Coral reef development and sea-level changes over the past 50,000 years
January 18, 2023

Authors: Webster, J.M., Dechnik, B., Sanborn, K., Yokoyama, Y., Braga, J.-C., Renema, W., Humblet, M., Beaman, R.J., Nothdurft, L.D., Webb, G.E., Zhao, J.-X., Murphy, R.J., Gallagher, S.J., O’Leary, M., Paumard, V.

Year: 2022

Publication: Coral reef development and sea-level changes over the past 50,000 years: new evidence from the north-west shelf of Australia. In: Camoin, G.F., Hallmann, N. (Eds.), Coral Reefs and Sea-Level Change: Quaternary Records and Modelling, Special Publication 49. International Association of Sedimentologists, pp. 215-273. 


Understanding of global sea-level changes and coral reef development is poorly constrained during Marine Isotope Stage 3 (MIS 3; ~ 60 to 30 ka). Australia’s North West Shelf (NWS), at depths of ~ 50 to 120 m below present sea-level (mbsl), represents an ideal natural laboratory to address these knowledge gaps.

In this study, the authors investigate a unique suite of sea-bed rock drill (PROD) cores recovered as part of a geotechnical survey from the NWS ~ 150 km south-east of Ashmore Reef. Twenty cores, penetrating to 28 m below sea floor, were collected from the top of the now drowned platform complex in similar water depths (74.8 to 81.6 mbsl), forming two transects ~ 17 km apart.

High-resolution 3D seismic and multibeam bathymetry data reveal three distinct, multigenerational platforms that are rimmed by smaller reef terraces and bisected by deeper channels, placing the core transects into a robust, regional geomorphic context that includes a succession of linear palaeo-shorelines and tidal-estuarine channel systems on the adjacent shelf between ~ 90 to 110 mbsl.

The authors have completed detailed logging, high-spatial resolution hyperspectral scanning, petrologic, mineralogic and sedimentary facies analysis of these cores, including a precise palaeoenvironmental reconstruction based on coral, algal and larger benthic foraminifera assemblages; and extensive radiometric dating. The authors have observed a complex suite of lithologies including in situ coralgal reef frameworks, well-lithified to friable grainstones, packstones and coralline algal floatstone facies separated by at least two major palaeosol horizons.

Together with thirty 14C-AMS and closed-system U/Th ages spanning 10.7 to > 50 ka, the authors define a complex but consistent record of four distinct chrono-stratigraphic units (Units 1 to 4), representing a repeated succession of shallow reef to deep reef-slope depositional settings as the platforms experienced repeated sea-level oscillations (interstadial/stadial to glacial/deglacial) over the last 75,000 yr.

Two distinct phases of shallow-water, high-energy reef development are defined. The age of the older, diagenetically distinct reef unit (Unit 3) is unknown but interpreted to have developed before the MIS 4 lowstand (~ 65 ka). However, firm chronological constraints on the MIS 3 development of the younger reef unit (Unit 2), place the position of relative sea-level (RSL) between ~ 63 to 75 + 1.8 mbsl by 45.95 to 39.23 + 0.2 ka, consistent with other predictions and observations for the region.

Following its exposure and demise due to sea-level fall to the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), the platform system was unable to re-establish fully as it was reflooded during the subsequent deglacial sea-level rise. Deeper reef slope (Unit 1) facies dominate the core tops between ~ 13.2 to 10.7 ka, representing a major hiatus in shallow-water reef development on the platforms.

Deglacial sea-level rise was either too fast and/or other environmental conditions inadequate (i.e. massive riverine sediment flux due to the strengthening Australian summer monsoon and/or reworking of shelf sediments) to allow re-establishment of shallow-water coral reef development on the platforms apart from a few isolated and distal locations (i.e. Ashmore, Cartier, Adele and Scott Reefs).

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Link to IAS Special Publication 49

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