Cenozoic stratigraphic succession in southeastern Australia


Corresponding author: brian.mcgowran@adelaide.edu.au


Strata of Cenozoic age occur around the southern margin of Australia as thin and discontinuous outcrops, interpolated and fleshed out by economic exploration onshore and offshore. The neritic strata fall into four sequences or allostratigraphic packages of (I) Paleocene – Early Eocene, (II) Middle Eocene – Early Oligocene, (III) Late Oligocene – Middle Miocene, and (IV) Late Miocene – Holocene age: a four-part pattern that can be seen also in the flanking pelagic and terrestrial realms including regolith deep weathering. Problems of correlation and age determination (predominantly biostratigraphic) have included biogeographical constraints (endemism in neritic molluscs and terrestrial palynomorphs, mid-latitude assemblages in calcareous plankton), and slow progress in magnetostratigraphy and chemostratigraphy. Sequence I largely repeats the Cretaceous siliciclastic–coal, marginal-marine facies (carbonate-poor, with marine and non-marine palynomorphs and agglutinated foraminifers) punctuated by marine ingressions with microfaunas and sparse macrofaunas. Sequence II contains the first carbonates in the region since the Palaeozoic and the most extensive coals of the Cenozoic anywhere. Sequence III contains the most extensive neritic carbonates and the last major coals. Sequence IV is more strongly siliciclastic than the two preceding. Each of these four second-order entities (107 years duration) comprises third-order packages each with an unconformity and marine transgression. These packages hold true right along the southern Australian margin in the sense that the hiatuses and transgression do not display significant diachroneity at the relevant time-scales (105−106 years). Recognised, delimited and correlated independently of the putatively global Exxon sequences, they are remarkably consistent with the latter, thereby providing a significant regional test. There are two widespread emphases on southern Australian geohistory and biohistory: (i) to regard the regional story as part of the global story of accreting continents, an expiring Tethys, and an episodically cooling planet; and (ii) a somewhat contrary emphasis, with the region being a special case of rapid longitudinal motion towards the equator. Both emphases are plausible with the former being the more heuristic. The stratigraphic record is strongly punctuated, the four sequences being separated by both tectonic and climatic events. Thus: the sequence I/II gap involved extensive plate-tectonic reorganisation and a new spreading regime from ca 43 Ma, coevally with early growth of Antarctic ice; in the II/III gap, deformation in marginal basins is coeval with a global low in cooling, large ice sheet and falling sea-level to ca 30 Ma; and the III/IV gap is marked by widespread cessation or contraction of stratal accumulation and withdrawal of thermophilic taxa coevally with the major expansion at ca 14 Ma of the Antarctic ice sheet, onset of intense canyon cutting, and plate-wide basin inversion.