021413 OSL Redcliff South Fanglomerate 780 181 ± 11 24 2.23 ± 0.20 20 81 ± 9
021414 OSL Yule Point 1 Fanglomerate 400 121 ± 4 23 2.39 ± 0.19 36 51 ± 4
021415 OSL Yule point 2 Fanglomerate 60 89 ± 4 27 2.41 ± 0.19 35 37 ± 4
031401 OSL Jungarra 1 Slope failure 350 64 ± 2 32 2.07 ± 0.09 19 30.8 ± 1.7
031402 OSL Jungarra 2 Slope failure 150 84 ± 2 24 1.79 ± 0.08 19 47 ± 3
031403 OSL Jungarra 3 Fanglomerate 300 69.5 ± 1.7 27 2.03 ± 0.08 22 34 ± 2
031404 OSL Daintree 1 Alluvium 60 61.2 ± 1.9 24 3.31 ± 0.13 26 18.5 ± 1.0
031405 OSL Daintree 2 Alluvium 200 102.7 ± 1.8 27 3.37 ± 0.15 25 30.5 ± 1.6
031406 OSL Daintree 3 Alluvium 60 1.02 ± 0.08 21 3.12 ± 0.12 32 0.33 ± 0.03
031407 OSL Daintree 4 Alluvium 60 0.55 ± 0.04 22 2.96 ± 0.11 35 0.18 ± 0.01
031408 OSL Mowbray River Alluvium 100 74 ± 2 23 3.23 ± 0.14 20 22.8 ± 1.3
031409 OSL S Mossman River Alluvium 100 116 ± 5 33 4.31 ± 0.18 20 27 ± 2
031410 OSL Redlynch Estate 1 Slope failure 300 26.9 ± 0.6 21 2.87 ± 0.11 20 9.4 ± 0.5
031411 OSL Redlynch Estate 2 Slope failure 100 32.1 ± 0.4 27 2.34 ± 0.10 8 13.7 ± 0.7
031412 OSL Anderson Rd Slope failure 300 29.4 ± 0.5 26 2.58 ± 0.10 19 11.4 ± 0.5
031413 OSL Mount Peter Rd 1 Alluvium 800 78 ± 8 27 2.58 ± 0.12 17 30 ± 3
031414 OSL Mount Peter Rd 2 Alluvium 300 51.0 ± 1.4 21 2.13 ± 0.09 11 23.9 ± 1.3
031415 OSL Mount Peter Rd 3 Alluvium 150 33.7 ± 0.9 21 2.06 ± 0.09 14 16.4 ± 0.9
031416 OSL Wangetti 1 Alluvium 100 38.7 ± 0.7 21 2.77 ± 0.11 17 14.0 ± 0.7
031417 OSL Wangetti 2 Fanglomerate 150 97 ± 4 24 3.28 ± 0.15 24 30 ± 2
031418 OSL Wangetti 3 Fanglomerate 80 83 ± 3 24 4.24 ± 0.18 13 19.5 ± 1.1
031419 OSL Liverpool Ck 1 Alluvium 800 193 ± 12 38 3.60 ± 0.14 34 54 ± 4
031420 OSL Liverpool Ck 2 Alluvium 400 199 ± 9 20 2.25 ± 0.09 20 88 ± 6
031421 OSL Liverpool Ck 3 Alluvium 360 230 8 ± 23 3.95 ± 0.16 18 58 ± 3
M.F. Thomas et al. / Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 251 (2007) 119–136 125

Table 2 (continued )
14 14
Lab no Method Field site Deposit type Depth (cm) Age, C kyear BP Age C k Cal BP
(B) Radiocarbon dated samples
Wk 13755 C AMS Liverpool Ck Organic clay 380 21.3 ± 314 21.3 ± 314
Wk 7011 C Miriwinni 1 Alluvium 50 3.0 ± 170 4.85–4.05
Wk 7012 C Miriwinni 2 Alluvium 150 14. 2 ± 550 18.55–15. 55
Wk 7013 C Miriwinni 3 Alluvium 200 14. 7 ± 670 19.35–15. 95
Wk 7014 C Miriwinni 4 Alluvium 250 8.9 ± 64 10.240–9.91
Wk 7015 C Miriwinni 5 Alluvium 300 16. 9 ± 140 20.95–19.45

