Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Paleomagnetic Rotation Study of Woodlark-Australia plate motions in the Woodlark Rift, SE Papua New Guinea

posted on 2024-06-12, 22:19 authored by Cairns, Elizabeth Ann

The Woodlark Rift in SE Papua New Guinea is a continental rift to the west of active oceanic spreading in the Woodlark Basin, which separates the Australian Plate to the south from the relatively anticlockwise rotating Woodlark Plate to the north. During Pliocene to Recent times the Woodlark Rift has been the setting for rapid exhumation of the world’s youngest UHP rocks (Baldwin et al., 2004, 2008; Gordon et al, 2012; Little et al., 2011), and is currently one of few places on the globe where active continental breakup is occurring ahead of a propagating oceanic spreading centre. While the Woodlark Basin contains a record of oceanic spreading since ˜6 Ma (Taylor et al., 1999), and GPS data describe present-day crustal motions (Wallace et al., manuscript in review), the Neogene temporal and kinematic evolution of continental extension in the Woodlark Rift is less well constrained. We compare Characteristic magnetization directions for six formations, Early Miocene (˜20 Ma) to Late Pliocene (3 ± 0.5), with contemporaneous expected field directions corresponding to Australian Plate paleomagnetic pole locations. We interpret declination anomalies (at 95% confidence) to estimate finite vertical-axis rotations of crustal blocks with respect to a fixed Australian Plate. Temporal and spatial relationships between declination anomalies for six formation mean directions, across four paleomagnetic localities, provide new evidence to constrain aspects of the Miocene to Recent history of the Woodlark Rift.  We obtained 250 oriented core samples from Miocene to Pliocene aged rocks at four localities in the Woodlark Rift. Components of Characteristic Remanent Magnetization (ChRM) have been determined from step-wise thermal and alternating field demagnetization profiles of >300 individual specimens. A total of 157 ChRM components contribute to the calculation of representative paleomagnetic directions for six formations, which have undergone vertical-axis rotations with respect to the Australian Plate associated with development of the Woodlark Rift.  Pliocene volcanic rocks at two key localities near the northern extent of the rift record that: 1) The Amphlett Islands has experienced 10.1 ± 7.6° of anticlockwise rotation since 3 ± 0.5 Ma; 2) NW Normanby Island has undergone a 16.3 ± 9.5° clockwise rotation during the same time interval. Sedimentary rocks at Cape Vogel Peninsula on the northern coast of the mainland Papuan Peninsula, record variable anticlockwise finite rotations of 28.4 ± 10.9° and 12.4 ± 5.5° for Early and Middle Miocene rocks respectively, in contrast to a younger clockwise rotation of 6.5 ± 11.2° for Late Miocene rocks. At the Suau Coast locality, on the south eastern coast of the Papuan Peninsula, Late Miocene dikes record 22.7 ± 13.3° of anticlockwise rotation.  At the Amphlett Islands and NW Normanby localities paleomagnetic data are consistent with current GPS plate motions, suggesting the current kinematics in the rift were established by at least ˜3 Ma. The Amphlett Islands result is consistent with the rate of Pliocene sea floor spreading in the Woodlark Basin, suggesting that locality can be considered as fully on the Woodlark Plate. The clockwise rotation indicated at NW Normanby Island may record development of an incipient dextral transfer fault within an active part of the Woodlark Rift.  Time-varying declination anomalies from the Cape Vogel Peninsula suggest that rifting began there by ˜15 Ma, 7 Ma earlier than previously inferred based on stratigraphic evidence. Furthermore, paleomagnetic data from the south coast of the Papuan Peninsula suggests that early rifting extended further south, and has since contracted to where continental extension is currently accommodated north of the Papuan Peninsula.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Master of Science

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970104 Expanding Knowledge in the Earth Sciences

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences


Little, Tim; Turner, Gillian