The identity of the Volcanic Seven Summits is well-known (see here). Of these, there is currently a recognition of Mount Giluwe as the highest volcano in Australasia. However for those who consider Australia (rather than Australasia) as the true continent, identification of the highest volcano in Australia may be of import. It could also affect people’s views of the volcanoes that are to be regarded as members of the Volcanic Seven Summits. A sort of Carstensz versus Kosciuszko argument as to which should be recognised as the seventh volcanic summit.
Determining which volcano is the highest in Australia has proven difficult to ascertain. This note does not come to a definitive conclusion. However, on balance I think that the answer is likely to be Brumlow Top in the Barrington Tops National Park of New South Wales. In coming to this view I have ignored Mawson Peak on Heard Island which is 2745m high. Whilst Heard Island is an Australian external territory, it is clearly not a part of the landmass of Australia itself.
[Since I originally wrote this blog, further survey work has been undertaken of certain of the Australian mountains. This has given Round Mountain the same height as Brumlow Top. I do not think that this changes the conclusions of this blog. However, those who are interested in climbing the highest might want to climb both!]
Readers will note that there is no mention of Mount Bogong. The Wikipedia page dealing with Australian volcanoes suggests that Mount Bogong is the highest volcano. However, there is at the time of writing this blog a comment in the Wikipedia entry suggesting that Mount Bogong’s entry is in error. “Mount Bogong is composed of metamorphic sedimentary rocks” it says. Indeed the coordinates given in Wikipedia for the location of the volcano lie 80km to the south of Mount Bogong. This is the location of the Bogong lava field. Mount Bogong does have volcanic rocks. However these have been uplifted in much the same way as those on Aconcagua (which was for a time also once thought to be an extinct volcano). So the evidence suggests that we can probably discount Mount Bogong.
What is a volcano?
This brings me to the question of what is a volcano? For this purpose I have discounted locations where volcanic activity has led merely to extrusions of lava at the Earth’s surface. I have also taken the view that to count as a continental (or country) high point for this purpose, there ought (if possible) to be a suitable prominence from its nearest highest neighbour.
In terms of the first condition (mere extrusions of lava) this makes no practical difference here. There are no such locations in Australia where this would determine which point is the highest volcano.
As for the second condition (prominence), I consider that 600m would be the right measure. Of course one can argue over the use of this number. It is only an opinion after all. But if one is talking about a volcanic mountain, then a suitable degree of prominence is (in my view) apt. In fact, in this case, the point only matters if one thinks that a prominence of less than 100m could define a volcanic mountain.
An equally interesting question is whether something that once was a volcano could subsequently cease to be one. This is not an issue with any of the currently recognised Volcanic Seven Summits. But, Australia is an ancient landmass. What happens where a mountain that once would have been categorised as a volcano is so eroded over time that it is reduced back to roughly its original landform, but now with a vent running up through it? This is the situation with one of the candidates listed below.
The table below identifies suitable candidates. Australia is not, I suspect, normally identified as a location of volcanic activity – at least by the lay person. But, as an ancient landmass, it has experienced significant amounts of volcanic activity over the millennia, particularly down the east coast. Being an ancient landmass, time has considerably eroded the volcanic formations. The volcanic activity has been in the form of shield volcanoes (rather than the more noticeable and readily identifiable stratovolcanoes) and lava fields (where lava exudes through faults in the Earth’s surface).
The highest volcano in Australia
Although my conclusion is that one should consider Brumlow Top to be the highest volcano, I am most certainly not an expert in volcanology (or geology). Quite the opposite. I have read a few articles on the internet by apparent experts. Many refer to scientific papers that are available only on payment which might shed more light on the matter. I have not sought to access those papers. So the conclusions in this note are up for debate.
If I am right, a more worthy winner would have been Mount Kaputar. It stands supremely isolated and does not suffer from trees enveloping its summit. So there are stunning views from the top. This mountain lies within the remains of a massive shield volcano where one can observe the impact of ancient forces. On the other hand, poor old Brumlow Top hides in the lush Gondwana rainforest, a swelling on a high plateau. There are no views. It is a fight through the bush even to reach the summit and you would not know it was even there if you weren’t looking for it.
The contenders are:
- Brumlow Top – the highest and with more than enough prominence. It was undoubtedly a part of the Barrington Tops shield volcano. But there may be some doubt as to whether it was a centre of volcanic activity. On the other hand it is located more centrally to the Barrington Tops area than Mount Barrington which is at the fringes of that area (see below). It would seem odd if the only eruptive activity occurred at that fringe.
- Round Mountain – lower than Brumlow Top (just) but higher than Mount Barrington. Almost certainly the location of a volcanic plug. However the volcano (if it was one) has mostly eroded away. The mountain now essentially consists of granite with the remnant of a volcanic vent within. As a result it does not seem appropriate to call Round Mountain a volcano. Otherwise it has sufficient prominence.