by far the largest feature in the region. It occupies much ancient boulder trains leading from the erosional catch-
of the Mulgrave River corridor downstream from ments. Two or three units containing both coarse and
Gordonvale, where the surface stands 20 m a.s.l. The fine-grained members are superposed at most sites and
present Mulgrave River flows 25 km to the SSE before these features have then been incised by active creeks.
reaching the sea. It has been suggested that the pre-fan
Mulgrave flowed north towards Cairns (Willmott and 3.3. Climate and weather systems
Stephenson, 1989).
In contrast, the Barron River, just north of Cairns, The prominent east-facing escarpment and its asso-
exits from a deep bedrock gorge that has cut back 5 km ciated granite peaks intercept the SE Trades that dominate
into the escarpment, the upper reaches of the basin these latitudes, producing copious rainfall concentrated
extending above the Barron Falls at Kuranda. The river into the wet season from November to May. This is also a
crosses the coastal plain directly to the coast (8–10 km) cyclone-prone region and Nott and Hayne (2001, this
and there is no Late Pleistocene fan. Geological records volume), using evidence from storm beaches calculated
show (Jones, 1985) that 40–90+ m of sediment lie that major cyclones strike any given locality about once
below the late Holocene floodplain, indicating a buried every 250 years. Intense rainfall can also be triggered by
channel graded to Late Pleistocene, low sea levels perturbations affecting the Trade Winds. These usually
(− 110 m). Infilling by alluvial and marine sediments take the form of upper airwaves and fronts moving from
presumably took place in the Holocene, during the the south and occur in most years. The rainfall regime is,
major post-glacial transgression 14.7–6.5 ka (Dunbar therefore, characterised by both persistent rainfall and
et al., 2000; Dunbar and Dickens, 2003). intense tropical storms. The storms produce annual
Low glacial sea levels must have influenced other flooding on the major rivers and these floods are
catchments, including the Daintree River to the North categorised as severe at least once every decade. This
and the Russell River to the South. But we have no produces an environment in which rivers can be said to be
information on this question. Both these rivers share a flood dominated with implications for later discussions.
common morphology, the Late Pleistocene sedimenta- Rainfall generally declines westwards, but sharp climatic
tion being contained in terraces within well-developed gradients are found within the coastal ranges and plateaus.
valleys that have cut back into the coastal ranges, and
this morphology is repeated elsewhere as at Freshwater 3.4. Bedrock weathering in the catchments
Creek near Cairns and Liverpool Creek south of
Innisfail. The much larger Burdekin River has a well The role of bedrock weathering in these catchments
developed buried channel that continues to the outer- is important and the finer-grained, more decomposed
most reefs (Fielding et al., 2003). metasediments south of Cairns contain large volumes of
Additional field sites come from small catchments clay and sand. Samples of the saprolite show it to be
that have produced minor fans of usually finer material, ferrallitic in character (Fookes, 1997). The depth of
though basal gravels are present at most sites. Fronting weathering is difficult to define accurately but 4–6 m of
the Macalister Range north of Cairns, fragments of decomposed material is common, and often exceeded.
elevated fan-terraces are intersected by the coastal The deep saprolite is found below the middle and lower
highway and stand 12–15 m above the high tide level. parts of the escarpment, where slopes seldom exceed
These are often crudely bedded fanglomerates, contain- 20°. The advanced stage of the weathering is indicative
ing blocks varying in size up to more than 50 cm of the slow rate of scarp retreat (Thomas, 2003). The
diameter (Fig. 5A). The upper surfaces of these beds upper slopes of the escarpment show mainly early stages
exhibit both semi-horizontal terrace fragments and also of weathering penetration.
126 M.F. Thomas et al. / Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 251 (2007) 119–136

