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Crossing the Snowy River below Charlotte Pass

Blue Lake, a cirque lake on the range above Charlottes Pass

Formation of The Australian Alps

Latitude -36.415964, Longitude 148.623476

Located in the Snowy Mountains Region of NSW, nearest town Jindabyne

Source with permission:

The information in this document was provided by Australian Alps National Parks. Author Dr Vince Morand

Link to Detailed Map

The Australian Alps do not fit the conventional image of towering, sharply defined peaks and ice-scoured ridges as found in the Himalayas and European Alps. Instead, the Australian Alps comprise extensive undulating plateaus and ridges, surrounded by steep slopes, escarpments and gorges. In New South Wales, much of the undulating plateau landform is still intact; whereas in Victoria there are a number of smaller isolated plateau areas dissected by deep gorges and river valleys.

The Australian Alps may not be very high by world standards - Mt Kosciuszko is 2,228 metres above sea level, while Mt Bogong, the highest in Victoria, is 1,986m, and Mt Bimberi, the highest in the Australian Capital Territory, is 1,911m - but Australia's Alps are remarkable for their age and formation. They are lower than other famous mountain ranges elsewhere in the world because they are older, were formed differently, and have been subject to erosion for a longer period.

Formation of the Australian Alps

The Australian Alps are the highest part of a larger entity, the Eastern Highlands of Australia, which runs the length of the east coast from northern Queensland to Victoria. The origin of the Alps is the same as that of the Eastern Highlands.

Because the Australian Alps cover a large area, they display a wide range of rock types and a complex geological history spanning 520 million years. The events that formed the different rocks in the Alps, and the Alps landscapes, are described here in order from oldest to youngest. When talking geological history, we use the abbreviation mya to mean "million years ago".

Link to Development of the Australian Alps Diagram

Early history - deep oceans and ancient mountains

Earth's surface is continually being reshaped and modified by geological processes. Southeastern Australia has only existed as a continuous landmass for about 350 million years, and its appearance has changed radically during that time. Before 350 mya, there were oceans and island chains where there is now dry land.

The oldest rocks in the alpine region are basalt lavas erupted onto the deep ocean floor about 520 mya, in the Cambrian period. They occur in Victoria in the Howqua Valley and the remote Dolodrook Valley. At this time eastern Australia did not exist - the region was a deep ocean dotted with volcanic islands, similar to the western Pacific Ocean of today.

During the next 80 million years, in the Ordovician period, vast areas of the ocean floor were covered by a thick blanket of sand and mud, over time turning into the sedimentary rocks sandstone and mudstone. These rocks form much of the Australian Alps. In this time interval a large chain of volcanic islands formed in what is now New South Wales, erupting basalt and andesite lava. These rocks are seen in the Kiandra and Jagungal areas.

From 440 to 360 mya (the Silurian and Devonian periods) a series of mountain-building events folded the sedimentary and volcanic rocks, lifted them out of the sea to form land and moved blocks of crust tens to hundreds of kilometres along large faults. This was the result of collisions of several small tectonic plates, crumpling rocks together and thickening up the crust. In addition, some rocks were buried deep in the crust and heated, thereby becoming metamorphosed to produce rocks such as slate, schist and gneiss. Slate is common throughout the high country, with good examples at Mt Hotham and Mt Feathertop in Victoria. Schist and gneiss occur in the Victorian Alps around Mt Bogong, Falls Creek and Omeo. Some rocks were heated above 650° C, enough to melt them.

Also in the Silurian and Devonian, large bodies of granite were emplaced into the crust and huge volcanoes erupted ash and lava over the newly created land. Granite forms much of the high country, such as the Kosciuszko Plateau in NSW, the Bimberi and Clear Ranges in the ACT, and Mt Buffalo, Mt Baw Baw and Mt Wills in Victoria. Many granite bodies are resistant to erosion, and hence form plateaus and ridges with large blocks, or tors, of rock sticking up, while surrounding rocks are more susceptible to erosion and form lower country. Not all granites are resistant, however, and some are more recessive (i.e. more easily eroded) than the surrounding rocks, forming broad valleys as at Cudgewa-Thowgla and Ensay-Swifts Creek in Victoria.

The volcanoes of the Silurian and Devonian periods were quite explosive, erupting towering clouds of hot volcanic ash which formed a rock known as ignimbrite. In Victoria this type of rock occurs at Lake Mountain, Mt Donna Buang and the Snowy River area, while similar rocks occur around Lake Talbingo and along the Fiery Range in New South Wales.

