The palaeoenvironmental history of Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone

Scott Mooney, James Goff and Lennard Martin

Key words (<5 words): sediments, palaeoenvironmental reconstruction, radiocarbon dating

Introduction. Palaeoecology (i.e. study of past environments using fossils and sediment cores) is often used to provide information regarding past environmental conditions. In comparison to modern ecological research, the expanded temporal perspective of palaeoecology unlocks an understanding of pre-anthropogenic variability and how ecosystems have responded to past disturbance and perturbations, thereby allowing consideration of their resilience to various environmental change.

Our Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone Research Program (THPSSRP) research has investigated a number of sites in the Blue Mountains and on the Newnes Plateau. Our project aimed to use the sediments accumulating in these sandstone swamps to better understand the dynamics of these ecosystems over time frames that far exceed what is possible through environmental monitoring. We have been documenting the stratigraphy of the sediments using probing and sediment coring/sampling, in association with radiometric (14C, 210Pb) dating, and applying various palaeoenvironmental techniques and proxies to characterize these environments. Our ultimate aims were to characterise recent (historic) trends against the backdrop of a much longer temporal perspective from the palaeoenvironmental analyses and to examine the responses of the swamps over both long (since sediments started accumulating) and short (high-resolution) time frames to disturbance, environmental change and climatic variability.

Sydney Basin Meta-study of Accumulating Sediments. The first component of our research involved a meta-analysis of previous data regarding the ages and organic content of sediments in various depositional environments across the Sydney region. Our aim was to consider rates of sediment accumulation in the post-glacial period (the period since the last glacial maximum, about 21,000 years ago): this information informed our subsequent sampling strategies (e.g. depth of coring, resolution of analyses) and can be used in for future research to better target various chronozones. It is probable that rates of sediment accumulation reflect landscape instability/stability and together with organic content, this provides palaeoenvironmental information relevant to the overall aims of this project. For this component we collated and recalibrated radiocarbon dates (n=132) from 44 sites across the Sydney region, and we identified a subset of 12 sites with quantification of the organic content of the accumulating sediments.

Findings. The synthesis of these data revealed that sedimentation rates underwent a dramatic increase from ~0.2 mm/yr to ~0.6 mm/yr at the beginning of the Holocene (about ~11,700 years ago), which probably reflects post-glacial climatic amelioration. Sedimentation rates remained relatively high during the Holocene, between 0. 4 and 0. 5 mm/yr, although brief decreases are evident, for example centred at 8200, 6500, 2000 and 1200 calibrated radiocarbon years before present (cal. y BP). Only in the last 400 cal y BP do sedimentation rates increase above those present for the majority of the Holocene, peaking at 0.7 mm/yr.

In contrast, organic material began accumulating at around 14,400 cal y BP in these depositional environments, earlier than the 11,700 cal BP increase in sedimentation rates. Before this time all sites exhibited relatively low rates of highly minerogenic sedimentation. After ~14,400 cal y BP the organic content of the sites gradually increased in a trajectory that continued throughout the Holocene, albeit with some major excursions from this trend. As an example, organic content peaked between about 7,500 and 6,000 cal y BP, only to fall to a low at about 5,400 cal y BP, which is then followed by a rapid increase to another peak between about 4,500 and 4,000 cal y BP. This last peak in organic content achieves similar values to the surface/modern samples. This peak (6.7ka)-trough (5.4ka)-peak (4.2ka)-trough (3.2ka) sequence suggests considerable variation in the controls of organic matter production and accumulation, which are mostly climatic parameters. The palaeoenvironmental implications of these results are currently being written for submission to a scientific journal.

Field–based Sampling. Field-based sampling for this research has focused on stable depositional environments in the Sydney region:

  1. Goochs Crater in the Upper Blue Mountains. This site appears to have formed after a rock fall dammed the upper reaches of a relatively narrow valley/canyon. The site is presently a freshwater reed swamp with semi-permanent surface water, although the site has both flooded and burnt since first we first visited. After investigating the stratigraphy and depth of the accumulating sediments, three cores have been collected (G1,G2 & G3) along a transect from the edge to the centre. G1 is a 455 cm long core sampled close to the current waters edge: radiocarbon dating indicates that this represents from the present day back to about 9,500 cal y BP. This core is mostly organic-rich (>60% loss-on-ignition) but these authochthonous sediments are interspersed with abrupt (allochthonous) layers of sand and charcoal, probably transported to this location after major fire events. Our G2 core is 985 cm long and spans the period from about 4,000 to 17,500 cal y BP: it is also highly organic (20-95% loss-on-ignition) but does not include sand/charcoal layers. Core G3 extended down to highly minerogenic sediments at a depth of 795 cm and has a very similar stratigraphy to core G2.
  2. Queens Swamp near Lawson in the Blue Mountains. Queens Swamp was (re-)cored to a depth of 3.8 m and the sediment profile revealed alternating layers of sandy and peaty sediments similar to the edge core (G1) from Goochs Crater. Radiocarbon dating of the Queens Swamp cores suggests a rapidly accumulating upper section of sediments overlying a much older basal layer.
  3. Hanging Rocks Swamp located in Penrose State Forest in the Southern Highlands. A 5.6 m sediment core was also obtained Hanging Rock Swamp and these sediments returned a basal date of 14,500 cal y BP.