North of Cairns, along the escarpment of the 4.2. Laboratory procedures
Macalister Range, the metamorphic grits and granites
form slopes too steep to retain much soil. Here the Samples from the early phase of the project and for
regolith is bouldery and beds of fine material in the some other large, uniform terrace units were dated using
generally coarse, alluvial deposits are thin or absent. In thermoluminescence (TL) analysis, carried out at the
fact, wherever material is derived from the upper University of Wollongong, using the regenerative tech-
escarpment it is usually comprised of cobbles and nique as modified by Redhead (1988). Field samples
boulders. These form the bulk of the landslide-derived were cleaned in HCL and etched briefly in HF, then
sediments. serially irradiated using a 90Sr plaque source. All sam-
ples used in this paper displayed a broad temperature
4. Methods plateau (300–500 °C), indicating that they were well
4.1. Field sampling Where possible organic material was collected for
C dating, carried out at the University of Waikato,
An area some 20 km around Cairns has been subject New Zealand. A series of weakly developed palaeosols
to very rapid suburbanisation in the past 10 years, with was sampled and dated by this method at Miriwinni,
the building of large residential estates in all the where the granite-derived sediments contained quanti-
catchments draining the main escarpment. Advantage ties of albite, a TL-sensitive mineral that precluded
has been taken of the widespread deep alteration of the comparative dating from this site (see Nott et al., 2001).
rocks, and the presence of thick colluvium, to re-model A single radiocarbon date was also obtained from an
the relief for development. This, together with improve- organic layer near the surface of a comparable terrace at
ment of the coastal, Bruce Highway has created a large Liverpool Creek.
number of fresh sections year on year during our For the samples collected for OSL dating, on return
investigations. We have, therefore, been opportunistic in to the laboratory, the surface of each sample was
identifying sites for possible analysis and dating in each removed if necessary (e.g. the ends of tube samples were
year from 2001 to 2004. removed), and the unexposed inner material wet sieved
In most cases dating has been undertaken using to recover the 180–250 μm grain size interval. Con-
Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) techniques at ventional acid treatment (HCl, H2O2 and HF only; no
the Nordic Luminescence Laboratory, Aarhus Univer- heavy liquids) was used to separate a quartz rich extract,
sity, Denmark. Samples were collected in one of three and the luminescence purity of this was checked using
ways. In unconsolidated, relatively homogeneous ma- infrared stimulation. All measurements of equivalent
terial, plastic tubes (40 mm × 400 mm) were driven into dose used a standard SAR protocol (Murray and Wintle,
vertical sections, removed and sealed against light 2000, 2003) with a preheat treatment of 260 °C for 10 s,
penetration. However, this technique does not work well and a cutheat of 180 °C. The usual performance checks
in fine, partially consolidated sediments or in stony were undertaken (recycling ratio, recuperation etc.), and
deposits, both of which are widely represented. In the the mean dose recovery ratio (measured to given dose
former case large blocks of sediment were excavated ratio) for samples 031401 to 031421 is 1.04 ± 0.013
(approximately 60 cm × 60 cm) and later cored in the (n = 63), showing that the SAR protocol used is able to
laboratory. However this is laborious and liable to measure a known dose given in the laboratory before
failure when blocks crack or break. Many sites were, any thermal treatment. Dose rates are all calculated from
therefore, sampled in the dark, using black bags to high resolution gamma spectrometry analyses (Murray
collect loosened sediment. This process is relatively et al., 1987) with a cosmic ray contribution calculated
rapid but a pre-sampling survey must be carried out using the relationships of Prescott and Hutton (1994).
carefully in advance, to identify exact sample points that Both field and saturated water contents were measured;
can later be recognised by torchlight. Additional sam- the value used in dosimetry calculations is the mean of
ples for dose rate determination were collected in all the two values.
In some of the coarse deposits sand lenses were 5. Results
sampled, for others bracketing dates from inter-bedded
sand deposits were used (as at Yule Point). Where coarse Reliable dates now come from 10 separate catch-
flow deposits were directly sampled, mixed clast sizes ments and fans and extend 150 km from North to South.
were sent to the laboratory. Additional dates have come from Liverpool Creek even
M.F. Thomas et al. / Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 251 (2007) 119–136 127

farther south and from a reconnaissance of terraces on near Redcliff Point and in Freshwater Creek (29.7 ka)
the Burdekin and Clark Rivers inland. Five different (Fig. 4A). At Mt Peter Road south of Edmonton, basal
landslide sites were also sampled. All dates are given sediments of an extensive fan (Gray Creek) are of
as ka. Errors are usually within 10% (OSL samples) similar age (30 ka), but finer in calibre, containing
(Table 2). cobbles rather than boulders (Fig. 4B). This is probably
When the dates from all the field sites are plotted a function of distance from the escarpment (N 2 km).
together (Fig. 3), it can be seen that distinct clusters Sandy sediments dated to 30.5 ka were collected from a
occur between 31–29 ka and between 20/21–14 ka, terrace on the lower Daintree River, close to the village
although a number of dates plot between these clusters. of that name. Fig. 5 (A, B, C) illustrates the nature of
More scattered groupings occur between 51–43 ka, some of the sediments.
11–8 ka and 5.5–4.5 ka. A few reconnaissance samples were taken from
extensive inland terraces on the Clark and Burdekin
5.1. Sediments associated with alluvial fans (including rivers, and some from a prominent terrace on Liverpool
debris-flow deposits) Creek (Fig. 2). These were dated using thermolumines-
cence (TL). At the Greenvale crossing on the Burdekin
Elevated coastal terraces, fronting the steep escarp- basal sediments in a 9 m section (above bridge level)
ment of the Macalister Range, north of Cairns are gave a date of 57.2 ka and a near-surface sample 16.9 ka.
proximal fan sediments and exhibit alternations of At the Clark River crossing by the highway samples
alluvial gravels and sands with boulder (flow) deposits, from an elevated terrace ranged from 46.1 to 30.5 ka, but
which we describe as fanglomerates. A typical section is neither basal nor surface sediments could be reached. At
illustrated from near Yule Point (Fig. 4C). Most of the Liverpool Creek TL ages of 37.9 ka at − 3 m and 29.8 ka
dates from these sediments fall into OIS3, but some are at − 0.5 m were obtained from an 8 m section, and an
older. The youngest of the Late Pleistocene flow depos- organic soil layer at the higher level was radiocarbon
its date from around 30 ka, and are found at Wangetti, dated to 21.3+/− 314 BP (23,000 cal year BP). Attempts
to use OSL dating on the feldspathic sands at this site
gave inconsistent, older results and were abandoned (see
Table 1). The sediments from all of these large fluvial
terraces date to OIS3.
Late Pleistocene fan deposits falling into the age
bracket 27–14.1 ka (OIS2) have been sampled in the
South Mossman, and Mowbray catchments, and at
Wangetti, Redlynch and Kewarra, all north of Cairns;
from Freshwater Creek, the Gray Creek fan (at Mt Peter
Road), the Mulgrave River fan, and Behana Creek, south
of Cairns. Associated palaeosols at Miriwinni also fall
into this period. Many of the sites have been reported
previously (Nott et al., 2001). The deposits form a series
of low-angle fans (b2°) comprised of coarse sands and
gravels (mostly b 10 cm d) in proximal areas (b 2 km from
the escarpment) (Fig. 5C). Much of the material close to
the escarpment is matrix supported gravel and has the
character of flow deposits, some of which may be derived
from local hillslopes, particularly in the narrow, incised
valley of Freshwater Creek. Elsewhere, alluvial stratigra-
phy is apparent with lenses of coarse gravels interbedded
with sands. As distance from the escarpment increases
thick deposits of sands and silts characterise the lower fans
and terraces of the Daintree, Mulgrave and Russell rivers.
Where the Mulgrave fan abuts the lower slopes of the
Fig. 3. Dated samples from project area plotted by increasing age. The
Malbon Thompson Range (see Nott et al., 2001, Fig. 5)
main clusters of dates occur around 30–29 ka and 20–14 ka with lesser there is at least 10 m of this material, through which the
grouping between 51–45 and 5.5–5 ka (see also Table 1). present river flows in a narrow, gorge-like section.
128 M.F. Thomas et al. / Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 251 (2007) 119–136

