Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 


Deep weathering

The processes that lead to the formation of the desert features that characterise so much of Australia's arid areas were started back in the days of the Early Tertiary when Australia, shortly after it took the final step in the breakup of Gondwana. The continent was wet and green, before the beginning of aridification that is still proceeding.

When the climate was warm and wet, deep weathering took place to depths of hundreds to thousands of metres, the chemical makeup of the rocks and soil being changed. The results of this weathering can be seen now in the form of the mesas of the arid zone, with a red, oxidised upper zone that grades via a mottled zone into the pallid zone (a bleached zone). It has now been found that deep chemical weathering can occur under a number of climatic regimes, from warm to cold. The only condition necessary is deep groundwater over long time periods.

Many parts of the world have undergone deep weathering during a warm, wet period that lasted from the Late Cretaceous to the Early Eocene. A suggested cause for the widespread occurrence of deep weathering at this time is the widespread volcanic activity that resulted from the breakup of continents. It is believed this high level of volcanic activity in many parts of the world would have produced acid rain on a global scale, greatly increasing the level and depth of chemical weathering above that occurring in less volcanically active times.

At this time a deep regolith (layer of weathered rock) was produced. Groundwater is held in weathered rock, the saturated zone being topped by a water table that separates the anoxic saturated zone from the upper oxidized zone.

The Cretaceous and Early Tertiary weathered profiles were formed by water percolating down thorough the soil and rock to the water table. On its way down to the water table acid in the water, especially during times of acid rain, leaches iron and other minerals from the upper layers of the rock and carries them to the groundwater. Many Ore bodies originated in this manner, the minerals being concentrated by the process of leaching - copper, gold, uranium and opal.

Continental crust is composed mostly of silicate minerals, within which chemical reactions occur that break them down to clay minerals, which were then moved down with the percolating water. The result was the distribution of colour seen in the remaining rock profiles, iron-stained in the top zone, merging with a mottled zone then a pallid zone of white clay. This clay layer is were the silica that migrated from the upper levels of the rock was deposited to form opal as a result of deep weathering.

The appearance of the mottled zone results from the unequal distribution of iron. In this zone, as water percolated down through it, iron oxides were segregated, small crystals of haematite coalescing to for nodules of various sizes. This mottled zone would no doubt have been of the most interest to Australian Aboriginal People, as the nodules (ochre) are one of the pigments used by them extensively in ceremony and decoration in general.

All weathered material lies on a basement rock, the upper part of which is the saturated zone, that is the zone of groundwater discharge. It is at places the groundwater moves towards, springs or seepages, where it emerging at the surface. The emerging water carries the products of weathering in solution, such as dissolved silica (silicic acid). When it percolates through iron-rich regoliths it carries iron. A chemical gradient is maintained by the removal of weathering products as they precipitate out, the water being able to continue weathering the rocks.

In the lower part of the saturated zone, that is stagnant, as the products cannot be carried away by groundwater flow, they diffuse upwards by osmosis along a concentration gradient, and when they are precipitated out of solution the groundwater can continue with the process of weathering. When ferrous iron diffuses upwards it is converted to ferric hydroxide when it reaches the oxidising layer, the water discharge zone. It can be deposited in that zone as ferricrete, either in massive or nodular form.

Yowah Nuts are ironstone concretions, sometimes containing precious opal, that are found in the Yowah opal field in western Queensland. They result from the combination of a gel of concentrated silica solution and the precipitation of iron, the process taking place in the groundwater zone of a deeply weathered profile. Also in western Queensland, boulder opal is found in cracks and fissures in massively concretionary ironstone, that has formed by a similar process.


Dissolved iron in groundwater becomes concentrated in low-lying areas of restricted or slow flow, as when it flows down a shallow gradient. In these places it impregnates the soil, sediment or permeable layers of rock forming varying types of ferricrete. At these depositional sites the ferricrete is younger than the weathered profile it forms above, so is not part of the local deep weathering sequence. It is said that an unconformity separates it from the underlying sequence.

As the process of erosion abrades the surface around the ferricrete, lowering it below that of the ferricrete, that is more erosion-resistant than the surrounding surface, the result is a typical duricrust-capped profile. Erosion results in 'inversion of relief', where the duricrust, that formed in the lowest parts of a landscape, is now the highest part of the 'inverted landscape', as the softer surrounding surface is eroded away while the softer rock beneath the capping is relatively unaffected by erosion.


