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Shaping the Australian crust over the last 300 million years: insights from fission track thermotectonic imaging and denudation studies of key terranes


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Apatite fission track thermochronology is a well-established tool for reconstructing the low-temperature thermal and tectonic evolution of continental crust. The variation of fission track ages and distribution of fission track lengths are primarily controlled by cooling, which may be initiated by earth movements and consequent denudation at the Earth's surface and/or by changes in the thermal regime. Using numerical forward-modelling procedures these parameters can be matched with time–temperature paths that enable thermal and tectonic processes to be mapped out in considerable detail. This study describes extensive Australian regional fission track datasets that have been modelled sequentially and inverted into time–temperature solutions for visualisation as a series of time-slice images depicting the cooling history of present-day surface rocks during their passage through the upper crust. The data have also been combined with other datasets, including digital elevation and heat flow, to image the denudation history and the evolution of palaeotopography. These images provide an important new perspective on crustal processes and landscape evolution and show how important tectonic and denudation events over the last 300 million years can be visualised in time and space. The application of spatially integrated denudation-rate chronology is also demonstrated for some key Australian terranes including the Lachlan and southern New England Orogens of southeastern Australia, Tasmania, the Gawler Craton, the Mt Isa Inlier, southwestern Australian crystalline terranes (including the Yilgarn Craton) and the Kimberley Block. This approach provides a readily accessible framework for quantifying the otherwise undetectable, timing and magnitude of long-term crustal denudation in these terranes, for a part of the geological record previously largely unconstrained. Discrete episodes of enhanced denudation occurred principally in response to changes in drainage, base-level changes and/or uplift/denudation related to far-field effects resulting from intraplate stress or tectonism at plate margins. The tectonism was mainly associated with the history of continental breakup of the Gondwana Supercontinent from Late Palaeozoic time, although effects related to compression are also recorded in eastern Australia. The results also suggest that the magnitude of denudation of cratonic blocks has been significantly underestimated in previous studies, and that burial and exhumation are significant factors in the preservation of apparent ‘ancient’ features in the Australian landscape.