Fig. 4. Examples of sediment sections in the Cairns area (see Fig. 1).(A) Freshwater Creek. A basal debris-flow is overlain by poorly stratified sandy
gravels (section partly obscured). Figure updated from Nott et al. (2001), Fig. 4. (B) Section in Gray Creek fan at Mount Peter Road showing typical
sequence in the Late Pleistocene fan deposits: MP1 30 ka, MP2 23.9 ka, MP3 16.4 ka. (C) Section in coarse (proximal) fan deposits below Macalister
Range near Yule Point. A, B, C are debris-flow units, 8–10 across; 1, 2, 3, 4 are alluvial channel deposits. OSL ages are 51 ka at 4 m (YP1) and 37 ka
at 0.6 m (YP2).

Dates from these deposits cluster between 19.7 and 5.2. Sediments associated with slope failures
14.1 ka, but older and somewhat coarser sediments are
found in five of the coastal fans (27–22.8 ka). If the 14C Sediments associated with slope failures have also
dated palaeosols are excluded, sediments are absent been dated using OSL. Several deep-seated slides have
from the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) (22/21 ka) produced lobes of coarse sediment with some evidence of
when there is a gap of ca 3000 years without direct local water flow. The failures include some large accu-
evidence of deposition. Although similar gaps can be mulations that form ramp-like slopes (debris fans) beneath
observed in the fragmented, older terrace deposits, such large hillslope scars as at Redlynch on the southern flanks
a long hiatus does not occur again until after 14 ka of the Barron River gorge, where large-scale residential
(Fig. 3, Table 1). building has taken place. A date of 43 ka was obtained
M.F. Thomas et al. / Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 251 (2007) 119–136 129

Fig. 5. Illustrations of fan deposition in the Cairns area. (A) Fanglomerates near Wangetti (coastal highway) showing coarse debris-flows containing
cobbles and boulders. (B) Details of coarse sediment at Wangetti showing sandy gravels draped over coarse flow unit. Sands from this unit dated to
19.5 ka. (C) Typical section in the main fan deposits south of Cairns, showing stratified sands and gravels (10 cm d). This section is close to the
weathered slopes of the lower escarpment (poor access made dating at this site impossible).

from this feature, with a later, inset unit having an age of appears to have ceased after 14 ka. But there is evidence
7.8 ka. A more limited lobe of debris is exposed in cuttings for continued slope instability with flow deposits dated to
at Reynold's Road, north of Cairns, giving an age of 13.9, 11.4, 9.4, and 7.8 ka (Table 1). Only one fluvial
18 ka, with finer colluvium in a distal position dating to sample falls within this period, from a low terrace of the
the mid-Holocene (5.1 ka). At Jungarra in the Freshwater Mulgrave River (9.4 ka), close to the exit from the gorge
Creek valley two superposed landslide flow deposits section of the river (Nott and Thomas, 2001).
filling a hillslope depression returned dates of 47 and Three instances of alluvium and fine, sandy colluvium
30.4 ka, while a debris-flow within a nearby fan deposit date to the Mid Holocene, around 5 ka. Near the head of
dated to 34 ka. Another flow at Redlynch North dates to the Kewarra Fan and at the foot of the scarp at Reynolds
30 ka, and corresponds in age with the basal flow in Road there is a fine red sediment with dates of 5.5 and
nearby Freshwater Creek and the coarse fan deposits at 5.1 ka respectively, while a fragmentary terrace in a gully
Wangetti. Two smaller flows at Anderson Road and Redcliff has an age of 5 ka. The radiocarbon age of
Redlynch Estate gave dates of 11.4 ka and 9.4 ka. Al- organic matter from a palaeosol in the youngest granitic
though sampling of these materials has of necessity been sands at Miriwinni is 4850–4050 cal year BP (Nott and
opportunistic (where there were hillslope excavations), it Thomas, 2001), which probably implies that the parent
is clear that these types of flow deposit occur within OIS3 material (sediment) is also close to 5 ka in age. After this
and the Holocene, but have been absent during OIS2. period our only records are of recent sedimentation.