The same process occurs in the silcrete capped profiles of inverted landscapes. It is also said to rest unconformable on the profile beneath it.

Flat areas favour deep weathering, as it can only occur where the rate of weathering is greater than the rate of erosion. Australia was very flat at the time the duricrust was forming in the Late Cretaceous and Early Tertiary, and it had a much higher rainfall than now, ensuring the presence of deep groundwater, the sort of conditions ideal for the formation of silcrete and ferricrete. As Australia dried out and the rate of erosion became higher than the rate of deep weathering, stripping the regolith from around the silcrete and ferricrete that had already formed, the surface around the duricrust-protected areas was lowered, leaving the duricrust as the highest surface in the eroded area. 

Old River Gravels

When some areas became elevated leading to more variation and drainages being rejuvenated, the progressive stripping of weathered material is seen in the old river gravels that indicate a steady change of composition. Quartz-dominant material is found in the early gravels, that would have been the only material available because of deep weathering of the entire landscape. Later gravels demonstrate a wider variety of rock types as new rock was exposed by erosion of the landscape. In the Miocene the gravel type changes from quartz to mixed.

Miners of old gravels call them deep leads. They often contain gold and other minerals that were concentrated in the water table in the weathered profile before erosion removed it, only the more resistant and heavier minerals remaining in the river beds.

Deep weathering in arid areas can result in deposits such as gypsum and sometimes opal, as the water is more likely to remain in place. The Great Artesian Basin (GAB) is a good example of arid areas being underlain by a deep water table, it can reach as much as 3000 m in depth, allowing deep weathering to occur down to this depth. The mineral content of the water can vary between different areas of the GAB, depending on the rock type passed through and the chemical processes taking place.


Duricrusts are very extensive in Australia covering up to 25 % of the continent (see Miles & Hutton, 1983; Twidale, 1983). They are of pedogenic or depositional origin, of various compositions, some having a composition that is predominantly ferruginous, some aluminous and others gypseous or calcareous. It has been suggested (e.g., Goudie, 1973) that the various mineralogical types of duricrusts should be named according to their composition, with a prefix of the dominant element being attached to 'crete' as the suffix ('crete' from Latin concretus' for 'to grow together or hardened'), indicating the material is resistant as is used in concrete - ferricrete, alcrete, gypcrete, calcrete. Lateritic duricrusts are found in all Australian states, though their distribution is marginal. In the interior of the continent silcrete is most common, though it is widespread elsewhere (Twidale, 1983). The main calcrete sheets are present in the south, particularly in the semi-arid lowlands of the south and the southeast, though it is found developed on limestone outcrops in the monsoon lands of the north (Milnes & Hutton, 1983). Gypcrete is found only in the region to the southwest of the Lake Eyre basin, though the distribution of gypsiferous soils is more widespread, with some major salinas such as Lakes Gregory, Torrens, Amadeus, McDonald and Gilles have gypsiferous crusts, as opposed to the halite crust that is more common, as in the case of Lakes Eyre, Frome, etc.

All duricrusts form caprocks on plateau forms, whatever their composition. The most common are laterite and silcrete, but mesas that are calcrete capped are prominent in the southwestern section of the Lake Eyre Basin, and in northern Western Australia, in the Ashburton catchment, where opaline silica is commonly associated with the calcrete. The plain between Lake Eyre and Lake Torrens is underlain by gypcrete and caps the cliffs bordering the Lake Eyre salina on its western side. The scarp, though dissected, is of tectonic origin, having a gypcrete crust that is 2 m thick consisting of gypsum crystals that impart a cohesion and resistance in the prevailing hyperarid climate, that contrasts with the friable gypsiferous silts that underlie it.

Australian calcareous and gypseous duricrusts are from the Later Cainozoic, therefore is not considered in the present discussion. The 'cornstones' or calcareous accumulations of the Old Red Sandstone from the Devonian and the New Red Sandstone from the Triassic in Britain, both the calcareous and gypseous duricrusts  present in Australia are from the later Cainozoic, so are not germane to this discussion. This also applies to some, though not all, encrustations of ferruginous, aluminous and siliceous composition.

 Laterite, which is weathered mantle, consists of an A-horizon, usually sandy, but consisting of silt in places, underlain by a ferruginous zone, commonly haematitic or goethitic, which can be pisolitic or vesicular. There is a mottled, pallid kaolinitic C-zone that grades into the country rock. Bauxite is a laterite that is rich in hydrated alumina. In the humid tropics, particularly in monsoon lands, laterite is forming at the present (Sivarajasingham et al., 1962; Maignien, 1966). Aluminous laterite is also associated with tropical conditions. Lateritic regoliths from the Pleistocene associated with conditions that are cool temperate are known from southeastern Australia (Taylor et al., 1992; Young et al., 1994). Therefore, the author2 points out the association between the development of laterites and former periods of tropical conditions cannot be assumed.