- Mount Barrington – almost as high as Brumlow Top and probably a centre of volcanic activity. However even the scientific papers I have seen suggest that this activity may have been “nearby”. But Mount Barrington does not have much prominence. It is a bump on the edge of the Barrington Tops plateau. There are two nearby tops higher than it, both of which have greater prominence (in Brumlow Top’s case considerably so).
- Mount Kaputar – undoubtedly a volcano with sufficient prominence. A lovely mountain in fact with great views. It would only get to number one spot if the three above were all discounted.
The table below provides height and prominence details taken from a variety of sources, especially Peakbagger.com, Wikipedia and Google Earth. There are often material differences between them. Indeed Wikipedia itself is often inconsistent between pages for the peaks themselves on the one hand and the page with the listing of Australian mountains on the other. So I have used the details that seem to be the most consistent. I have not looked at sites such as Summitpost or Australian National Park websites because in the end this did not seem to matter for the assessment.
So I repeat. I am not a geologist or volcanologist. Accordingly, my interpretation of the information that I have found may well be incorrect. I am happy to be challenged on the content and conclusions of this note as to Australia’s highest volcano.
Any volcanologists out there?
|Name of volcano||Contender peaks||Height and prominence||Ranking of contender|
|Tweed||The Tweed volcano is one of the largest volcanoes in the world. It was originally around 100km in diameter. Its lava flows all the way east to the Pacific Ocean. There remains a 30km diameter caldera wall within the original extent of the volcano. At the centre of the caldera is Wollumbin (also known as Mount Warning) which with its striking shape is a well-known landmark and, despite its relatively lowly height, can be seen out to sea even though it is about 35km from the Pacific coast.|
|Not ranked although it has more than enough prominence. There are many peaks forming parts of eroded volcanoes that are higher than Wollumbin.|
|The Tweed volcano also incorporates:||Mount Barney (McPherson Range)||H: 1359m/4459ft |
|Australia’s fifth highest volcano.|
|Mount Superbus (Main Range)||H: 1372m/4501ft |
|Australia’s fourth highest volcano.|
|Bar Mountain (Tweed Range)||H: 1130m/3710ft |
P: Not available (but less than 600m)
|No ranking for these purposes.|
|Therefore the highest points in the McPherson and Main Ranges exceed that of the “parent” Wollumbin. Wollumbin is a volcanic plug. The other three mountains are probably volcanic dykes.|
|Ebor||The remains of another shield volcano. Round Mountain is its highest point, but erosion has removed much of the original shield, especially in the area of Round Mountain itself. See here and note the line depicting the current landform.
Round Mountain has a remnant of a basaltic plug but most of its slopes comprise the original underlying granite. So it is probably not reasonable to classify it as a volcano.
|Round Mountain||H: 1584m/5200ft |
|Although it has sufficient prominence, no ranking for the reason given in the commentary.|
|Point Lookout||H: 1564m/5131ft |
|Point Lookout is made up of volcanic rock but is not the site of volcanic activity.
Therefore it is not ranked. It also does not have sufficient prominence. If this point were to be ranked then so would any lava field that happened to erode at a slower pace than its source so that it was now at a higher elevation than the source.
|Nandewar||The remains of a shield volcano. The highest remaining point is Mount Kaputar which forms a part of the rim of the original volcano. Undoubtedly to be classified as a volcano.|
|Mount Kaputar||H: 1509m/4951ft|
|Signs at the mountain give a height of 1510m or 4954ft. However Mount Kaputar is lower than Brumlow Top and, if counted, Mount Barrington.
So Mount Kaputar is Australia’s second highest volcano.
|Barrington||The Barrington volcano is an eroded shield volcano. The highest point is at Brumlow Top. This volcano is heavily eroded and so it is unclear where all of the volcanic activity has been. Mount Barrington has been shown to be at or near an eruption of the volcano and shed its lava over most of the Barrington Tops area.|
|Brumlow Top||H: 1586m/5203ft |
|Presently ranked by me as Australia’s highest volcano though there may be some doubt as to whether it was the centre of any volcanic activity. But see here where the discussion on Brumlow Top refers to the highest point being at 1576m. This is the height for Mount Polblue. Mount Polblue was once thought to be the highest point in Barrington Tops until resurvey placed Brumlow Top as higher. Note that my GPS (an Etrex 30) put the height of Brumlow Top at 1595m at the “summit” cairn and 1597m at the point shown on the Peakbagger app as being the summit. [See also my Peakbagger trip report]|
|Mount Barrington||H: 1555m/5102ft |
|With a prominence of less than 100m (assuming Google Earth to be correct) it does not “deserve” to rank as a continental high point. However, it should probably properly be classed as a volcano.|
|Canobolas||Another eroded shield volcano.|
|Mount Canobolas||H: 1395m/4577ft |
|Australia’s third highest volcano.|
Ray Andrews says
Interesting discussion James and you have dug up some great info. No mention of Big Ben volcano on Heard Island (Australian overseas territory) which I can understand. The discussion on what is a continent is an interesting one and fraught with historical inaccuracies. For my two cents worth I have six continents however for my book on geographical extremes I have dismissed the notion of continents altogether. Instead I have ranked everything as Islands or belonging to tectonic plates. Tectonic plates works most of the time for me here in Australia but their boundaries are quite arbitrary around the world. I thoroughly enjoyed your website.