5.3. Holocene alluvial sediments 6. Discussion

Most of the deposits investigated are late Pleistocene in 6.1. Depositional environments and climate change
age and there is a lack of evidence for widespread de-
position at the Pleistocene–Holocene transition or in the The coarse, fanglomerate flow deposits sampled
early Holocene. Sedimentation on the fans and terraces range from 80+ ka to 29 ka, but most fall within OIS3
130 M.F. Thomas et al. / Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 251 (2007) 119–136

(64–28 ka), while the finer-grained fans appear to have quences from the fundamental changes in Pacific Ocean
accumulated during mainly during OIS2, sedimentation circulation after 14.2 ka (Turney et al., 2006). This
continuing until at least 15–14 ka in most catchments. would have resulted in higher discharges and increased
At Freshwater Creek and Wangetti the two facies stream power, and also sustained dry season low flows,
overlap. This may be partly a function of their locations, maintaining permanent stream channels. Recovering
close to steep mountainous catchments. But observation vegetation would progressively reduce the quantity of
at other fan sites indicates that basal sediments, dating to sediment entering the channels from stream banks, and
ca 30 ka are coarser than later deposits. The fact that two from hillslopes in the upper catchments. Incision
major landslide flows also date to 30–32 ka is also probably resulted from these changes and led to the
indicative of active slope processes at this time. Late formation narrow fluvial corridors enclosed by bluffs of
OIS3 climates though cool are considered to have been Pleistocene sediments, and these survive today. Small
considerably wetter than the ensuing OIS2 (glacial) terraces formed within the corridor would have been
climates throughout much of the tropics (Thomas and susceptible to destruction by erosion and, therefore, the
Thorp, 2003; Hope et al., 2004), and active fluvial preservation of much of the evidence for Holocene
activity during this period in Australia was recorded by sedimentation has been poor in these reaches. Initially,
Nanson et al. (1992). At Freshwater Creek the contrast sea levels would have remained low and sediment may
between the basal boulder deposit and later, finer sedi- have been deposited offshore to accumulate behind the
ments appears to signify a change of regime towards Great Barrier Reef (Dunbar et al., 2000; Heap et al.,
much lower energy conditions (Fig. 4A). 2002), but rapid recovery to near present levels soon
Deposition during the subsequent 15,000 years after 10 ka led to accumulation of mid Holocene
suggests that alluvial sediments accumulated dominant- sediments in the lower, estuarine reaches of the river
ly by vertical accretion of sands and gravels, creating systems. It has already been noted that substantial accu-
most of the present coastal plain surface, but probably mulations of Holocene sediment occur in the buried
extending beyond the present coastline. The thick channel of the Barron River (Jones, 1985).
saprolite mentioned earlier was an important source of
fine material deposited on the distal fans and terraces. 6.2. Ecological evidence for climate changes
Many exposures show crude stratification of coarse
gravels and pebbles, intercalated with sands and silts, Some critical periods of major ecological change have
typical of locally derived colluvium and lacking clear been noted by Kershaw (1986) at Lynch's Crater and
evidence for permanent channels (see Nott et al., 2001). more recently by Haberle (2005) at Lake Euramoo. At
Thus conditions appear to have changed from flood the former site deterioration of the rainforest began
deposition to extensive sedimentation in response to around 80 ka, following the end of OIS5 but the period
frequent, low energy flows. Such a switch could only following 45 ka seems to have been critical, with the
come about if the catchment environment had altered widespread loss of Araucaria from the wet sclerophyll
significantly towards more open woodland and rainfall woodlands (Stevenson and Hope, 2005) and a rapid
was both highly seasonal and irregular, such that runoff increase in charcoal (42/44–27 ka) (Turney et al., 2001;
was intermittent or ephemeral in most valleys, while Kershaw et al., 2006). Widespread climate instability
sediment supply from slopes may have increased. On between 45 and 35 ka has been noted (Hope, 2004)
the other hand a high sediment yield from hillslopes can throughout the Austral-Asian region and it seems
be inferred from the widespread amorphous colluvium unlikely that human agency alone was responsible for
below most slopes, and this suggests short heavy down- vegetation change. Increasing dryness after 27–26 ka is
pours on relatively unprotected soil surfaces. Reduction also evidenced by the loss of Dacrydium, and appearance
in stream power combined with the dwindling of low of Eucalypt charcoal (Hopkins et al., 1993). At Lake
flows and increased sediment yields are classic condi- Euramoo, dry sclerophyll forest was dominant between
tions for alluvial fan accumulation and these factors 23 and 16.8 ka, recovering to a wet sclerophyll forest
appear to have dominated all the catchments between 16.8–8.6 ka, by which time a warm temperate rainforest
∼ 27 ka and ∼14 ka, bridging the Last Glacial Maxi- prevailed at this site (700+ m a.s.l.) The ‘substantial
mum (LGM). change’ to post-glacial climates after 14.2 ka noted by
Fan incision occurred after 14 ka and presumably Turney et al. (2006) from a survey of sites from the
also resulted from altered catchment hydrology and southwest pacific fits into this pattern. The wetter
vegetation cover during the postglacial transition. In- climates prevailed until ca 5 ka when drier conditions
creased rainfall and storm activity are likely conse- led to changes in the forest structure (Haberle, 2005).
M.F. Thomas et al. / Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 251 (2007) 119–136 131

