Holocene Reef Development in the Eastern Tropical Pacific

  • Lauren T. TothEmail author
  • Ian G. Macintyre
  • Richard B. Aronson
Part of the Coral Reefs of the World book series (CORW, volume 8)


Contrary to early assessments, the eastern tropical Pacific (ETP) is not devoid of well-developed reefs. Significant accumulations of Holocene reef framework are present throughout the region, although they tend to be poorly consolidated, lack the submarine cementation common on most reefs elsewhere in the world, and are subject to considerable bioerosion. These reef frameworks began accreting as early as 7000 years ago. The thickest accumulations of Pocillopora frameworks occur in coastal areas of Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia, but reefs composed of massive corals—species of Porites, Pavona, or Gardineroseris—are present throughout the region. Reef development in the ETP is limited by a variety of characteristics of the physical environment. Because of high turbidity in most areas, reef development is generally restricted to less than ~10 m depth. The spatial extent of reefs in the ETP is also limited from the combined influences of wave action and upwelling. Most reefs in the ETP are only a few hectares in size and the best-developed reefs generally occur in areas sheltered from strong oceanic influence. Upwelling also influences long-term trends in reef development in the region. There does not appear to be a significant impact of upwelling on the millennial-scale growth rates of Panamanian reefs; however, reefs in upwelling environments typically have thinner frameworks than nearby reefs in non-upwelling environments. Furthermore, upwelling may have contributed to a historic shutdown of reef development in Costa Rica and Panama. Although both ecological and oceanographic disturbances have had some impact on the long-term development of reefs in the ETP, the most important control on reef development in this region throughout the Holocene has most likely been the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO). ENSO activity—especially that of the 1982–83 and 1997–98 El Niño events—has shaped the landscape of coral reefs across the ETP both in recent decades and in the past. Reefs in Pacific Panama and Costa Rica experienced a 2500-year hiatus in vertical growth beginning ~4100 years ago as a result of enhanced ENSO activity. Although the degree of framework accumulation and rate of reef accretion in some parts of the ETP are more similar to that of the western Atlantic than previously thought, the region still remains a marginal environment for reef development. Given the dominant role that climatic variability has played in controlling reef development in the past, the future of reefs in the ETP under accelerating climate change remains uncertain.


Reef accretion Paleoecology Upwelling El Niño–Southern Oscillation Latin American reefs 



Our work in the eastern tropical Pacific has been supported by grants from the Smithsonian Institution’s Marine Science Network, a Graduate Student Research Grant from the Geological Society of America, the Lerner–Gray Fund for Marine Research of the American Museum of Natural History, and most recently by the U.S. National Science Foundation through grant OCE-1535007 to R.B.A. and L.T.T. Field work was carried out under permits from the Republic of Panama. We thank the editors—P.W. Glynn, D.P. Manzello, and I.C. Enochs—for their invitation to contribute to this volume and for their thoughtful suggestions throughout the editorial process. R. van Woesik, M.B. Bush, S.M. Lazarus, and C.L. Pruett also provided valuable comments on earlier drafts of the manuscript. This is contribution number 132 from the Institute for Research on Global Climate Change of the Florida Institute of Technology.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lauren T. Toth
    • 1
    • 3
    Email author
  • Ian G. Macintyre
    • 2
  • Richard B. Aronson
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesFlorida Institute of TechnologyMelbourneUSA
  2. 2.Department of Paleobiology, National Museum of Natural HistorySmithsonian InstitutionWashington DCUSA
  3. 3.USGS Coastal and Marine Science CenterSaint PetersburgUSA

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