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Geology and geomorphology of the Australian Alps
The Australian Alps has great spiritual significance for Aboriginal people. The higher we are to the stars the closer we are to our Ancestors and the more spiritual the place is. Every landform has a story to explain its location, shape and life forms associated with the natural features. Every landform also has a name, ceremony, song, dance and a group of people with a special association with that country. These people have the responsibility of ensuring the well-being of the country and everything associated with it. Rocks are important natural and spiritual resources for Aboriginal people. Some rocks have great value and are traded long distances across Australia. Rocky outcrops and overhangs provide shelter and art sites to record special events and journeys. Soft rocks or ochres are paint and medicine. Limestone caves provide our spiritual leaders with crystals. Rocks are used as hatchets, knives, scrapers, seed grinding mills and to shape wooden tools.
Rod Mason, Indigenous Education and Liaison Officer, Snowy Mountains Region, DEC NSW Illustration: Jim Williams
Very old mountains
Uplift of the Australian Alps occurred many millions of years ago, making this region very old compared to the mostly ‘younger’ mountain ranges in other parts of the world. Younger Alps in other countries that appear tall, steep and sharply defined may be still growing. The older Australian Alps, subject to millions of years of wearing down, have a more rounded, ‘gentle’ look.
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A bird’s eye view of the Australian Alps shows extensive elevated plateaus and ridgelines surrounded by steep slopes, escarpments and deep gorges. Erosion of the uplifted area has left a series of these gently undulating plateaus that fall away steeply at the edges. Erosion by rivers has cut back into the plateaus, creating large Vshaped valleys. Smaller plateaus are isolated by deep gorges and river valleys. The plateaus are characterised by broad, shallow basins and gentle slopes rising to rounded or flattened hilltops. In New South Wales, much of this plateau landform is intact.
Further south in Victoria, more active river erosion has created a number of separate, narrow plateaus and the area is much more dissected with steep valleys and narrow ridges.
Formation of the Australian Alps
The Alps are a constantly changing landscape, with climate and geological processes perpetually at work, reshaping the terrain and impacting on soils, vegetation and wildlife. The upland area of the Australian Alps is underlain by marine sediments deposited between 540 million years ago (Cambrian Period) and 400 million years ago (Devonian Period) when south-eastern Australia was deep ocean floor. From 430 million years ago these sedimentary rocks have been intruded by granites, overlain by lava flows and folded and uplifted to many times their present height, then worn down and dissected by different forms of erosion. Rivers have carved deep valleys and gorges. Glacial and periglacial erosion and deposition have left further imprints on the landscape. The diverse and active geological history of the Australian Alps is reflected in a wide range of rock types and landforms.
Glacial Lake, Kosciuszko National Park An example of a cirque lake (Auswalk Pty Ltd)
What you see, however, is a landscape primarily formed by river erosion rather than the sharp cutting processes of uplifting and glacial erosion characteristic of younger mountain ranges elsewhere in the world. Evidence of glaciation is restricted to the highest elevations in New South Wales and there is no evidence of recent uplifting. The rocks that form the surface are often flat, such as those remaining from lava flows, or they are rocks that erode into rounded rather than sharp-edged shapes, such as granite.
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Once the land was uplifted and exposed to the effects of weathering, the varying degrees of resistance to erosion offered by different rock types became important. Softer sedimentary rocks eroded far more quickly, leaving the more resistant metamorphic and igneous rocks in the highest areas.
Rivers and streams cut down through soft, sedimentary rocks to form deep, wide valleys and narrow gorges with spectacular waterfalls. The dissected landscape found in the Victorian high country, in contrast to New South Wales, reflects a lesser degree of resistance to weathering.
Composite Geological Diagram of the Australian Alps
The Composite Geological Diagram of the Australian Alps is a tool that geologists use to show the rock types currently found in the Australian Alps. The diagram shows two cross-sections from the inland, western side of the Alps to the coastal plains on the eastern seaboard. In New South Wales, the cross section is from Wagga to the coastal hills above Bega, and Merimbula and the Victorian cross section goes from the Kiewa River valley to the coastal plains of East Gippland around Orbost.
