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Coral record of increased sediment flux to the inner Great Barrier Reef since European settlement

Naturevolume 421pages727730 (2003) | Download Citation



The effect of European settlement on water quality in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia is a long-standing and controversial issue1,2,3,4,5,6. Erosion and sediment transport in river catchments in this region have increased substantially since European settlement6,7,8,9,10, but the magnitude of these changes remains uncertain1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10. Here we report analyses of Ba/Ca ratios in long-lived Porites coral from Havannah Reef—a site on the inner Great Barrier Reef that is influenced by flood plumes from the Burdekin river—to establish a record of sediment fluxes from about 1750 to 1998. We find that, in the early part of the record, suspended sediment from river floods reached the inner reef area only occasionally, whereas after about 1870—following the beginning of European settlement—a five- to tenfold increase in the delivery of sediments is recorded with the highest fluxes occurring during the drought-breaking floods. We conclude that, since European settlement, land-use practices such as clearing and overstocking have led to major degradation of the semi-arid river catchments, resulting in substantially increased sediment loads entering the inner Great Barrier Reef.

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This study has greatly benefited from developments in laser ablation instrumentation undertaken by S. Eggins, M. Shelley and L. Kinsley. Appreciation is extended to D. Sinclair whose initial work stimulated this research. We thank M. Devlin, D. Haynes, K. Fabricius, J. Brodie and J. Marshall for assistance in undertaking marine fieldwork and discussions on terrestrial impacts in the Great Barrier Reef. We thank P. Isdale for collecting the Havannah coral core. We are also grateful to A. Chivas for constructive comments on the manuscript. Data can be accessed at the World Data Centre for Paleoclimatology at www.ngdc.noaa.gov/paleo. This research is supported by a grant from the ARC.

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Author notes

    • Stewart Fallon

    Present address: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California, USA


  1. Research School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University, 0200, Canberra, Australia

    • Malcolm McCulloch
    • , Stewart Fallon
    • , Timothy Wyndham
    •  & Erica Hendy
  2. Australian Institute of Marine Science, Townsville, Queensland, 4810, Australia

    • Janice Lough
    •  & David Barnes


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The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Malcolm McCulloch.

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