6.3. Catchment response to Late Quaternary environ- changes in the late Pleistocene affected the lower
mental changes reaches of rivers entering the Coral Sea, but did not
affect valleys more than ∼ 10 km from the sea, and had
If critical dates or periods of rapid change in climate no effect on the formation of fans along smaller streams
and ecological conditions are compared to equally crit- draining the escarpment.
ical changes in the landscape processes as recorded by Long term reduction of rainfall, initiated as early as
sedimentation then the nature of landscape response to 300 ka (Kershaw et al., 2003), may have been a result of
major climate change in this environment can be inter- changes in land–sea configuration within the Indonesian
preted, if certain assumptions are made (see Table 3). archipelago. But during the last glacial cycle (LGC)
First, humid climates in the past were wet enough to from OIS5e–OIS2 this trend was reinforced by orbital
sustain complex rainforests. Second, that dry climates factors and global cooling. This trend is seen in the
in the past corresponded with periods of lowered sea pollen record from NE Queensland and also at Old lake
surface temperatures and reduced moisture flux. These Coomboo on Fraser Island (22°S 145° E) (Longmore
circumstances are thought also to correlate with re- and Heijns, 1999; Donders et al., 2006). The 150,000-
duced ENSO and cyclone activity. Third, that sea-level year record from Lake Eyre (Magee et al., 2004) also

Table 3
Tentative interpretation of landscape response to Late Quaternary climate and vegetation change in tropical northeast Queensland, Australia
Climate vegetation Alluvial/colluvial deposition Slope System response
80 Rainforest, OIS5e (too few records) ?
humid in
Declining OIS4 (too few records) ?
60 Cool humid OIS3 fanglomerates≫ fluvial deposition
(scattered records)
45 Climate instability landslides slope instability
OIS3 30 fanglomerates ≫ copious sedimentation (large
alluvial deposits terrace units; debris flows)
28 28
27 Cooler, climate OIS2 27 fan sediments ≫ increasing sediment yield
(mainly coarse gravel)
slope erosion
reduced stream flow
(alluvial/colluvial fans)
22 Dry LGM climate 22
dry sclerophyll 2 2 – possible hiatus at LGM reduced activity
woodland 21
Slow post-glacial 2 0 – accretion of 10+ m fan sediments widespread, copious fan
climate recovery 14 (mainly fine gravel, sands) ≫ deposition, slope instability
16.8 wet sclerophyll
declining sediment yield
14.2 Rainfall increasing 14≫ absence of fan sediments incision of channels
11.5 Humid, wetter OIS1 (very few records)
8.6N rainforest recovery landslides slope failures, flooding
(dry excursions 8.2 (debris flows, slope failures)
in N Australia 5.9)
5.5N Drying of
5 dry forest 5 thin colluvium dry episode?
(local colluvium)
? ?degraded forest, (very few records/ increasing frequency of
disturbance ongoing investigations) floods?
132 M.F. Thomas et al. / Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 251 (2007) 119–136

