Far beneath the surface of central Australia, seismic waves echo through the ancient rock. Meanwhile, hundreds of feet above, a team of scientists are poring over reams of data. And with this advanced technology, they’re piecing together an incredible picture of an ancient world – and it’s one with an explosive surprise in store.
Millions of years ago – when dinosaurs roamed the Earth – Australia was very different to the place that it is today. For instance, on the border between Queensland and South Australia, great rivers once flowed. But now there’s not a drop of moisture in sight: the land is instead carpeted with dust. And, by using new tools and technologies, researchers are even closer to realizing the full extent of this Jurassic landscape.
Typically, we use fossils and other relics to discover more about what the world was like in the distant past. But at the University of Adelaide, one group of researchers has developed a pioneering new technique that has allowed them to finally glimpse the secret that has lain buried beneath Australia for the past 180 million years.
Before we find out exactly what these experts discovered, though, let’s first learn more about the fascinating Jurassic period. This era began around 200 million years ago and lasted for 56 million years. And during this stage, the dinosaurs become the dominant form of life on Earth. But it wasn’t just the flora and fauna that appeared differently to how they do today. You see, beneath the surface, the world was dramatically different as well.
Before the Jurassic period, much of the Earth was taken up by the supercontinent Pangaea. In fact, most of the countries and continents that cover our planet today were once part of this vast landmass. When the age of the dinosaurs dawned, though, this huge continent began to drift apart.
In the north, part of Pangaea broke off and became the landmass that’s known today as Laurasia. Eventually, though, this too would separate, forming the modern continent of North America as well as much of China and western Europe. Conversely, in the south, the massive supercontinent of Gondwana was created.
However, this new landmass did not stay together for the duration of the Jurassic period. Yes, soon Gondwana began to break apart, too. Today, the remnants of this supercontinent are scattered across the globe and form parts of Australia, Antarctica, South America, Africa, the Arabian peninsula and the Indian subcontinent.
In the part of Gondwana that would become Australia, the climate was warm, and the land thickly forested with trees. And as you might expect, in this pleasant environment a wide variety of life in time began to flourish. As well as the dinosaurs that would eventually come to rule the land, the seas were filled with giant marine reptiles such as plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs.
But as all manner of strange and fantastical creatures continued to thrive, things were shifting deep beneath the ground. You see, around 180 million years ago, Gondwana began to break up into smaller pieces. And eventually, the part of the supercontinent that would become Australia split from the landmass that is now known as Antarctica and settled in its current location between the Pacific and Indian oceans.
Amazingly, it would take until the 19th century before science would begin to understand the complex process that led to the formation of today’s continents. And even now, there are many things that we still don’t understand about the world beneath the surface. But thanks to the work of an international team of scientists, Mother Nature has been forced to give up another of her secrets.
On July 31, 2019, researchers from the University of Aberdeen and the University of Adelaide released a paper detailing the findings of a recent study. The team had used a technique known as seismic reflection to explore the terrain beneath the Cooper and Eromanga basins – stretching across the Australian states of Queensland and South Australia.
Simply put, seismic reflection uses energy waves to map the geography beneath the surface of the Earth. By using technology that has been adapted from that used by the gas and oil industries, researchers can measure how long it takes for waves to bounce off underground structures and return to the surface. And with that data, they can build a picture of the underground terrain.
“We essentially create soundwaves that are sent downwards from the Earth’s surface,” Simon Holford from the University of Adelaide told Australian Geographic in August 2019. “When these soundwaves encounter a boundary between different sedimentary rock types, some of the soundwave is bounced back to the Earth’s surface, where it is recorded and used to create a highly detailed image of the subsurface.”
But what the researchers discovered was something that none of them were likely to have predicted. According to the study – which appeared in the scientific journal Gondwana Research – they uncovered approximately 100 volcanoes buried beneath the surface of central Australia. And thanks to this incredible find, the team has been learning more about what the region was like during the Jurassic era.
So that the researchers could build up a more comprehensive view of the volcanoes, they also referred to data that had been gathered from studying gravity and magnetics in the region. And alongside the mass of craters and ancient lava paths, the scientists also discovered the chambers that would once have fed magma up towards the surface.
The volcanoes – thought to have been active between 180 million and 160 million years ago – actually date from the same time that Gondwana began to break up into smaller landmasses. And according to researchers, the landscape in which they erupted was very different. In fact, the scientists believe that, back then, a network of river channels crisscrossed the Cooper and Eromanga basins.
However, the emergence of these ancient volcanoes seemingly transformed this corner of Australia beyond recognition. “During the time of volcanic activity there would have been a landscape of craters and fissures, spewing hot ash and lava into the air,” Holford explained. “You’d be running away when it was going off!”
In fact, it’s likely that the volcanoes wrought death and destruction on a large scale, although the team have yet to find any evidence of creatures killed by the eruptions. By the time that the activity eventually died down, the rivers of the region had been turned into coal swamps and putrid lakes. And in time, layers of sedimentary rock covered the fissures, meaning they remained hidden for millions of years.
According to Holford, the structures have much in common with the relatively recent eruptions that lie further to the southeast – including the picturesque Mount Gambier in South Australia. “They mostly have very well-developed cone-like morphologies, and many of them fed lava flows that traveled kilometers away from the volcanoes,” he told Australian Geographic.
Today, though, the volcanoes lie hundreds of feet beneath the surface of the Cooper and Eromanga basins. But despite their inaccessible location, their setting is far from unexplored terrain. After all, this region is at the center of Australia’s oil and gas industry, and the country’s most prolific source of these valuable resources.
