Rapid change in drift of the Australian plate records collision with Ontong Java plateau


The subduction of oceanic plateaux, which contain extraordinarily thick basaltic crust and are the marine counterparts of continental flood-basalt provinces, is an important factor in many current models of plate motion1,2,3,4 and provides a potential mechanism for triggering plate reorganization5. To evaluate such models, it is essential to decipher the history of the collision between the largest and thickest of the world’s oceanic plateaux, the Ontong Java plateau, and the Australian plate, but this has been hindered by poor constraints for the arrival of the plateau at the Melanesian trench. Here we present 40Ar–39Ar geochronological data on hotspot volcanoes in eastern Australian that reveal a strong link between collision of the Greenland-sized Ontong Java plateau with the Melanesian arc and motion of the Australian plate. The new ages define a short-lived period of reduced northward plate motion between 26 and 23 Myr ago, coincident with an eastward offset in the contemporaneous tracks of seamount chains in the Tasman Sea east of Australia. These features record a brief westward deflection of the Australian plate as the plateau entered and choked the Melanesian trench 26 Myr ago. From 23 Myr ago, Australia returned to a rapid northerly trajectory at roughly the same time that southwest-directed subduction began along the Trobriand trough6. The timing and brevity of this collisional event correlate well with offsets in hotspot seamount tracks on the Pacific plate, including the archetypal Hawaiian chain7, and thus provide strong evidence that immense oceanic plateaux, like the Ontong Java, can contribute to initiating rapid change in plate boundaries and motions on a global scale.

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Figure 1: Simplified reconstructions of the western Pacific.
Figure 2: Distribution of Cenozoic volcanism on the Australian plate.
Figure 3: Ages obtained by 40Ar– 39Ar dating for silicic volcanic rocks versus latitude, showing abrupt change in volcanic migration rate.


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We thank M. Cloos, A. Ewart, M. Gasparon, A. Koppers, G. Rosenbaum and W. Sharp for comments; the Queensland and New South Wales Parks and Wildlife Services and various landowners for permission to undertake fieldwork on their properties; and A. Ewart and F. L. Sutherland for providing samples. Construction of the University of Queensland Argon Geochronology in Earth Sciences laboratory (UQ-AGES) was partially funded by the ARC; this project was funded through UQ-AGES contract research and an Australian Postgraduate award to B.E.C.

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Correspondence to Kurt M. Knesel or Benjamin E. Cohen.

Supplementary information

The file contains Supplementary Figures 1-7 with Legends and Supplementary Tables 1-3

The file contains 40Ar/39Ar incremental-heating spectra, total-fusion results, and isochron diagrams for the Main Range, Tweed, Belmore, Ebor and Comboyne central volcanoes in eastern Australia in Supplementary Figures 1-5. Supplementary Figure 6 shows 40Ar/39Ar incremental-heating results for the international standard GA1550. Supplementary Figure 7 shows half-spreading rates for Australia and Antarctica for the last ~40 million years, calculated from seafloor-spreading magnetic anomalies, which provide independent evidence for a reduction in Australian plate velocity at 26 Ma. The caption to Supplementary Figure 7 also contains a brief discussion of paleomagnetic evidence, from both the marine and continental records, in support of the identified plate-motion change between 26-23Ma. The file also contains Supplementary Tables 1 and 2 that provide sample locality information and a summary of incremental-heating and total-fusion 40Ar/39Ar results, respectively. Supplementary Table 3 provides the full 40Ar/39Ar analytical dataset, including J factors and discrimination values. (PDF 4736 kb)

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Knesel, K., Cohen, B., Vasconcelos, P. et al. Rapid change in drift of the Australian plate records collision with Ontong Java plateau. Nature 454, 754–757 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature07138

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