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Rock types and structures
Gneiss and schists: Remnants of ancient sediments changed through heat and pressure to form resistant metamorphic complexes. Much of the Bogong High Plains of Victoria is of this type, and is characterised by a gentle, undulating terrain. Basalt capping: Remnants of an ancient, sedimentary plain capped with resistant basalt from lava flows between 65 and 23 million years ago. Easily recognised as tabletop formations such as Mt Jim and Mt Loch on the Bogong High Plains in Victoria, and Mt Tabletop and Round Mountain in Kosciuszko National Park. Granite batholiths and tors: Exposed granite batholiths formed by the cooling of molten upwellings beneath the surface. The granite is eventually exposed as the surrounding, softer rock is worn away, leaving large blocks of granite standing out above the surrounding terrain. These are recognisable by their sheer walls, and stacked and scattered rounded tors. Mt Kosciuszko in New South Wales and the Baw Baw and Buffalo Plateaus in Victoria are examples of this formation. Escarpments, gorges and waterfalls: Rivers and streams cut down into softer sedimentary rocks to form steep escarpments, deep, wide valleys or narrow gorges with spectacular waterfalls and revealing sandstones, shales and mudstones. Limestone karst systems: Limestone accumulated during the deposition of marine sediments, dissolved by a chemical reaction from water seepage and underground streams, forming narrow, closed gorges and extensive underground caverns. As the water drips from ceilings in caves, limestone is redeposited as stalactites (hanging from the ceiling) or stalagmites (reaching upwards from the floor). Yarrangobilly Caves in New South Wales and Buchan Caves in Victoria are examples of these limestone karst systems. Cirque lakes and moraines: Glacial and periglacial processes during the last 2,000,000 to 10,000 years a series of ice ages created features seen today in the alpine and subalpine regions including cirques and moraines. Cirques are formed at the head of a glacier where it digs out a semicircular basin as it pushes down the slope. Moraines are ridges and outcrops of boulders and debris dumped along the sides or at the end of the retreating glacier. Cirques and moraines are only found on the south-east facing slopes of the Main Range in New South Wales. Club Lake and Blue Lake lie in cirques; Lake Albina, Lake Cootapatamba and Hedley Tarn were dammed by moraine deposits.
Yarrangobilly Caves (Photo: Olaf Theden, © National University Caving Club)
Terracing, shattered boulders, rock rivers and scree slopes: Periglacial features such as terracing, soil movement, shattered boulders and rock rivers are the product of low temperatures, frequent frosts and persistent snow, and are much more extensive than glacial features in the Australian Alps. Periglaciation causes the mass movement of water-saturated soil and stones downslope over frozen subsoil. This forms terraces on some slopes; on others it produces a surface soil made up of stony debris. Where boulders are abundant in the surface soil, the finer particles may be washed away to leave block streams and rocky scree slopes. Other processes of periglacial activity include the growth of needle ice, causing movement of soil particles, frost shattering of boulders and the movement of boulders downslope under pressure from heavy snow drifts.
Blue Lake (© SURMC)
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Quaternary Holocene 10,000 years to present Quaternary Pleistocene 2 million-10,000 years ago Tertiary 65 – 2 million years ago The climate became warmer. River erosion deepened valleys and the sediments built up on the flood plains. Episodic cold climates produced a series of ice ages which affected much of the world. The area between Mount Kosciuszko and Mount Twynam in NSW was covered by ice several times. There was a new series of Earth movements, which again pushed up the Earth’s crust around the Australian Alps until it finally reached its present elevations. Streams eroded broad valleys. Volcanoes brought up new lava, which formed a basalt cap over some of the sedimentary plains. Further uplifts caused the streams to erode with more power, and deep valleys were formed. There were few volcanic and crustal disturbances, but significant erosion. Much of the softer sedimentary and volcanic rocks were worn away, leaving the harder rock types such as granite exposed as a few hills. The region was quite flat and low-lying and there was a time when the area was covered by permanent ice. The early mountains were worn down by erosion. New folding of sedimentary rock occurred. Massive intrusions of magma pushed upwards through the sedimentary rock and cooled to form granite under the surface. More erosion and intrusions occurred. The heat from underground molten rocks created crystalline rock types such as quartzite from adjacent rocks. Volcanic activity exploded onto the surface with the lava cooling to form basalt. More folding and uplifting of the crust occurred. South-eastern Australia was under the sea. Sand, dead marine animals and other sediments were laid down on the ocean floor, forming sedimentary rock. Pushing and pulling of the continents caused earthquakes which lifted the ocean floor, crushed the Earth’s crust and bent the sedimentary rock to new shapes. More sand, silt from early rivers, stones, lava and ash were laid down slowly underwater forming the sandstones, shales and mudstones of the Alps today. Crumpling and compression of the crust pushed parts of these ocean floor sediments upwards to form mountains and some downwards, where they were changed by pressure and heat to rocks such as slate, quartzite, schist and gneiss.
