Origin and karst geomorphological significance of the enigmatic Australian Nullarbor Plain ‘blowholes’

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Abstract

The Australian Nullarbor Plain, one of the world's largest limestone platforms (˜200 000 km2), has few distinctive surface karst features for its size, but is known for its enigmatic ‘blowholes’, which can display strong barometric draughts. Thousands of these vertical tubes with decimetre–metre (dm–m) scale diameter puncture the largely featureless terrain. The cause and distribution of these has remained unclear, but they have been thought to originate from downward dissolution and/or salt weathering.

To elucidate blowhole distribution and mode of formation we (i) correlated existing location data with Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) data, which distinguishes the subtle undulations (< 10 m per km) of the landscape, (ii) surveyed blowhole morphology and (iii) determined their rock surface hardness.

Over a sampled area of 4200 km2, the distribution of 615 known blowholes is not correlated with present topography. Blowholes are often connected to small or, in some cases extensive, but typically shallow cavities, which exhibit numerous ‘cupolas’ (dome-shaped pockets) in their ceilings. Statistical arguments suggest that cavities with cupolas are common, but in only a few cases do these puncture the surface. Hardness measurements indicate that salt weathering is not their main cause. Our observations suggest that blowholes do not develop downwards, but occur where a cupola breaks through the surface. Lowering of the land surface is suggested to be the main cause for this breakthrough. Although cupolas may undergo some modification under the current climate, they, as well as the shallow caves they are formed in, are likely to be palaeokarst features formed under a shallower water table and wetter conditions in the past. The findings presented have implications for theories of dissolutional forms development in caves worldwide. The environmental history of the Nullarbor platform allows testing of such theories, because many other factors, which complicate karst evolution elsewhere, have not interfered with landform evolution here. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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