Field observations and preliminary results from fieldwork have been published in Quaternary Australasia and Australian Plant Conservation.

Radiocarbon Dating of Sediments. Our THPSS research has involved 35 new radiocarbon (14C) analyses so far across the three sites (Goochs, Queens, Hanging Rock) mentioned above, with a few more planned soon. Twenty of these dates resulted from two AINSE grants, which allowed accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) 14C dates. This dating was undertaken to develop robust chronologies of the sediments so that palaeoenvironmental changes could be well constrained, but we also undertook some experimentation to consider the optimum sediment fraction for future 14C dating. The sediment fractions considered were charcoal, pollen and short-lived plant macrofossils that were all isolated from the same depth in the sediment profiles. Preliminary results, in preparation for submission at the moment, suggest that charcoal has an inbuilt age of 60-500 years and plant macrofossils return an age closest to the true (modeled) age of that depth.

Preliminary Palaeoenvironmental Interpretation and Conclusions. A variety of palaeoenvironmental techniques have been applied to the sediments sampled from Goochs Crater and together they provide information about past environmental conditions. As an example, sediment humification, which provides clues to surface moisture conditions at the time of deposition, suggests that the period from 9,500 to 7,500 cal y BP was relatively dry, which contrasts with previous palaeoclimatic inferences for this region. As different photosynthetic and metabolic pathways mean that the ratio of carbon/nitrogen can distinguish between aquatic and terrestrial sources of organic matter we analysed this ratio in 32 samples across the G2 core from Goochs Crater. These results suggests that aquatic sources of organic material dominated from 17,500 to 15,000 cal y BP and between 15,000 to 10,000 cal y BP conditions favored both aquatic and terrestrial sources. A rapid departure to highly terrestrial sources was evident at 10,000 cal y BP, after which a gradual change towards contemporary conditions, with a small aquatic influence, was evident.

While this demonstrates that much of the (contemporary) accumulating sediments at Goochs Crater are derived from within the site, it also receives inorganic aeolian materials from a larger source area.  To investigate this component we quantified the grainsize along the sediment profile to reveal that although clay content remains near constant (~ 5%) for the entire period, sand-sized particles shows a distinct increase in the period between 10,000 and 7,000 cal y BP before disappearing from the record. X-ray fluorescence scanning was also conducted on the G2 core resulting in elemental profiles for 32 elements at a very high (1mm) resolution. While the geochemical investigation of peat and organic sediments is in its infancy, several elements show considerable promise as palaeoenvironmental proxies. In our record, titanium, probably resulting from freshly weathered materials and washed in during periods of high surface runoff, is variable between 17,500 and 12,000 cal y BP, followed by sustained low values throughout the Holocene except for an abrupt, brief increase at 10,000 cal y BP followed again by high levels from 9,500 to 8,500 cal y BP. Bromine, which indicates the deposition of marine aerosols, shows an opposite trend to titanium, with low values until the early Holocene when a gradual increase begins, most likely indicating increased maritime influence on the hydrology of the site as sea level rose and stabilized in the post-glacial period.

In summary, it appears that Goochs Crater began accumulating organic sediments around 17,500 cal y BP, shortly after which a small, shallow lake developed and persisted in an otherwise sparsely vegetated landscape. The establishment of shoreline vegetation by about 15,000 years ago contributed to the accumulating sediments and this seems to have occurred under a climate of strong but variable westerly winds. A gradual but increasing oceanic influence affected the site until 10,000 cal. BP. before abrupt drying occurred. Increased sand present in the record during the early Holocene and other information suggests a relatively dry period. During the rest of the Holocene, the site returned to a wet, swampy environment: we are currently re-analysing the edge core with a broader suite of proxies to better characterize the late Holocene and it is envisaged that this will result in a complete moisture-focused palaeoenvironmental record from the site from 17,500 cal. BP to present. In the rest of this project (it will run until the end of 2016) we will finalize the interpretation of the other sites and the synthesis will provide a regional picture of palaeoclimatic influences on these important ecological communities. This work will also be compared to high-resolution fire histories that are being developed across the region.

Stakeholders, Funding and Acknowledgements. This research was funded through the Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone Research Program (THPSS Research Program). This Program was funded through an enforceable undertaking as per section 486A of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 between the Minister for the Environment, Springvale Coal Pty Ltd and Centennial Angus Place Pty Ltd.  Further information on the enforceable undertaking and the terms of the THPSS Research Program can be found at This work has benefited from discussion with Martin Krogh, Doug Benson, Sarsha Gorissen, Geoff Hope, Roger Good and Jennie Whinam.  This work has also been supported by a 2014 and 2015 AINSE Research Award (ALNGRA14019 and 15019) to SM.

Contact information. The project ‘Palaeoenvironments of sandstone peat’ is being undertaken by A/Prof Scott Mooney (School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Science (BEES) UNSW +61 2 9385 8063,, Professor James Goff  (School of BEES UNSW and Mr Len Martin (PhD candidate, School of BEES, UNSW, +61 2 9385 8063,

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