Coral Reefs

, Volume 34, Issue 3, pp 739–751 | Cite as

Freshwater impacts in the central Great Barrier Reef: 1648–2011

  • J. M. LoughEmail author
  • S. E. Lewis
  • N. E. Cantin


The Australian summer monsoon is highly variable from year to year resulting in high variability in the magnitude and extent of freshwater river flood plumes affecting the Great Barrier Reef (GBR). These flood plumes transport terrestrial materials and contaminants to the reef and can have significant impacts on both water quality and ecosystem health. The occurrence and intensity of these freshwater flood plumes are reliably recorded as annual luminescent lines in inshore massive corals and occasional luminescent lines in mid-shelf corals. We use measured luminescence in a long Porites core and four recently collected short cores from Havannah Island (a nearshore reef in the central GBR) to reconstruct Burdekin River flow, 1648–2011, and five recent short cores from Britomart Reef (a mid-shelf reef, 65 km northeast of Havannah Island) to assess the frequency of flood plume events extending beyond the inshore to mid-shelf reefs. The reconstruction highlights that the frequency of high flow events has increased in the GBR from 1 in every 20 yr prior to European settlement (1748–1847) to 1 in every 6 yr reoccurrence (1948–2011). Three of the most extreme events in the past 364 yr have occurred since 1974, including 2011. The reconstruction also shows a shift to higher flows, increased variability from the latter half of the nineteenth century, and likely more frequent freshwater impacts on mid-shelf reefs. This change coincided with European settlement of northern Queensland and substantial changes in land use, which resulted in increased sediment loads exported to the GBR. The consequences of increased sediment loads to the GBR were, therefore, likely exacerbated by this climate shift. This change in Burdekin River flow characteristics appears to be associated with a shift towards greater El Niño–Southern Oscillation variability and rapid warming in the southwest Pacific, evident in independent palaeoclimatic records.


Luminescence River flow Great Barrier Reef Freshwater 



Thanks to Eric Matson, AIMS, for skilled technical support.

Supplementary material

338_2015_1297_MOESM1_ESM.docx (346 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 346 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Australian Institute of Marine ScienceTownsvilleAustralia
  2. 2.ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef StudiesJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  3. 3.Catchment to Reef Research Group, TropWATERJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia

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