shows that five lacustrine phases at ca. 120, 86, 63, 40 occurred during the Pleistocene–Holocene transition. It
and 10 ka exhibit progressively declining levels. is also likely that such periods of rapid climate change
Although the river catchments must have responded to have been characterised by high variability. The fans of
the long term trend, it is the evidence for periods of more NE Queensland were possibly incised during such a
rapid climate and vegetation change that provides the period and later sediments were deposited within the,
stronger signal. Fluvial archives elsewhere in Australia initially narrow, river corridors so produced. There is no
indicate enhanced stream activity during OIS5e, OIS3 and documented effect of the Younger Dryas (12.8–11,600
the Holocene (OIS1), with evidence for less activity cal years BP) in NE Queensland, but full development
during OIS4 and OIS2 (Kershaw and Nanson, 1993; of Holocene humidity occurred well after this event.
Tooth and Nanson, 1995; Nanson et al., 2003). The record Nonetheless hillslope instability probably resulted from
from NE Queensland shows that a group of coarse sedi- increasing humidity in the early Holocene climate. Pre-
ments and flow deposits formed during OIS3. Isolated, cipitation falling on wet sclerophyll woodland may have
older deposits are too few to offer new information on been more likely to trigger shallow translational slides
earlier stages. A number of major slope failures occurred than under the more complex rainforest canopy, and the
during OIS3 and this may reflect the suggested instability flow lobes from these are the features we have sampled.
and fluctuation of climate at this time, extreme events The earliest Holocene terrace deposit we have dated
occurring even within a cooler climate. These conditions is on the Mulgrave River fan, which returned a (TL) date
appear to have persisted until at least 29 ka, with several of 9.4 ka near the outlet of the river from its upland
major coarse deposits dating to the period 31–29 ka. channel (see Nott et al., 2001, Fig. 5). Three other early
Thereafter a rapid decline in the calibre of sediments Holocene dates record marked slope instability between
found in our surveys is evident and a total of 18 dates from 11 and 8 ka, possibly indicating high humidity and
10 fans and sub-catchments fall between 27 and 14 ka. In prolonged rainfalls. Significantly, this period is when
proximal areas these fan deposits are mostly coarse sands, the rainforest was slowly becoming re-established on
gravels and pebbles with some discontinuous cobble beds the Atherton Plateau, a process that continued until 8.6–
near larger rivers. In distal areas the fine sands and silts 6 ka according to Williams (1994), and even to 3500 BP
accumulated to thicknesses of 10 m in places. according to Hopkins et al. (1993). The recovery of
Glacial mode climates were established globally evergreen rainforests was probably delayed by instabil-
around 28/27 ka (Broecker and Denton, 1990) and climat- ity in the climate regime towards the end of the Pleis-
ic variability may have lessened, as the Austral-Asian tocene, and late re-establishment of the Walker Cell and
monsoon weakened, ENSO events became weaker or ENSO influenced climate pattern (Schulmeister and
ceased in favour of La Nina stability. Relatively cold, Lees, 1995); also possibly by eroded soils and by fire.
stable conditions with low rainfall and a marked reduction There is evidence for renewed fine colluvium forming
in tropical cyclone activity were associated with open, dry- a thin surface layer (b 3 m) on many footslopes and
sclerophyll woodlands and savannas. Many rivers would Pleistocene fans. Two dates of 5.5–5.1 ka from the upper
have been reduced to seasonal flow, smaller streams were Kewarra Fan and at Reynold's Road respectively, may
probably ephemeral. If gallery forests died back in steeper record a period of enhanced sediment yield from hillslopes
valleys, stored sediment would be liberated from foot- in the mid-Holocene but further evidence is required.
slopes and terraces, while sediment yield from steeper We have insufficient data from fluvial sediments of
slopes increased. These conditions would have developed Holocene age for any analysis of conditions during this
slowly and extended widely towards the LGM. It is likely period.
that these conditions account for the fans and fan-terraces The nature of mid-Holocene climates remains uncer-
described in this paper. The period of relatively low energy tain. The widespread drying of climates in Africa and
alluvial and colluvial deposition continued for around 14– America after 5.5 ka may not have been reflected in lands
15,000 years and ended after 14 ka. bordering the western Pacific. In equatorial Panama,
Important climate change in the Austral-Asian region González et al. (2006) have identified a significant
following 15 ka has been noted, and greatly increased change from the ‘Holocene optimum’ conditions at
humidity at 15 ka (15.3–14,700 cal years BP) is re- 5.6 ka, but the climate still remained humid. Schulmeister
corded from NE Africa (Williams et al., 2000) and in and Lees (1995) found evidence for a major change
multiproxy records across the tropics (see Kale et al., towards highly variable, ENSO dominated climates after
2003). The evidence from West Africa (Thorp and ca. 4000 BP. Mayewski et al. (2004) recently reviewed
Thomas, 1992; Thomas and Thorp, 1995) indicates that evidence for global Holocene climate variability and
floods, incision and deposition of coarse sediments identified periods of rapid climate change (RCCs) as due
M.F. Thomas et al. / Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 251 (2007) 119–136 133

