Hydrogeology of Palm Valley, central Australia; A Pleistocene flora refuge?

John D.H. Wischusen*, L. Keith Fifield, Richard G. Cresswell

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    19 Citations (Scopus)


    The Palm Valley Oasis (Finke Gorge National Park) in arid central Australia is characterised by large stands of red cabbage palm trees (Livistona mariae). How these unique plants, over 1000 km away from nearest relatives in the tropical parts of northern Australia persist, has long fascinated visitors. The hydrogeology of this area helps explain this phenomenon. Stable isotope (δ2H, δ8O) analyses shows groundwater to have a uniform composition that plots on or near a local meteoric water line. Carbon-14 results are observed to vary throughout this aquifer from effectively dead (<4%) to 87% modern carbon. Ratios of chlorine-36 to chloride range from 130 to 290×10-15 36Cl/Cl. In this region atmospheric 36Cl/Cl ratio is around 300×10-15. Thus an age range of around 300ka is indicated if, as is apparent radioactive decay is the only significant cause of 36Cl/Cl variation within the aquifer. The classic homogenous aquifer with varying surface topography flow model is the simplest conceptual model that need be invoked to explain these data. Complexities, associated with local topography flow cells superimposed on the regional gradient, may mean groundwater with markedly different flow path lengths has been sampled. This potential flow path complexity, which is also evidenced by slight variation in groundwater cation ratios, can account for the distribution of isotope age data throughout the aquifer. Given the likely very slow travel times indicated by this aquifer's hydraulic properties, age differences of the magnitude indicated from chlorine-36 data are feasible. The likely slow travel times (>100ka) along some flow paths indicate groundwater discharge would endure through arid phases associated with Quaternary climate oscillations. Such a flow system can explain the persistence of this population of Palms and also highlight the possibility that Palm Valley has acted as a flora refuge since at least the mid Pleistocene.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)20-46
    Number of pages27
    JournalJournal of Hydrology
    Issue number1-4
    Publication statusPublished - Jun 2004


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