Coral Reefs

, Volume 35, Issue 3, pp 805–818 | Cite as

The influence of sea level and cyclones on Holocene reef flat development: Middle Island, central Great Barrier Reef

  • E. J. RyanEmail author
  • S. G. Smithers
  • S. E. Lewis
  • T. R. Clark
  • J. X. Zhao


The geomorphology and chronostratigraphy of the reef flat (including microatoll ages and elevations) were investigated to better understand the long-term development of the reef at Middle Island, inshore central Great Barrier Reef. Eleven cores across the fringing reef captured reef initiation, framework accretion and matrix sediments, allowing a comprehensive appreciation of reef development. Precise uranium–thorium ages obtained from coral skeletons revealed that the reef initiated ~7873 ± 17 years before present (yBP), and most of the reef was emplaced in the following 1000 yr. Average rates of vertical reef accretion ranged between 3.5 and 7.6 mm yr−1. Reef framework was dominated by branching corals (Acropora and Montipora). An age hiatus of ~5000 yr between 6439 ± 19 and 1617 ± 10 yBP was observed in the core data and attributed to stripping of the reef structure by intense cyclones during the mid- to late-Holocene. Large shingle ridges deposited onshore and basset edges preserved on the reef flat document the influence of cyclones at Middle Island and represent potential sinks for much of the stripped material. Stripping of the upper reef structure around the outer margin of the reef flat by cyclones created accommodation space for a thin (<1.2 m) veneer of reef growth after 1617 ± 10 yBP that grew over the eroded mid-Holocene reef structure. Although limited fetch and open-water exposure might suggest the reef flat at Middle Island is quite protected, our results show that high-energy waves presumably generated by cyclones have significantly influenced both Holocene reef growth and contemporary reef flat geomorphology.


Holocene Reef cores Cyclones U–Th dating Reef accretion Inshore Great Barrier Reef 



This work is a contribution to the National Environmental Research Program Project 1.3 ‘Characterising the cumulative impacts of global, regional and local stressors on the present and past biodiversity of the GBR’ to Zhao, Smithers, Lewis, Clark and others. The authors wish to also acknowledge funding from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (Science for Management Award to ER). Samples were collected under Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority Permit No. G12/34979.1. We also extend our gratitude to the staff at the Radiogenic Isotope Facility at the University of Queensland, the crew of the Research Vessel James Kirby, dedicated field volunteers D. Thompson, R. Warburton, J. Johnson, S. Ballard and S. Hoepker, and K. Parnell for RTK-GPS advice. Thorough comments and suggestions from two anonymous reviewers significantly improved this manuscript.

Supplementary material

338_2016_1453_MOESM1_ESM.docx (3.5 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 3603 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • E. J. Ryan
    • 1
    • 2
  • S. G. Smithers
    • 1
    • 2
  • S. E. Lewis
    • 2
  • T. R. Clark
    • 3
  • J. X. Zhao
    • 3
  1. 1.College of Marine and Environmental SciencesJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  2. 2.Catchment to Reef Research Group, TropWATERJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  3. 3.Radiogenic Isotope Facility, School of Earth SciencesThe University of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia

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