James Stone says
Thanks for your comments Ray. Clearly I was basing my thought processes on the Seven Summits concepts and applying those to the volcanoes. “Continents” are a human construct, developed before plate tectonics were understood (or even known about) and, as you say, with inaccuracies – particularly relating to the Asia/Europe divide. I think that there is merit in dismissing the notion of continents as you put it. But, in mountaineering terms, the Seven Summits is such a ‘circus’ that what is understood as being a continent will not be dislodged, at least in that context.
The late Adam Helman wrote an essay on the categorisation of the Seven Summits here. He refers to some of the inaccuracies and also refers to Mawson Peak (on Heard Island).
This and your comment might even inspire me to write a blog on what the alternative Volcanic Seven Summits might be using the logic of this essay!
Mount Noorat in western victoria is a extinct volcano…
James Stone says
Indeed it is, though at a mere 310m in height it is not going to make any top 10 height-wise. But it is in one of Australia’s younger volcanic fields in an area where volcanic activity may not be over.
Henry Shannon says
As a geologist who just pasted an answer on quora I excluded any of the eroded remains of eruptive activity considered Miocene or older. your list of admittedly volcanic features did not make the cut but neither did I do a proper job on the North Queensland young volcanics. Presently considered the youngest is Kinrara Crater but others are higher.
James Stone says
Thanks for your comment. For the benefit of anyone reading your comment and my reply I reproduce your Quora comment here:
“If you stretch things to allow island territories it’s Big Ben on Heard island, which is an active volcano which erupted quite recently from memory it’s 9,000 feet or so in height. If you limit things to mainland Australis plus Tasmania and to extinct volcanos which are intact the contenders are all among the younger volcanics in North Queensland; maybe on the Atherton Tableland, maybe Undara Crater, maybe Black Braes there are some obscure shield volcano provinces that don’t look like much but are scraping 1,000 m. If you extend things to the parts of the Australian Continent that are not politically part of Australia consider Mt Giluwe in Papua New Guinea which is around 4,300 m high enough to have had glaciers.”
I guess that from my non-expert viewpoint I would ask:
1. Why exclude on the basis of age?
2. When does a volcano cease to be a volcano (assuming that it can cease to be a volcano)? Is the concept of “intact” the correct measure and, if so, how is “intactness” judged?
3. Is the Smithsonian Institute Global Volcanism Program basic definition of “volcano” wrong in being too wide? It is stated to be “a volcano is an accumulation of explosively or effusively erupted materials originating from single or multiple vents or fissures at the surface of the Earth or other planets”. No mention of age or “intactness” here. That said, a strict application of this definition would mean that Mount Damavand would not be the highest volcano in Asia given volcanic activity in the Kunlun field in Tibet.
4. Would Mount Giluwe count as a volcano on the basis of “intactness”? My understanding is that its two principal summits are volcanic plugs from an old composite volcano which now protrude through subsequent shield volcano activity. The previous composite volcano would not be said to be “intact” I would have thought. But I cannot see otherwise how Giluwe is any more or less “intact” than Brumlow Top. They are both essentially eroded shield volcanoes with little to no likelihood of future activity.
5. Is John Seach – volcanolive.com – wrong to classify Barrington Tops (Brumlow Top) and Nandewar (Mount Kaputar) as volcanoes?
You are right that Big Ben (Mawson Peak) on Heard Island has erupted in recent times – last year in fact. But it is lower than Giluwe and other volcanoes in PNG.
But of course I admit to having imposed two qualifications myself, namely the concept of “volcanic summit” and the requirement for a minimum prominence (the latter so that the peak concerned “deserves” to be regarded as the highest). So I can be criticised for those.
My blog was written in the context of the Volcanic Seven Summits. This is not my concept but is one that is gaining some traction as a mountaineering objective. So, strictly, there may be a distinction between a “volcanic summit” on the one hand and a “volcano” on the other – not that those pursuing this mountaineering objective would normally stop to consider any such distinction. So, perhaps, in this context the title to my blog is wrong and it may be that the highest Australian volcanic summit is Brumlow Top but the highest Australian volcano is something like, as you suggest, Kinrara volcano in Queensland which (according to John Seach) last erupted about 7,000 years ago and is about 1,023m high.
Finally, thank you for your contribution to the discussion and, as ever, I am happy to be corrected by those (like you) who are more expert in these things than I am. Hopefully, others will feel able to contribute to the discussion.