Journal of Soils and Sediments

, Volume 16, Issue 2, pp 687–706 | Cite as

Clay mineral source tracing and characterisation of Burdekin River (NE Australia) and flood plume fine sediment

  • Zoe BainbridgeEmail author
  • Stephen Lewis
  • Scott Smithers
  • Scott Wilkinson
  • Grant Douglas
  • Stephen Hillier
  • Jon Brodie
Sediments, Sec 3 • Hillslope and River Basin Sediment Dynamics • Research Article



The purpose of this study is to define the relative contributions of fine (<10 μm) suspended sediment from tributaries within the Burdekin River catchment, NE Australia, and subsequent delivery to the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) lagoon. The temporal variability in these contributions was also investigated.

Materials and methods

Sediments in river and flood plume water samples were analysed for particle size and clay mineral abundance at 31 sites across the Burdekin catchment. Sampling sites included minor tributaries, sub-catchment, reservoir and end-of-river outlets, and the adjacent coastal flood plume. Samples were collected during multiple wet season streamflow events from 2005–2011. Particle size data were used to calculate catchment-wide fine sediment (<10 μm) and clay-only (<4 μm) budgets, and a clay mineral ratio was used to distinguish geological source areas.

Results and discussion

This sediment source tracing study identified basaltic, granitic and sedimentary geologies as the dominant sources of end-of-river and flood plume fine sediments (<10 μm) across the Burdekin. A clay mineral ratio (illite/illite + expandable clays) clearly distinguished between the two main catchment source areas (Upper Burdekin and Bowen River sub-catchments), highlighting the importance of considering both of these sources for management of the finer sediment fractions that are potentially more ecologically damaging in the marine environment. This ratio also highlighted the relative enrichment of expandable clays (i.e. those containing a ‘shink-swell’ smectitic component) along the salinity gradient within remaining flood plume fine sediment.


The distinctive geological source-related ‘fingerprints’ found in this study validate the relative proportions of clay minerals as a valuable tracing tool in large and geologically complex catchment settings and across freshwater–marine continuums.


Catchments Clay mineral ratios Erosion Great Barrier Reef Sediment budget Sediment fingerprinting Turbidity 



Funding for this research was supported by the Australian Government’s Marine and Tropical Sciences Research Facility, implemented in North Queensland by the Reef and Rainforest Research Centre Ltd and the North Queensland Dry Tropics. ZTB is the grateful recipient of a JCU/CSIRO Tropical Landscapes Joint Venture and College of Marine and Environmental Sciences (CMES) Joint PhD Scholarship. ZTB also received funding from CSIRO (including Dr Petra Kuhnert’s Julius Award) and JCU’s TropWATER/CMES to attend the ‘X-ray diffraction analysis of clay minerals’ course at the James Hutton Institute (Aberdeen, Scotland). We gratefully acknowledge the grazier volunteer network for their dedicated sampling efforts, Tony Bailey and Gary Caddies (SunWater) for collecting the BFD samples and the Queensland Department of Science, Information Technology, Innovation and the Arts GBR Loads Monitoring Program for providing additional data and Reef Policy Project (RP65G) for collection of the Old Reef sample. Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines provided streamflow gauging station data. We are also grateful to Brendan Jones (Advanced Analytical Centre, JCU) for XRD analytical support. Finally, deep appreciation is expressed to Dr Raphael Wust for generous assistance with initial interpretation discussions. The manuscript benefited from the constructive comments of Dr Rebecca Bartley and Dr Elisabeth Bui, CSIRO, the Submission Editor, Hugh Smith and two anonymous reviewers.

Supplementary material

11368_2015_1282_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (868 kb)
Fig. S1 Proportion of clay, fine silt and coarse sediment contributed by each sub-catchment tributary site (see Table 1 for site names). Circle size represents mean total suspended solids (TSS) concentration (mg L-1) over the study period. Major sub-catchment, reservoir and end-of-river sites are also included (represented by bold circle) (PDF 868 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Zoe Bainbridge
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
    Email author
  • Stephen Lewis
    • 1
  • Scott Smithers
    • 1
    • 2
  • Scott Wilkinson
    • 4
  • Grant Douglas
    • 5
  • Stephen Hillier
    • 6
    • 7
  • Jon Brodie
    • 1
  1. 1.Catchment to Reef Research Group, TropWATERJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  2. 2.College of Marine and Environmental SciencesJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  3. 3.CSIRO Land and WaterTownsvilleAustralia
  4. 4.CSIRO Land and WaterCanberraAustralia
  5. 5.CSIRO Land and Water CELSFloreatAustralia
  6. 6.The James Hutton InstituteAberdeenScotland
  7. 7.Department of Soil and EnvironmentSwedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU)UppsalaSweden

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