Clarkes Gorge limestone deposit
Quartz rich fluids fill joints and cracks in granite
Granite has invaded shale and metamorphosed it by heat and pressure

During the Silurian and Devonian periods the geography of southeastern Australia was complex, with small seas and large to small islands. Some islands developed coral reefs along their edges, which over time became limestone. This rock commonly has many fossils such as coral, shells and algae. Because limestone is soluble in slightly acidic groundwater, it easily dissolves to form caves and gorges, as seen at Yarrangobilly and Blue Water Holes in NSW, and Buchan in Victoria.

By about 360 mya much of southeastern Australia was a mountain range. Note that this range had nothing to do with the present-day Australian Alps, and was part of an ancient cycle of plate tectonic movements. Wide valleys within and adjacent to the mountains were filled with river and lake sediments, forming sandstone and mudstone with a distinctive reddish colour. They can be seen in Victoria in the high plateaus stretching from Mt Cobbler to the Avon Wilderness area.

Geologically quiet time

After the last episode of folding, about 340 mya, southeastern Australia entered a 200 million year period where not much happened, geologically speaking. Australia was part of the supercontinent of Gondwana, lying in the interior of the landmass. The mountain ranges were slowly worn down to a low-lying plain and very few rocks of this period are preserved in the alpine region.

Around 300-250 mya the Earth entered a global ice age, and at this time Australia was close to the south pole. Ice sheets covered much of southern Australia, and glacial deposits are preserved outside the alpine region in Victoria and New South Wales. Any such deposits within the Australian Alps have been since eroded away.

Latest period - formation of the Australian Alps

There is still debate about when the Australian Alps came into existence, with some geologists arguing that they arose only a few million years ago, while the majority argue that the Alps arose around 100-60 mya, based on evidence collected over the last 30 years. This account takes the majority view.

About 130 mya stirrings in the deep mantle began to break up eastern Gondwana. Australia began the long process of breaking away from Antarctica and Zealandia (a now largely submerged continent stretching from New Zealand to New Caledonia). The process began with magma moving upwards into the lithosphere, causing it to heat and expand upward, forming a dome-shaped plateau running along what is now the east coast of Australia. By 100 mya the plateau was possibly over 2000 m high in its highest area, the site of today's Australian Alps. Gondwana split apart along this line of magma upwelling, and a rift valley formed along the centre of the plateau, with an east-west trending branch where Tasmania moved southward away from Victoria. The rift valley, similar to today's East African Rift Valley, was formed by stretching of the crust leading to the valley floor dropping along a series of faults.

Zealandia moved eastwards, with the Tasman Sea filling in the gap, while Tasmania only moved a short distance southwards, forming the shallow Bass Strait. The Australian Alps were left behind as a remnant of the original plateau, with a steep seaward side and a gentle slope toward the inland. By 65 mya the Tasman Sea and Bass Strait were in their current configuration and the Australian Alps were probably not much higher than they are today. Since then erosion has carved deep valleys into the plateau and rounded off the landforms. In New South Wales most of the alpine area is one large tableland, while in Victoria erosion has proceeded further, producing many smaller plateaus separated by rugged valleys.

Rams Head Range - large granite tors
Blue Lake, a cirque lake on the range above Charlottes Pass
Hedley Tarn on hill below Blue Lake

Over the last 50 mya basalt lava has been erupted episodically over much of the alpine region. The lava came out of small volcanoes and flowed across the landscape and down valleys. Many of the high plains in Victoria are covered by basalt, such as the Bogong, Dargo and Nunniong High Plains. In New South Wales the Monaro Plain is a large area of basalt lava flows. Because basalt lava is quite fluid, it quickly fills in the low-lying areas to form the flat landscapes of these high plains.

Although the Alps were mostly in place by about 90 mya, there have been several minor uplift episodes since then in various parts of the Alps. These events have in many cases altered the course of rivers by tilting and faulting, in some cases reversing their flow and sending them in new directions.

The Pleistocene ice age

Most of the last 2 million years have been a time of global ice age, with ice caps forming on high ranges around the world, as well as at the poles. This cold period is known to geologists as the Pleistocene epoch. Because the Australian Alps are only of modest height, the highest point being Mt Kosciuszko at 2228 m, glaciers were formed only on the very highest parts (above 2000 m) in the vicinity of Mt Kosciuszko. Several tarns and cirques remain: these result from glaciers scooping out hollows in the ground. Examples of tarns, which filled the bottom of cirques after the ice melted about 12,000 years ago, are Club Lake, Blue Lake and Hedley Tarn. Some of the small valleys near Mt Kosciuszko have the U-shaped cross section typical of valleys carved by glaciers.

Much of the Australian Alps outside the small glaciated area was still affected by cold conditions during the Pleistocene, indicated by periglacial features such as block streams, terracing and frost-shattered boulders. These features all require ice to be present in rocks and soil for much of the time.

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