Honours Projects: Palaeo- & Earth Science

Academics in Palaeo- & Earth Science

Professor Michael Archer

A/Professor Darren Curnoe

Professor Suzanne Hand 

Dr Carol Oliver

Professor Chris Turney

Professor Martin Van Kranendonk

Below are the current projects on offer in Palaeo- & Earth Science. Supervisors don't always advertise specific projects, but will happily discuss options with prospective students. If there is a research area or supervisor you might like to pursue, email the relevant academics and ask! They love to talk science.

Honours Projects


Project Title: The first whiffs of oxygen

Supervisors: Professor Martin Van Kranendonk

Synopsis: The rise of molecular oxygen within the atmosphere and oceans of Earth represents a fundamental revolution in the chemistry of our planet and gave rise to complex eukaryotic life. This rise is known as the Great Oxidation Event (GOE) and is known to have occurred at 2.4-2.3 billion years ago (Ga). However, it has recently been recognised that there were early whiffs of oxygen back to 2.6 Ga, and that the GOE was stepwise over a protracted period.

This project will investigate a new discovery of anhydrite (CaSO4) in 2.65 Ga rocks of the Hamersley Range, Western Australia, that occurs in thinly bedded carbonate rocks immediately beneath an impact-generated tsunami deposit, inferred to have been deposited in deep water. This anhydrite is the oldest known occurrence in the geological record. The presence of anhydrite points to the presence of free oxygen, but how it got in a deep water setting and what its relationship to the impact deposit is remain unknown.

The project will involve detailed mapping of the section containing the impact deposit and anhydrite crystals in Western Australia. As well, some detailed petrography and isotopic analyses of the carbonate rocks will be required.

Aims: The primary aim of this project is to gain a better understanding of the occurrence of anhydrite in thinly bedded marine carbonates of the Hamersley Group. A secondary aim is to better understand the environment of deposition of the carbonate and associated rocks in this part of the Hamersley Basin.

Benefits to Student: You get to tackle a world-first problem relating to the big questions of Astrobiology, including the evolution of life and onset of the oxygenation of the atmosphere. This project will introduce you to issues relating to the deep time evolution of our planet and life on Earth, as well as to a community on campus of wonderful post-grad students working on similar problems through time, and on Mars. I work closely with my honours students because I am always interested in their projects, so you will get plenty of guidance although I won’t spoon feed you! I have a very good track record of supervising students to first-class honours results.


 Project Title: Mineralisation and alteration of the epithermal sphalerite-rich Strauss deposit, Drake

Supervisors: Dr Ian T Graham, Ms Hongyan Quan (PhD student), Dr Dane Burkett (UNSW Research Fellow) and Mr Rohan Worland (White Rock Minerals Ltd)

Synopsis:
The Drake Goldfield is located within far north-eastern NSW, close to the Queensland border and some 55 km east of Tenterfield. This goldfield is within the New England Orogen, with most of the mineralisation hosted within the Middle Permian Drake Volcanics. The Strauss deposit is one of the richest deposits within the Drake Goldfield and contains both Au and Ag resources, along with Zn and Pb. Although previously mined in the 1980’s, little if any research has been conducted on this deposit.

Aims:

  • To map the Strauss open-cut in detail
  • To determine the structural evolution of the Strauss deposit
  • To characterise the vein assemblages within the Strauss deposit
  • To develop the relationship between host rocks, alteration assemblages and ore minerals.

Benefits to student: One year’s industry experience, learn to use and apply a wide range of analytical and statistical methods, learn detailed transmitted and reflected light petrography, learn about volcanic systems and associated epithermal deposits.


Project Title: Origin of secondary copper mineralisation in the Gladstone Hill and All Nations deposits, Drake

Supervisors: Dr Ian T Graham, Ms Hongyan Quan (PhD student), Dr Dane Burkett (UNSW Research Fellow) and Mr Rohan Worland (White Rock Minerals Ltd).

Synopsis:
The Drake Goldfield is located within far north-eastern NSW, close to the Queensland border and some 55 km east of Tenterfield. This goldfield is within the New England Orogen, with most of the mineralisation hosted within the Middle Permian Drake Volcanics. The Gladstone Hill and All Nations deposits are unusual for the Drake Goldfield in that they represent oxide and supergene copper mineralisation occurring at depths in excess of 100 metres below the surface and this does not occur elsewhere within the field. Also, no research has been conducted on these deposits.

Aims:

  • Determine oxide/supergene mineralogy
  • Determine paragenetic sequence
  • Develop model for mineralisation

Benefits to student: One year’s industry experience, learn to use and apply a wide range of analytical and statistical methods, learn detailed transmitted and reflected light petrography, learn about oxide and supergene zone processes.


Project Title: Volcanic stratigraphy and alteration in the Western copper deeps, Drake

Supervisors:  Dr Ian T Graham, Ms Hongyan Quan (PhD student), Dr Dane Burkett (UNSW Research Fellow) and Mr Rohan Worland (White Rock Minerals Ltd).

Synopsis:
The Drake Goldfield is located within far north-eastern NSW, close to the Queensland border and some 55 km east of Tenterfield. This goldfield is within the New England Orogen, with most of the mineralisation hosted within the Middle Permian Drake Volcanics. Three deep diamond holes were drilled below the Gladstone Hill deposit to test a large geophysical anomaly hoping to find porphyry Cu-Au mineralisation. These are the deepest holes so far drilled within the Drake Goldfield and are critical for our understanding of the volcanic stratigraphy and mineralisation within the Drake Goldfield as a whole. Also, no research has been conducted on these deposits.

Aims:

  • To characterise the volcanic facies through the Drake Volcanics
  • Determine the alteration mineralogy through the Drake Volcanics
  • Determine the paleotemperatures of the fluids using illite crystallinity

Benefits to student: One year’s industry experience, learn to use and apply a wide range of analytical and statistical methods, detailed transmitted and reflected light petrography, volcanic processes, volcanic stratigraphy and alteration associated with mineralisation in volcanic arc terranes.


Project Title: Annually-resolved records of fire and climate in Western Australia at the time of Australia’s demographic explosion

Supervisors: Pauline Treble (ANSTO), Andy Baker* (UNSW), Tim Cohen (University of Wollongong)

*interested students should contact Andy by e-mail: a.baker@unsw.edu.au 

Synopsis: Speleothems from WA have recently been demonstrated to contain continuous annual trace element laminae (Nagra et al 2017). This region therefore provides the best-possible chronologies from Australian speleothem records of past climate and fire. This project will utilise already sampled and dated specimens from Treble’s collection, which have deposited over the last 10ka from Yanchep Cave (north of Perth) and Quinninup Cave (Margaret River). Trace element and oxygen isotope data collected at annual to sub-annual resolution for time-periods of climatic and archaeological interest will provide records of fire frequency and intensity (applying the methods of Nagra et al 2016) and hydroclimate (using existing modern oxygen isotope calibration studies of Treble et al 2016), including cyclone frequency. The results will provide insights into the climate and fire history along a N-S gradient along west coast WA.

Nagra, G., Treble, P.C., Andersen, M.S., Bajo, P., Hellstrom, J. and Baker, A., 2017. Dating stalagmites in Mediterranean climates using annual trace element cycles. Scientific Reports, 7, Article number: 621.Nagra, G., Treble, P.C., Andersen, M.S., Fairchild, I.J., Coleborn, K. and Baker, A. 2016. A post-wildfire response in cave dripwater chemistry. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, 20, 2745-2758.Treble, P.C., Fairchild, I.J., Baker, A., Meredith, K.T., Andersen, M.S., Salmon, S.U., Bradley, C., Wynn, P.M., Hankin, S., Wood, A., McGuire, E., 2016. Roles of forest bioproductivity, transpiration and fire in a nine-year record of cave dripwater chemistry from southwest Australia, Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta  184, 132-150

Aims: To produce records of fire frequency and intensity and hydroclimate, including cyclone frequency, for the last 10,000 years, along a N-S gradient along west coast WA. 

Benefits to student: This project is aligned with the aims of the Australian Research Council funded Centre for Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH). We are seeking one or more honours student(s) to join a larger team working on climate and environmental history in Australia before the time of European arrival.  Honours researchers will experience research environments at UNSW, ANSTO and University of Wollongong, and obtain a range of skills including geochemical analyses, data interpretation and time series analysis. Eligible students are invited to apply for an AINSE Honours Scholarship ($5000, scheme opens each December).


Project Title: The potential of Callitris intratropica tree-rings and wood properties for climate reconstructions in the Northern Territory

Supervisors: Dr Jonathan Palmer, Prof Chris Turney, Dr Zoë Thomas

Synopsis: Tree rings have been used in various applications to reconstruct past climates as well as to assess the effects of recent climatic and environmental change on tree growth. While measuring ring-widths as a function of hydroclimate has been used in several Australian studies, recent developments have highlighted stronger climate signals can be reconstructed from using other tree-ring parameters than simple ring-widths.  Here we propose exploring the potential of blue-light absorbance (DBI) from tree-rings of Callitris intratopica in the Northern Territory for drought reconstructions. There is a pressing need for extended records of past drought conditions in the Northern Territory for helping to understand future risks.  Earlier work has proven the species can be used as a drought recorder (e.g. Palmer et al. 2015)– here we wish to explore if even stronger drought records can be obtained using the newly developed technique of tree-ring blue-light absorbance (DBI).

Aims: Comparison of climate sensitivityand other tree-ring properties of Callitris intratropica, using a collection of tree samples from the Northern Territory (Nitmiluk and Limmen National Parks).

Benefits to student: Through this project, you will learn how to design and carry out experiments, analyse and interpret data, and how to write a scientific paper. You will also be integrated in the Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, which has funding available for training and career development.


Project Title:Unearthing Australia’s climate history: Sampling and radiocarbon dating subfossil Tasmanian huon trees

Supervisors: Prof Chris Turney, Dr Zoë Thomas,Dr Jonathan Palmer

Synopsis: The timing and impacts of past, and future, abrupt and extreme climate change remains highly uncertain. Geological, chemical, and biological records (often referred to as ‘natural archives’) can inform on large-scale and often irreversible (centennial to millennial in duration) shifts in the climate system took place in the past. However, chronological uncertainties preclude high-precision correlation of records of palaeoenvironmental change. A major focus has been on the late Pleistocene (11,650 to 50,000 years ago; henceforth 11.65-50 ka) where contrasting Greenland and Antarctic temperature trends show millennial-scale warming (Greenland interstadial) events in the north leading cooling in the south (WAIS, 2015); thought to have driven by imbalances in the rate of formation of North Atlantic and Antarctic Deep Water (the ‘bipolar seesaw’) (Broecker, 1998; WAIS, 2015). However, multi-centennial uncertainties in the phasing of climate trends in ice core sequences and a poorly defined radiocarbon (14C) calibration curve (Reimer et al., 2013) have precluded the high-precision alignment of terrestrial, ice, marine and palaeofaunal records until now. While past changes in atmospheric 14C offer the potential to undertake high-precision correlation between terrestrial and marine records, no contiguous record of global atmospheric radiocarbon concentration is currently available across the full timescale (Turney et al., 2016). 

Aims: We have uncovered an extensive (250 trees) collection of subfossil huon pine in Tasmania. These trees were collected from river gravels up to several metres depth nearly 20 years ago but have not been studied. These trees offer considerable potential for providing detailed (annually-resolved) multicentennial records of atmospheric 14C. Unfortunately there is no current age control on any of these trees.  Previous field expeditions have demonstrated that subfossil huon pines from river gravels may be only a few centuries old or can be up to 40,000 years old. To provide rangefinder ages on these archived trees we have set up a project to radiocarbon date all 250 trees. Success in this project will allow us to target the trees of late Pleistocene age and undertake more detailed (continuous) 14C measurements for high-precision alignment of terrestrial, marine and ice records. For this Honours project, a student will be required to visit Tasmania to systematically sample all the archived trees and prepare them for 14C dating at UNSW. The student will also be required to spend 2 weeks at a radiocarbon dating facility. No previous experience is required but a passion for using the past to understand the Earth system is crucial.

Benefits to student: Through this project, you will learn how to design and carry out experiments, analyse and interpret data, and how to write a scientific paper. You will also be integrated in the Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, which has funding available for training and career development.