Coral Reefs

, Volume 38, Issue 1, pp 29–43 | Cite as

Linking climate variability and growth in coral skeletal records from the Great Barrier Reef

  • Emma V. ReedEmail author
  • Julia E. Cole
  • Janice M. Lough
  • Diane Thompson
  • Neal E. Cantin


The remoteness of the northern Great Barrier Reef makes observations of environmental change and coral health sparse, but provides opportunities for paleoclimate and paleoecology proxies to contribute new insights into coral health in a changing climate. These proxies include geochemical measures (δ18O, δ13C, and Sr/Ca) that track sea surface temperature (SST), salinity, and physiological processes; luminescence, which records freshwater input; and annual growth parameters (density, extension, and calcification). Merging these approaches provides insight into the historical role of environmental variability in coral health. This study uses Porites spp. corals from five sites on the northern Great Barrier Reef (12–13.5°S) to produce combined monthly resolved records of geochemistry, growth banding, and luminescence between 1972 and 2008. We demonstrate that SST reconstructed from Sr/Ca accurately captures Indo-Pacific Warm Pool variability, and hydrological proxies (luminescence and seawater δ18O) accurately reconstruct summer rainfall and river discharge in nearshore corals. Concurrent Sr/Ca minima and density and luminescence peaks from two sites demonstrate that high-density bands are generally formed during summer at these sites, which aids the development of future coral paleoclimate and paleoecology chronologies. Regional hydrological proxies showed more consistent responses to El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events than SST proxies, in agreement with instrumental data. Because these corals, like instrumental records, show no consistently large ENSO heat extremes, we find no consistent growth anomalies during historical ENSO events. Our results highlight the unusual nature of recent widespread and severe coral bleaching and establish groundwork for exploring the response of northern GBR corals to past climate variations.


Great Barrier Reef Paleoclimate Paleoecology Densitometry Sr/Ca δ18



We thank S. Hlohowskyj, S. Lemieux, N. Schmidt, B. Vaughn, C. Urban, and E. Matson for their expertise in the production of data sets; K. Fabricius for collected coral cores; and J. Russell and W. Beck for their invaluable advice. Funding was provided by the US National Science Foundation through the Ocean Sciences program, an ATM CAREER grant, and the East Asia & Pacific Summer Institute. Additional support came from a National Aeronautics and Space Administration/University of Arizona Space Grant Fellowship, Biosphere-2, the University of Arizona (Department of Geosciences and Water, Energy, and Environment Solutions program), and Boston University Department of Earth & Environment. Data is available from the NOAA National Centers for 745 Environmental Information paleoclimatology data sets.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

338_2018_1755_MOESM1_ESM.docx (3.7 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 10154 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of GeosciencesUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA
  2. 2.Department of Earth and EnvironmentBoston UniversityBostonUSA
  3. 3.Department of Earth and Environmental SciencesUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  4. 4.Australian Institute of Marine ScienceTownsville MCAustralia
  5. 5.ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef StudiesJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia

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