A new model of Holocene reef initiation and growth in response to sea-level rise on the Southern Great Barrier Reef
The fossil record provides valuable data for improving our understanding of both past and future reef resilience and vulnerability to environmental change. The spatial and temporal pattern of the initiation of the Holocene Great Barrier Reef presents a case study of reef response to rapid sea-level rise. Past studies have been limited by the lack of well-dated and closely spaced reef core transects and have not closely examined the composition of the reef-building communities through time. This study presents 80 new high precision U-Th and 5 radiocarbon ages from twelve new cores located along three transects across different geomorphic and hydrodynamic settings of One Tree Reef, southern Great Barrier Reef, to document three distinct stages of Holocene reef development in unprecedented detail. Temporal constraints on changing paleoecological assemblages of coral, coralline algae and associated biota revealed three distinct phases of reef development, consisting of: 1) a fast, shallow and clear-water reef initiation from 8.3 until 8 ka; 2) a shift to slower, deeper and more turbid-water reef growth from 8-7 ka; and 3) a return to shallow and rapid branching coral growth in clear-water conditions as the reef “catches up” to sea-level. A minimum lag prior to reef initiation of 700 years was identified, which differs in length depending on reef environment and Pleistocene substrate height. In this new model, reef growth initiated on the topographically lower leeward margin and patch reef, prior to the start of windward margin development, contrary to the traditional reef growth model. While there was a shift to conditions less favorable for reef growth at 8 ka, this did not prevent the slow accretion of more sediment-tolerant coral communities. The majority of the reef reached sea level by ~6 ka. This new conceptual model of Holocene reef growth provides new constraints on changes in paleoenvironment that controlled reef community composition and growth trajectories through sea-level rise following inundation.