Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Evidence Of Massive Landscape Change Unearthed In Australia

January 20, 1999
CSIRO Australia
Australians may have had a far more catastrophic impact on their landscape than previously suspected, according to fresh scientific evidence.

Australians may have had a far more catastrophic impact on their landscape than previously suspected, according to fresh scientific evidence now coming to light.

Related Articles

A team from CSIRO Land & Water and the Cooperative Research Centre for Catchment Hydrology has found signs that European settlement unleashed an episode of erosion, sediment deposition and change in river systems orders of magnitude greater than we have assumed to date.

New ways to identify and date flood deposits in river catchments in Eastern Australia are building a picture of a landscape in dramatic transition over years or decades, rather than centuries, say Dr Jon Olley and Dr Peter Wallbrink.

Metres of mud and sand deposited on river floodplains, which the scientists at first guessed to be the result of hundreds or even thousands of years of erosion, are proving to have happened in as few as 30 or 40 years.

“There’s little doubt modern Australians have underestimated the extent of change we have inflicted on our landscape,” says Dr Wallbrink. “In some cases the rates are staggering.”

His research in the catchment of the Murrah river in southern NSW, dominated by dairying and forestry, is throwing the issue under the spotlight.

“Deposits of silt and sediment on the lower floodplain of the Murrah appeared to us to be at least a couple of hundred years old - until we began to test their composition and age.”

It was the atomic bomb that did the trick. Regular atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, which began in the late 1950s, spread a telltale layer of radioactive Caesium 137 across the globe. That layer now provides a reliable benchmark for soil scientists wanting to date recent layers of sediment.

What looked like the accumulation of centuries in the Murrah floodplain turns out to have taken place since about 1960, Dr Wallbrink says. More dramatic still, nearly a third of the deposit appears to have been dumped by a single massive flood event, back in 1971.

Subsequent tests will reveal whether it was clearing for agriculture at the top of the catchment or forestry operations in the lower catchment which was mainly responsible for the sediment - and the relative contribution of the two.

This understanding will be vital in devising the best strategies for farmers, foresters and land managers to combat future large scale erosion and deposition events and improve water quality and sustainability, says Dr Wallbrink.

“We’re talking about changing the very face of Australia in comparatively few years, so dramatic is the scale of these events,” he says. “The evidence is building that our landscape underwent radical change.”

Dr Jon Olley is pioneering a technique called optically stimulated luminescence to date single grains of quartz sand in a sediment deposit. This technique is unfolding a new chapter in understanding of how we have reshaped the continent.

“Before European settlement, the picture is of a relatively stable landscape, well-vegetated, with lots of swampy meadows in the low lying areas to trap the sediment and nutrients and filter the waters slowly,” he explains.

“The river systems at that time would have been largely clear-flowing, generally slow and dominated by organic material.”

Enter European settlers and the landscape chemistry changes violently. Overclearing and heavy grazing combined with Australia’s regular cycle of drought and flood to unleash a new pattern in the rivers: spates of silt sandblasting the system caused profound changes in the rivers themselves and the life they supported.

“We went, in effect, from slow rivers dominated by organic material to rivers dominated by rushes of abrasive inorganic sediment. This had huge consequences for native fish, animals, water plants and insects.

“Regrettably,” says Dr Olley, “I don’t think the original system is restorable. We can’t put back the clock and have it the way it once was.”

However both scientists consider it likely that a new landscape balance has formed, and that the rate of change is no longer as acute as it was shortly after clearing.

Nevertheless the combination of a cleared landscape with periodic episodes of natural droughts and floods has created a river regime that is now far more energetic and prone to violent flooding than previously existed.

“It’s all about energy,” says Dr Wallbrink. “In the original rivers the rainfall was held back by vegetation and swampy areas. Today it rushes downstream in defined channels far more quickly and in larger volumes.

“It is this new energy which underlies the dramatic rates of change we are starting to see and understand for the first time.”

More information: Julian.Cribb@nap.csiro.au

Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by CSIRO Australia. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Cite This Page:

CSIRO Australia. "Evidence Of Massive Landscape Change Unearthed In Australia." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 January 1999. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1999/01/990119201752.htm>.
CSIRO Australia. (1999, January 20). Evidence Of Massive Landscape Change Unearthed In Australia. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 24, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1999/01/990119201752.htm
CSIRO Australia. "Evidence Of Massive Landscape Change Unearthed In Australia." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1999/01/990119201752.htm (accessed October 24, 2014).

Share This

More Earth & Climate News

Friday, October 24, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Deep Sea 'mushroom' Could Be Early Branch on Tree of Life

Deep Sea 'mushroom' Could Be Early Branch on Tree of Life

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Oct. 24, 2014) — Miniature deep sea animals discovered off the Australian coast almost three decades ago are puzzling scientists, who say the organisms have proved impossible to categorise. Academics at the Natural History of Denmark have appealed to the world scientific community for help, saying that further information on Dendrogramma enigmatica and Dendrogramma discoides could answer key evolutionary questions. Jim Drury has more. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Raw: Tornado Rips Roofs in Washington State

Raw: Tornado Rips Roofs in Washington State

AP (Oct. 24, 2014) — A rare tornado ripped roofs off buildings, uprooted trees and shattered windows Thursday afternoon in the southwest Washington city of Longview, but there were no reports of injuries. (Oct. 24) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Dances With Wolves in China's Wild West

Dances With Wolves in China's Wild West

AFP (Oct. 23, 2014) — One man is on a mission to boost the population of wolves in China's violence-wracked far west. The animal - symbol of the Uighur minority there - is under threat with a massive human resettlement program in the region. Duration: 00:41 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
E.U. Leaders Agree To 40% CO2 Emissions Cut By 2030

E.U. Leaders Agree To 40% CO2 Emissions Cut By 2030

Newsy (Oct. 23, 2014) — The latest E.U. emissions deal calls for a 40 percent greenhouse gas cut, which leaders say sets Europe up to lead in climate negotiations next year. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.


Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News


Free Subscriptions

Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile

Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?

Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins