Environmental evolution of the Gulf of Carpentaria region, the world's largest tropical epicontinental seaway, through the last glacial cycle has been determined from a series of six sediment cores. These cores form the focus of a multi-disciplinary study to elucidate sea level, climate and environmental change in the region. The sedimentary record reveals a series of facies including open shallow marine, marginal marine, estuarine, lacustrine and subaerial exposure, throughout the extent of the basin during this period.
The partial or complete closure of the central basin from marine waters results from sea level falling below the height of one or both of the sills that border the Gulf—the Arafura Sill to the west (53 m below present sea level (bpsl)) and Torres Strait to the east (12 m bpsl). The extent and timing of these closures, and restriction of the shallow waterbody within, are intrinsic to local ocean circulation, available latent heat transport and the movement of people and animals between Australia and New Guinea.
Whilst the occurrence of the palaeo-Lake Carpentaria has previously been identified, this study expands on the hydrological conditions of the lacustrine phases and extends the record through the Last Interglacial, detailing the previous sea-level highstand (MIS 5.5) and subsequent retreat.
When sea levels were low during the MIS 6 glacial period, the Gulf was largely subaerially exposed and traversed by meandering rivers. The MIS 5 transgression (∼130 ka BP) led to marine then alternating marine/estuarine conditions through to MIS 4 (∼70 ka BP) when a protracted lacustrine phase, of varying salinity and depth/area, and including periods of near desiccation, persisted until about 12.2 cal ka BP. The lake expanded to near maximum size (∼190 000 km2) following the intensification/restoration of the Australian monsoon at 14 ka BP. This lake-full phase was short-lived, as by 12.2 cal ka BP, marine waters were entering the basin, coincident with the progressive sea-level rise. Fully marine conditions were restored by about 10.5 cal ka BP by westward connection to the Arafura Sea (Indian Ocean), whereas connections to the Pacific Ocean (Coral Sea) did not occur until about 8 cal ka BP.