Australian surface not so old

One of the most widely quoted bits of geological information that appear in non-specialist literature is that the oldest land surface on Earth is that of interior Australia.  Vast tracts are Precambrian capped by horizontal Permian glaciogenic rocks in places, but for the most part by relics of lateritic palaeosols that give it is famous red appearance.  The oldest outlying platform sediments are 1100 Ma old, so the actual surface does date back at least as far, but has it been exposed at the surface for that long?  Dating the present surface has not been easy.  New methods involving the creation of unstable isotopes by cosmic-ray bombardment offer a solution (see Measuring erosion rates, February 2002 issue of EPN), combined with apatite fission-track dating (Belton, D.X. et al. 2004. Quantitative resolution of the debate over antiquity of the central Australian landscape: implications for the tectonic and geomorphic stability of cratonic interiors.  Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 219, p. 21-34).  The results suggest that Australian landscape antiquity is a myth.  Erosion rates since the Cambrian varied over most of the Red Centre from 0.4 to 4.0 metres per million years, and reached as high as 17 m per Ma on occasion.  They suggest a common or garden history, comparable with those of most continental interiors.  Again and again it has been buried by sediments, albeit on a flat surface, and equally it has been exhumed several times by erosion.  Only at the outset of the Cenozoic did much of it sit unchanged for long, which enabled its red surface to develop.  The present surface is covered with what is termed regolith by Australians, but much of that is reworked material from the Palaeocene laterites that sits in a network of shallow drainage systems, including huge ephemeral lakes.  It might seem that recourse to Hutton’s “the present is the key to the past” should long ago have staved off the myth of the gnarled old place of which Australians have become inordinately proud.

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