Cretaceous, Jurassic, Triassic, Permian, Carboniferous 350 – 60 million years ago Silurian, Devonian 400 –350 million years ago
Precambrian, Cambrian, Ordovician 860 – 400 million years ago
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Birch W. D. (ed) (2003) The Geology of Victoria, Geological Society of Australia (Victorian Division), Sydney. Brannagan D. F. and Packham G. H. (2000) Field Geology of New South Wales, 3rd edn, NSW Department of Mineral Resources, Sydney. Johnson D. P. (2004) The Geology of Australia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service website: http://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/npws.nsf/Content/Australian+Alps++landform, sourced: May 2005. Worboys, G. (1982) Kosciusko National Park Geology and Geomorphology, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Hurstville.
Dark, fine-grained, volcanic rock formed by molten lava reaching the surface through volcanic activity.
A semicircular or amphitheatre-shaped bedrock feature created as glaciers scour back into the mountain. This is where the snow and ice forming the glacier first accumulates; it is the ‘headwaters' of a glacier.
The wearing down of soil and rock by the wind, water and other weather conditions. This creates landforms that are constantly changing over time.
The study of the Earth’s surface and its people.
The study of the shape of the Earth, considering the relationship between geological structures and surface landscape features. This includes the processes which change the features and includes deposition and erosion.
Glacial features are those formed by the impact of moving snow and ice that occurred 2 million to 10,000 years ago on the surrounding landscape. Glacial features include cirque lakes and moraines.
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Rock formed by the upwelling and slow cooling of molten material beneath the surface. The resistant granite is eventually exposed as the surrounding softer rock is worn away. It contains several minerals, the most common of which are feldspar, quartz and mica.
Rock types formed by the solidification of magma, either within the earth (like granite) or on the earth’s surface (like basalt).
Landforms produced by chemical solution, rather than mechanical erosion, which form integrated surface and subsurface geological and biological systems. These landforms include caves which usually for in limestone.
Marine sediments are those sedimentary rocks deposited in the sea rather than in lakes or on land.
Rocks that have changed when they come into contact with the great heat of igneous rocks or when compressed by great weights of overlying rocks, or both.
An accumulation of material deposited by glaciers. These accumulations tend to be made up of different sized particles deposited in moraines, ranging from fine silt to large boulders. The sediment and rock material in moraines also tend to have angular edges.
Periglacial features are the product of low temperatures, frequent frosts and persistent snow with alternation of freezing and thawing as experienced over extensive areas of the Australian Alps from 2 million to 10,000 years ago. Periglaciation causes the mass movement of water-saturated soil and stones downslope over frozen subsoil. Periglacial features include terracing, soil movement, shattered boulders and rock rivers.
Rocks that are produced by the erosion and redeposition of other rocks. They may be made up of compressed silt, sand, gravels or the skeletons and shells of aquatic plants and animals. The sediments are compressed into rock by the weight of overlying sediments.
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A series of flat areas within a sloping landscape.
Movement of tectonic plates or activity deep inside the earth causes large areas of seabed and land to rise up.
Rocks that begin as molten material deep under ground and reach the surface through volcanic action to cool and harden when exposed to the air. One type of volcanic rock found in the Alps is basalt.
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