Australian plate motion and topography linked to fossil New Guinea slab below Lake Eyre

W. P. Schellart*, W. Spakman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Unravelling causes for absolute plate velocity change and continental dynamic topography change is challenging because of the interdependence of large-scale geodynamic driving processes. Here, we unravel a clear spatio-temporal relation between latest Cretaceous-Early Cenozoic subduction at the northern edge of the Australian plate, Early Cenozoic Australian plate motion changes and Cenozoic topography evolution of the Australian continent. We present evidence for a ~4000 km wide subduction zone, which culminated in ophiolite obduction and arc-continent collision in the New Guinea-Pocklington Trough region during subduction termination, coinciding with cessation of spreading in the Coral Sea, a ~5 cm/yr decrease in northward Australian plate velocity, and slab detachment. Renewed northward motion caused the Australian plate to override the sinking subduction remnant, which we detect with seismic tomography at 800-1200 km depth in the mantle under central-southeast Australia at a position predicted by our absolute plate reconstructions. With a numerical model of slab sinking and mantle flow we predict a long-wavelength subsidence (negative dynamic topography) migrating southward from ~50 Ma to present, explaining Eocene-Oligocene subsidence of the Queensland Plateau, ~330 m of late Eocene-early Oligocene subsidence in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Oligocene-Miocene subsidence of the Marion Plateau, and providing a first-order fit to the present-day, ~200 m deep, topographic depression of the Lake Eyre Basin and Murray-Darling Basin. We propound that dynamic topography evolution provides an independent means to couple geological processes to a mantle reference frame. This is complementary to, and can be integrated with, other approaches such as hotspot and slab reference frames.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)107-116
Number of pages10
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2015


  • Australia
  • Dynamic topography
  • New Guinea
  • Plate tectonic reconstruction
  • Seismic tomography
  • Subduction


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