, Volume 30, Issue 4, pp 951-965
Date: 14 Jul 2011

Coral colonisation of a shallow reef flat in response to rising sea level: quantification from 35 years of remote sensing data at Heron Island, Australia

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Observations made on Heron Island reef flat during the 1970s–1990s highlighted the importance of rapid change in hydrodynamics and accommodation space for coral development. Between the 1940s and the 1990s, the minimum reef-flat top water level varied by some tens of centimetres, successively down then up, in rapid response to local engineering works. Coral growth followed sea-level variations and was quantified here for several coral communities using horizontal two-dimensional above water remotely sensed observations. This required seven high spatial resolution aerial photographs and Quickbird satellite images spanning 35 years: 1972, 1979, 1990, 1992, 2002, 2006 and 2007. The coral growth dynamics followed four regimes corresponding to artificially induced changes in sea levels: 1972–1979 (lowest growth rate): no detectable coral development, due to high tidal currents and minimum mean low-tide water level; 1979–1991 (higher growth rate): horizontal coral development promoted by calmer hydrodynamic conditions; 1991–2001(lower growth rate): vertical coral development, induced by increased local sea level by ~12 cm due to construction of new bund walls; 2001–2007 (highest growth rate): horizontal coral development after that vertical growth had become limited by sea level. This unique time-series displays a succession of ecological stage comprising a ‘catch-up’ dynamic in response to a rapid local sea-level rise in spite of the occurrences of the most severe bleaching events on record (1998, 2002) and the decreasing calcification rates reported in massive corals in the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef.

Communicated by Environment Editor Prof. Rob van Woesik