The laterites in northern Australia are believed to be from the Miocene (e.g., Twidale, 1956), though in the southeast are from the Cainozoic, as mentioned previously, and younger pisolitic regoliths are also known from southwest Western Australia (e.g., Playford et al., 1975, p. 457). In parts of the Yilgarn Craton, such as the Darling Ranges, and other parts, the duricrusts, bauxitic and lateritic, are from the Mesozoic, and probably from the Early Mesozoic (Jutson, 1934); Clarke, 1994a; Twidale & Bourne, 1998a). On Kangaroo Island and other areas that border the gulfs in South Australia, the laterite is from a time before the Middle Jurassic, and is younger than the Permian, the suggestion being that the Triassic is a likely time (Sprigg et al., 1954; Daily et al., 1974, 1979).

The texture of silcrete differs from orthoquartzite as it typically includes porphyroclasts of quartz that is set in a siliceous matrix. The matrix is crystalline in older silcretes, but the opaline accumulations that are younger, such as those underlying the plains to the southwest of Lake Eyre (the Warrina Surface of Wopfner, 1978), are from the Pleistocene (Wopfner & Twidale, 1967). Silcrete also occurs in skins that are plastered on host blocks or boulders (Hutton et al., 1972). It is more common to find it as cappings of plateaux, which were previously assumed, prior to dissection, to have been extensive plains carrying a siliceous pedogenic horizon.

According to the author2 these assumptions may be in error. Some of the constituents of silcretes, especially the rare earth elements, have been shown by detailed chemistry to have been introduced or allochthonous, as they are lacking in the country rock and cannot have been weathering products of that material. In the southern Flinders Ranges an outstanding example can be seen where silcrete rests on limestone. Cobbles and rounded gravels of exotic rocks are present in many silcretes. The remnants together often form a narrow winding pattern in plan, though the plateau form is common. Some plateaux are slightly basin-shaped when viewed in cross-section, therefore there is strong suggestion that some of these so-called sheet silcretes are actually valley fills, with some displaying topographic inversion (e.g., Young, 1985; Twidale, 1985).

It is suggested that silcrete was formed in humid warm climates, though it has been preserved in arid climates. The origin of silcrete is still being debated (see contributions to Langford-Smith, 1978), but according to the author2 it is almost certain that biota were involved (e.g., Levering, 1959). As large volumes of silica are carried in solution by rivers, there is a significant connection with rivers (Davis, 1964; Douglas, 1978). Rivers that flow into an arid internal drainage sump, such as the Lake Eyre Basin, from humid regions, deliver a siliceous fraction included in their loads that could have precipitated out in the shallow subsurface or in the channels of streams, as occurs in some contemporary stream beds.

It has been suggested (Stephens, 1964) that in central Australia the crystalline silcretes derive from groundwaters leaching in the headwater zones of catchments where laterites from the Miocene are exposed. Rivers transported silica and other solutes which precipitated as the water evaporated in the arid interior. It is implied by this theory that the silcrete was deposited by precipitation in the Miocene, though the silcretes that have been recognised are of various ages. Silcrete from the Jurassic has been preserved in stratigraphic section (Wopfner, 1978). Some silcrete of the crystalline form, that is widely distributed, has been attributed to the Early Tertiary, with field evidence indicating that periods of silicification occurred during the Eocene and Oligocene (e.g., Wopfner, 1978;  Young & McDougall, 1982; Firman, 1983; Hou et al., 1983). An age has been suggested for silcrete in the Mid North region and the Arckaringa area of northern South Australia of the later Tertiary, of the Miocene or even the Pliocene (McGowran et al., 1971; McNally & Wilson, 1995).

Only the older laterites of the Yilgarn Block in southwestern Western Australia and the Gulfs region of South Australia, of all the these duricrusts, enter into consideration as conservative factors that involve very old palaeosurfaces.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Mary E White, After the Greening, The Browning of Australia, Kangaroo Press, 1994
  2. Smith, Mike, 2013, The Archaeology of Australia's Deserts, Cambridge World Archaeology Series, Cambridge University Press




Author: M. H. Monroe
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