"It is incredible to think that tectonic processes that took place millions of years ago at the northern margin of New Guinea are responsible for the landscape we see today in central and southeastern Australia," says Wouter Schellart. (Credit: edenink/Flickr)

Australia

Why Australia’s Lake Eyre will eventually disappear

Geoscientists have, for the first time, discovered the origins of Australia’s two largest basins: Lake Eyre and the Murray-Darling Basin. They also predict that both will cease to exist in about 30 million years.

The researchers from Monash University and Utrecht University describe how the floor of an entire ocean basin that was destroyed 70 to 50 million years ago off the North coast of New Guinea is currently located at 800 to 1,200 kilometers (497 to 746 miles) below central and southeastern Australia.

Using supercomputers, the researchers found that this dense piece of ocean floor material (called a lithospheric slab) is slowly sinking into the Earth’s mantle and is responsible for the formation of the Lake Eyre Basin, one of the Earth’s largest internally drained basins and home to the lowest point in Australia at 15 meters (49 feet) below sea level.

It’s also responsible for the Murray-Darling Basin, home to the largest river system in Australia. With a combined surface area exceeding 2 million square kilometers (1.24 million square miles), both basins are located directly above the deep mantle slab.

Some 30 million years from now, when Australia has moved about 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) northwards, the fossil slab will be located below the Southern Ocean and, as a consequence, both basins will disappear.

Sinking tectonic plate

Wouter Schellart, an associate professor at Monash, was able to reconstruct the geological evolution of the region over the last 70 million years, including the motion of the tectonic plates and plate boundaries. He discovered that the occurrence of deep ocean floor rocks, volcanic rocks, and deformed rocks, which are currently found in the mountain ranges of New Guinea, point to the existence of a 4,000-kilometer-wide (2,500-mile-wide) subduction zone.

At subduction zones such as these, an oceanic tectonic plate sinks (subducts) into the Earth’s interior, the mantle.

Schellart was able to predict where the fossil subduction zone was during its lifetime some 50 to 70 million years ago, and therefore where the lithospheric slab disappeared into the mantle.

With a global seismic tomography model that makes use of seismic waves to map the internal structure of the Earth’s mantle, Schellart and Wim Spakman, a professor at Utrecht, were able to identify the fossil slab structure below central and southeastern Australia at a location and depth predicted by the reconstructions.

“When we first compared the predictions of our reconstructions with the mantle tomography model, we were amazed by how perfectly they aligned,” says Schellart.

1 centimeter a year

The researchers then developed a computer model to simulate flow in the Earth’s mantle to be able to predict the sinking velocity of the fossil slab and to investigate how this sinking might affect the Earth’s surface.

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They found that although the slab is sinking at a rate of less than 1 centimeter each year, this slow sinking generates a downward flow in the mantle that is sufficient to pull down the Earth’s surface and create these huge basins.

“It is incredible to think that tectonic processes that took place millions of years ago at the northern margin of New Guinea are responsible for the landscape we see today in central and southeastern Australia,” says Schellart.

The National Computational Infrastructure provided support for the research, which appears in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Source: Monash University

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