to the ‘glacial aftermath’, between 9000 and 8000 cal 105 years. Superimposed on this secular trend are
years BP, and periods demonstrating the ‘cool poles, dry periods of more rapid change, apparently effective
tropics’ principle 6000–5000, 4200–3800, 3500–2500, over 103 years, but probably involving abrupt
and 1200–1000 cal years BP. They argue that Δ14C and episodes lasting 102 years.
Be records point to a decline in solar output during the (2) Weather patterns will have varied within this time
major RCC events 6000–5000 and 3500–2500 cal years spectrum, responding to global cooling and
BP. The earliest period of RCC after 9 ka took place when its effects on sea surface temperatures (SSTs),
the climates were strongly influenced by ice-sheet the intensity of the monsoon and Walker cell
dynamics and possibly by increases in volcanic aerosols, (ENSO) activity, leading to changes in magni-
and Mayewski et al. (2004) argue that the 8.2 ka event tude and frequency of storm events on a decadal
has to be seen in this context. scale.
Short-term RCCs in the Holocene (or at any other (3) Geomorphic outcomes from these trends have
time) raise issues in relation to the interpretation of been mediated by vegetation change, and partic-
fluvial archives for a number of reasons. It has been ularly the fate of the rainforest, which declined
shown here that major transformations of landscape had after OIS5e, giving way to progressively less
already taken place when catchment behaviour switched complex and more open, sclerophyll woodland
to fan formation in OIS2, and it has been argued until its recovery in the Holocene.
(Vandenberghe and Maddy, 2001; Veldkamp and (4) Alluvial deposition during OIS3 and OIS2 indi-
Tebbens, 2001; Lewis et al., 2001; Thomas, 2004) that cates marked contrasts in regime. OIS3 climates
rivers have changed behaviour on a millennial scale in appear to have remained relatively humid and
Europe and elsewhere, and that short-term RCCs such as contained major storm events despite global
the YD stadial (1300 years) may be too short to be cooling, while OIS2 climates led to fan formation
reflected in river sediments in areas distant from the and a reduced calibre of sediment, indicating loss
immediate influence of glacial advance. In the lowland, of stream power through reduced runoff and low
humid tropics, where frost and wind play no part in flood peaks. The switch from high-energy
surface processes, much of the sedimentation can be a flow conditions to vertical accretion appears to
record of extreme events that recur on decade to century have come after ∼ 28 ka and continued until
timescales. The impact of sub-millennial, cyclical or ∼14 ka.
similar fluctuations of regional climate is, therefore, (5) Incision of the fans took place following postgla-
most likely to be seen in the magnitude and frequency of cial warming of climate, during the Pleistocene–
such events (Nott et al., 1999), rather than as a secular Holocene transition, but early Holocene humidity
change in fluvial behaviour. It is possible, therefore, that probably peaked after 12 ka (post YD) and full
such episodes as the YD, the 8.2 ka event and some later recovery of the rainforest was delayed a further 3–
fluctuations in climate can only be identified from high 4 kyears.
resolution cores taken from lower reaches of floodplains. (6) Finally, there appears to be a lagged or delayed
Thus, while vegetation often responds to increased response of catchment systems to major climate
aridity, especially drought conditions, through the impact change. In NE Queensland, long-term trends
of fire, such events may be limited to interfluves and have been interrupted by episodes of more abrupt
steep slopes in a landscape otherwise still forested. If the change, possibly still evident on a millennial
upper catchments of the NE Queensland rivers, such as scale. We have no evidence for the decade to
the Daintree, Barron, Mulgrave and Russell remained century changes that are recorded from areas
forested through the mid-Holocene their hydrology affected by glacial meltwater. For major changes
would have remained buffered against drought, main- to take place in catchment behaviour many
taining critical low flows on the larger rivers. different thresholds must be crossed. These
probably coincide with critical combinations of
7. Conclusions long-term trend (10 4 –10 3 years), short-term
fluctuation (10 2 –101 y) and the incidence of
A number of conclusions emerge from this study, in extreme events (100 –10− 1 years). In NE Queens-
the light of other published work. land such changes probably took place towards
the end of OIS5 (uncertain), OIS3 (∼ 28 ka)
(1) In NE Queensland long term change towards and OIS2 (post 15/14 ka) (see Thomas, 2003,
more arid conditions may have continued over 2004).
134 M.F. Thomas et al. / Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 251 (2007) 119–136

8. Postscript award of an Emeritus Fellowship (2002–2003), and The
Royal Society of Edinburgh. J. Nott has received funding
Studies of fluvial response to climate change depend from the Australian Research Council. The figures were
on the availability of multiproxy chronologies derived drawn by William Jamieson at the University of Stirling,
from pollen sites and ocean cores for verification. But UK.
the impact of climate change may be amplified in fluvial
records derived from catchments sensitive to environ- References
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the hinterland of Cairns, regional changes may be masked Donders, T.H., Wagner, F., Visscher, H., 2006. Late Pleistocene and
by local site conditions at pollen sites and dampened by Holocene subtropical vegetation dynamics recorded in perched
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Dunbar, G.B., Dickens, G.R., 2003. Massive siliclastic discharge to
to be given to the record of slope and stream deposition in slopes of the Great Barrier Reef Platform during sea-level
attempts to understand the timing and magnitude of major transgression: constraints from sediment cores between 15 degrees
landscape changes. Regional surveys of evidence for S and 16 degrees S latitude and possible explanations. Sedimentary
climate change such as those provided by Mayewski et al. Geology 162, 141–158.
(2004) and Hope et al. (2004) offer important perspec- Dunbar, G.B., Dickens, G.R., Carter, R.M., 2000. Sediment flux across
the Great Barrier Reef to the Queensland Trough over the last
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chronologies of Late Quaternary climate change, in the Fielding, C.R., Trueman, J.D., Dickens, G.R., Page, M., 2003.
humid tropics also come from equatorial areas, where Anatomy of the buried Burdekin River channel across the Great
spatial gradients in climatic parameters are less steep. Barrier Reef shelf: how does a major river operate on a tropical
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