In fact, the basins have been comprehensively drilled and explored since underground operations began in the region 60 years ago. So why haven’t the volcanoes been discovered until now? Well, according to Holford, at least part of the reason is that nobody expected to find them buried beneath this part of the world.
Typically, most of the volcanoes on Earth have formed at the edges of tectonic plates. In these locations, cracks can form, causing hot lava to erupt from beneath. Strangely, though, the fissures that were discovered in the Cooper and Eromanga basins were located in the middle of the Indo-Australian plate. And what’s more, their position would have been equally central back in Jurassic times.
“While the majority of Earth’s volcanic activity occurs at the boundaries of tectonic plates, or under the Earth’s oceans, this ancient Jurassic world developed deep within the interior of the Australian continent,” Holford explained in a statement issued by the University of Adelaide in August 2019. But it seems that this was only part of the story.
According to Holford, there was another reason that previous explorations had failed to discover what was hidden beneath the surface. Apparently, the techniques used by earlier researchers were not particularly well-suited to locating underground volcanoes. Yet this all changed – thanks to the work of the team from the University of Adelaide.
Luckily, Holford and his colleagues had been hard at work on a solution. And ultimately, the scientists developed a new way of using seismic waves to detect volcanic structures deep underground. However, the team could not have known that they would end up discovering scores of ancient fissures in their own home country.
In the statement issued by the University of Adelaide, the study’s co-author, Nick Schofield – a professor at the University of Aberdeen – also attested to the find’s significance. “The Cooper-Eromanga Basins have been substantially explored since the first gas discovery in 1963,” he explained. “This has led to a massive amount of available data from underneath the ground but, despite this, the volcanics have never been properly understood in the region until now.
“It changes how we understand processes that have operated in Earth’s past,” Schofield continued. But will this discovery have applications beyond the scientific? Well, although Australia’s oil and gas industry is relatively small in comparison to global powerhouses such as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, this new insight into the region’s underground terrain could provide a welcome boost.
“Drilling through volcanic rock is harder and more expensive than through sediment,” Holford explained in an August 2013 interview with IFLScience. “The drill bits keep wearing out.” But by mapping the location of underground volcanoes, the researchers have made it much easier for those searching for oil and gas to plot simpler courses.
However, Holford and his team are reportedly not holding their breath for any great paleontological discoveries. Apparently, the small size of the holes created by drilling rigs make it unlikely that any will reveal a hidden fossil. Moreover, the region’s Jurassic rocks are notoriously bare of dinosaur bones compared to those from the later Cretaceous age.
But despite the lack of fossils, the discovery has nevertheless sent shockwaves through the scientific community. And in honor of the country where it was found, the region has since been dubbed the Warnie Volcanic Province – or WPV. Partially inspired by the name of a drill site, known as Warnie East-1, the name also pays homage to a very Australian legend.
Back in November 2017 a PhD student and his supervisor from the University of Aberdeen were in Adelaide to collaborate with their colleagues. At the time, the country was preparing to host The Ashes: the famous cricket competition that sees sporting rivals Australia and England face up against each other.
According to Holford, the group decided to attend the competition, taking their work along with them. “We wrote much of the paper during a visit to Adelaide by the Aberdeen researchers, when a fair chunk was discussed and written at Adelaide Oval during an England vs. Cricket Australia XI match,” he explained in the statement from the University of Adelaide.
But how did this inspire the WVP’s unusual name? You see, at the time, the Australian cricketer Shane Warne had developed a reputation as a volatile individual with a penchant for blowing up during his games. Yet despite his temper, he was a skilled sportsman and was known as a legend to his legions of fans.
It seemed as if the cricketer – affectionately known as Warnie – was not quite so famous on the other side of the world, though. “I took my colleagues to watch the cricket, and the Aberdeen supervisor and I were horrified to hear that the Scottish PhD student had never heard of Shane Warne,” Holford told ABC News in August 2019.
So the decision was taken to name their latest discovery after the cricketer. “We felt we couldn’t miss the opportunity to nod to the fiery temperament and explosive talent of Shane Warne,” Holford explained. “He’s turning 50 next month, so he’s not quite as old as the volcanoes we discovered, but he can consider this an early birthday present.”
Meanwhile, Holford and his colleagues are excited about their discovery and what it could mean for future research in the region. “The fact that we’ve only now been able to identify this province of ancient Jurassic volcanoes really goes to show how little we know about the… evolution of Australia,” he confessed.
“It raises lots of questions as to what other ancient geological features might be preserved deep beneath the surface,” Holford continued. Meanwhile, in the study itself, the authors theorized that there could be even more underground fissures lying hidden elsewhere. “The discovery of the WVP raises the possibility of other, yet unidentified, volcanic provinces worldwide,” it reads.
Interestingly, this isn’t the only time that volcanoes have been discovered deep underground. In fact, in 2017 a team of researchers from Scotland’s University of Edinburgh announced the findings of their latest study. Using ice-penetrating radar, they had been scanning the vast expanse of western Antarctica for signs of submerged peaks.
Shockingly, they managed to discover plenty. In fact, the scientists were able to determine that there were nearly 100 volcanoes lurking beneath the ice – and some of them reached heights of more than 13,000 feet. And these fissures – located in a cluster that hugs the western coast of Antarctica – represent the biggest group of volcanoes on our planet. So if they erupt, they could potentially have a catastrophic effect on climate change.
However, back in Australia, researchers do not seem overly concerned that the underground volcanoes will erupt again any time soon. But this certainly doesn’t mean that they will be leaving their discovery alone. Instead, Holford believes that the scientists’ work should now focus on learning more about the WVP – and hopefully about the history of the continent itself. After all, who knows what else they might uncover?