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Spatial and temporal variations in turbidity on two inshore turbid reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Abstract

This study describes the natural turbidity regimes at two inshore turbid reefs on the central Great Barrier Reef where wind-driven waves are the main agent of sediment resuspension. Many corals on inshore turbid reefs have adapted to high and fluctuating turbidity, however, anthropogenic activities such as dredging are speculated to produce larger and more prolonged turbidity events that may exceed the environmental tolerance and adaptive capacity of corals on these reefs. Natural turbidity regimes must be described and understood to determine whether and when coral communities on inshore turbid reefs are at risk from anthropogenically elevated turbidity, but at present few baseline studies exist. Here, we present turbidity data from (a) Middle Reef, a semi-protected reef located between Magnetic Island and Townsville and (b) Paluma Shoals, a reef exposed to higher energy wind and waves located in Halifax Bay. Instruments were deployed on both reefs for 16 days to measure spatial and temporal variations in turbidity and its driving forces (waves, currents, tides). Locally driven wind waves were the key driver of turbidity, but the strength of the relationship was dependent on wave exposure. Turbidity regimes thus vary markedly over individual reefs and this is reflected in community assemblage distributions, with a high abundance of heterotrophic corals (e.g. Goniopora) in reef habitats subjected to large fluctuations in turbidity (>100 NTU). A turbidity model developed using local wind speed data explained up to 75 % and up to 46 % of the variance in turbidity at Paluma Shoals and Middle Reef, respectively. Although the model was based on a brief two-week observational period, it reliably predicted variations in 24-h averaged turbidity and identified periods when turbidity rose above ambient baseline levels, offering reef managers insights into turbidity responses to modified climate and coastal sediment delivery regimes.

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Acknowledgments

Funding for this project was provided as a student grant from the Australian Coral Reef Society (ACRS), the International Association of Sedimentology (IAS) and from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences (SEES), James Cook University. We thank Fernanda de Faria, Amelia Wenger, Irene Fuertes Jerez, Katie Moon and Danielle Knip for their field assistance, and Peter Ridd, Kevin Parnell and Gavin Coombes for their technical advice.

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Correspondence to N. K. Browne.

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Communicated by Geology Editor Prof. Bernhard Riegl

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Browne, N.K., Smithers, S.G. & Perry, C.T. Spatial and temporal variations in turbidity on two inshore turbid reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Coral Reefs 32, 195–210 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00338-012-0965-1

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00338-012-0965-1

Keywords

  • Hydrodynamics
  • Reef morphology
  • Community assemblages
  • Sediment