Carbon Cycles

Published in Terri Bird, Bianca Hester and Scott Mitchell, Converging in time. Monash University Museum of Art Publications, Melbourne, 2017. pp. 101-106. ISBN: 978-0-9945213-4-7

There are three common forms of elemental carbon: two with crystalline structures - graphite and diamonds, the other non-crystalline allotrope includes coal, soot and charcoal. The form of bonding typical to carbon, convalent bonds, gives it the geometrical capability to make an incredible number of compounds, called organic compounds. In effect the bonding of carbon makes possible the existence of living things as we know them.

Geological Conditions
215 million years ago in the late Triassic period the Australian land mass formed part of the supercontinent Gondwana and was positioned just south of the halfway point between the equator and the South Pole. This latitude of 45 degrees South is slightly below the present day tip of Tasmania.

As Gondwana began to break apart, beginning with the separation of Africa 180 million years ago, the earth’s crust stretched and extensional rifts formed. These rifts produced depressions in the landscape evident as a series of valleys.

During this period, the Middle Jurassic, Australia moved southward so that by 132 million years ago it was located near the South Pole. In the Early Cretaceous period sea levels rose, reaching a maximum level approximately 110 million years ago. By 102 million years Australia had moved north again so that the tip of northern Australia extended north of the 45 degree south latitude.

The separation of Australia from Antarctica (100 million years ago) and the Lord Howe Rise (80 million years ago) contributed to the formation of what is now known as the Gippsland Basin. At this time temperatures in the region were 4-5 ºC higher than present with an annual rainfall three times its current level. These conditions gave rise to dense vegetation consisting of evergreen subtropical forests within the basin surrounded by cooler temperate forests in the adjacent highlands. During this period Australia had moved further north. By the time the break from Antarctica was complete, around 43 million years ago in the Middle Eocene, the 45 degree south latitude passed through the top third of the continent.

42 million years ago the first major coal seams began to form in the Gippsland Basin as peat deposits from rotting vegetation accumulated in low lying swamps. While periodically interrupted by changes in climate, sea level and tectonic shifts, these deposits continued for 20 million years resulting in the formation of six distinct coal seams containing an estimated combined total of 100 billion tonnes of brown coal,[1] the largest deposit of its type in the world.[2]

Within the coal swamps ancient representatives of the modern Kauri pine and other gymnosperms (such as conifers) were common.[3]These massive trees, built through the transformation of atmospheric carbon dioxide into organic carbon, eventually added their biomass to the peat swamps. The Eucalyptus was not present at this time, its appearance as a genus came into existence after the end of the main coal seam deposition when rainforests in the Latrobe Valley were replaced by open woody and herbaceous vegetation. This change in flora was triggered by a cooling of the climate around 15 million years ago. At this time, the Middle Miocene, only Tasmania and parts of Victoria were south of the 45th latitude.

Approximately seven million years ago the climate entered a very dry phase with seasonal drought a forerunner to the arid conditions that now covers much of Australia. Eucalyptus forests began to appear, shaped by an increase of fire in the landscape. By two to three million years ago the vegetation common in today’s surviving bushland was established. This is a more open forest with a variety of eucalypts and remnants of rainforest species.

Social Effects
“We were one of the last houses, one of the last people to leave, we were surrounded by vacant blocks. Everywhere there was nothing, no shops, no buses – it was like a ghost town. Everything was closed, everything. Towards the end was the time I didn’t feel safe in the town, (on the last days) there were car-loads of men driving around, and they weren’t locals.” [4]

The first house of the township Yallourn was erected on Maiden Street[5] in February 1921, upon land whose freehold was held completely by the State Electricity Commission of Victoria (SECV). Long before that event, the land belonged to the Gunaikurnai people whose territory occupied most of present-day Gippsland. Yallourn was built in the region of the Brayakooloong clan who, along with other populations, saw their numbers collapse at a devastating speed as Europeans established large cattle runs across Gippsland.[6]Within the first few decades of European arrival the Gunai population had fallen from over 3000 to less than 100.[7] It was not until October 2010 that the Gunaikurnai people were granted native title over their land, including joint management over 10 key sites of cultural significance.

Coming some 80 years after the first white settlers, Yallourn exemplified a model township constructed for the purpose of housing a burgeoning workforce for a rapidly expanding brown coal mining and electricity industry. Planned, built, owned and under exclusive control of the SECV, Yallourn exemplified finely crafted interwar modernism, developed expediently but with utmost attention, and emphatically supported and overseen by CEO Sir John Monash.


[2] Birch, W. D. (ed.) 2003. Geology of Victoria. Melbourne: Geological Society of Australia (Victoria Division), 489.

[3]  Durie R.A. (ed.) 1991. The Science of Victorian Brown Coal: Structure, Properties and Consequences for Utilisation. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann Ltd.,  21.

[4]Julie George, Memories of Yallourn 1970’s. Available from (Accessed on 15-08-2015).

[5]Julie George, Memories of Yallourn 1930’s. Available from: (Accessed on 15-08-2015).

[6] Moses, D. (ed.) 2004. Genocide and Settler Society: frontier violence and stolen indigenous children in Australian History. New York: Berghahn, 203.

[7] Roberts, J., Walker, C., Egan, S., Gordon, N., Drummond, N., Bell, R., Lawrence, J., Brunt, J. 2007. Yangan Nalu - Go Together.Morewell: UnitingCare Gippsland, East Gippsland Primary Care Partnership and Latrobe City Council, 4.