Abstract

Previous drilling through submerged fossil coral reefs has greatly improved our understanding of the general pattern of sea-level change since the Last Glacial Maximum, however, how reefs responded to these changes remains uncertain. Here we document the evolution of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), the world’s largest reef system, to major, abrupt environmental changes over the past 30 thousand years based on comprehensive sedimentological, biological and geochronological records from fossil reef cores. We show that reefs migrated seaward as sea level fell to its lowest level during the most recent glaciation (~20.5–20.7 thousand years ago (ka)), then landward as the shelf flooded and ocean temperatures increased during the subsequent deglacial period (~20–10 ka). Growth was interrupted by five reef-death events caused by subaerial exposure or sea-level rise outpacing reef growth. Around 10 ka, the reef drowned as the sea level continued to rise, flooding more of the shelf and causing a higher sediment flux. The GBR’s capacity for rapid lateral migration at rates of 0.2–1.5 m yr−1 (and the ability to recruit locally) suggest that, as an ecosystem, the GBR has been more resilient to past sea-level and temperature fluctuations than previously thought, but it has been highly sensitive to increased sediment input over centennial–millennial timescales.

  • Subscribe to Nature Geoscience for full access:

    $59

    Subscribe

Additional access options:

Already a subscriber?  Log in  now or  Register  for online access.

Additional information

Publisherʼs note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

References

  1. 1.

    Fairbanks, R. G. A 17,000 year glacio-eustatic sea-level record: influence of glacial melting rates on the Younger Dryas event and deep ocean circulation. Nature 342, 637–642 (1989).

  2. 2.

    Deschamps, P. et al. Ice-sheet collapse and sea-level rise at the Bølling warming 14,600 years ago. Nature 483, 559–564 (2012).

  3. 3.

    Bard, E., Hamelin, B. & Fairbanks, R. G. U–Th ages obtained by mass spectrometry in corals from Barbados: sea level during the past 130,000 years. Nature 346, 456–458 (1990).

  4. 4.

    Peltier, W. R. & Fairbanks, R. G. Global glacial ice volume and Last Glacial Maximum duration from an extended Barbados sea level record. Quat. Sci. Rev. 25, 3322–3337 (2006).

  5. 5.

    Weaver, A. J., Saenko, O. A., Clark, P. U. & Mitrovica, J. X. Meltwater pulse 1A from Antarctica as a trigger of the Bolling–Allerod warm interval. Science 299, 1709–1713 (2003).

  6. 6.

    Hoegh-Guldberg, O. et al. Coral reefs under rapid climate change and ocean acidification. Science 318, 1737–1742 (2007).

  7. 7.

    Kiessling, W., Simpson, C., Beck, B., Mewis, H. & Pandolfi, J. M. Equatorial decline of reef corals during the last Pleistocene interglacial. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 21378–21383 (2012).

  8. 8.

    Pandolfi, J. M., Connolly, S. R., Marshall, D. J. & Cohen, A. L. Projecting coral reef futures under global warming and ocean acidification. Science 333, 418–422 (2011).

  9. 9.

    Camoin, G. F. et al. Reef response to sea-level and environmental changes during the last deglaciation: integrated Ocean Drilling Program Expedition 310, Tahiti sea level. Geology 40, 643–646 (2012).

  10. 10.

    Cabioch, G. et al. Continuous reef growth during the last 23 kyr BP in a tectonically active zone (Vanuatu, SouthWest Pacific). Quat. Sci. Rev. 22, 1771–1786 (2003).

  11. 11.

    Edwards, R. L. et al. A large drop in atmospheric 14C/12C and reduced melting in the Younger Dryas, documented with 230Th ages of corals. Science 260, 962–968 (1993).

  12. 12.

    Blanchon, P. & Shaw, J. Reef drowning during the last deglaciation: evidence for catastrophic sea-level rise and ice-sheet collapse. Geology 23, 4–8 (1995).

  13. 13.

    Roff, G. et al. Palaeoecological evidence of a historical collapse of corals at Pelorus Island, inshore Great Barrier Reef, following European settlement. Proc. R. Soc. B 280, 20122100 (2013).

  14. 14.

    Pandolfi, J. M. Limited membership in Pleistocene reef coral assemblages from the Huon Peninsula, Papua New Guinea: constancy during global change. Paleobiology 22, 152–176 (1996).

  15. 15.

    Humblet, M. & Webster, J. M. Coral community changes in the Great Barrier Reef in response to major environmental changes over glacial-interglacial timescales. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaecol. 472, 216–235 (2017).

  16. 16.

    Webster, J. M., Yokoyama, Y., Cotterill, C. & Expedition 325 Scientists. Proc. Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Vol. 325 (Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Management International, Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, 2011).

  17. 17.

    Felis, T. et al. Intensification of the meridional temperature gradient in the Great Barrier Reef following the Last Glacial Maximum. Nat. Commun. 5, 4102 (2014).

  18. 18.

    Page, M. C. & Dickens, G. R. Sediment fluxes to Marion Plateau (southern Great Barrier Reef province) over the last 130 ky: new constraints on ‘transgressive-shedding’ off northeastern Australia. Mar. Geol. 219, 27–45 (2005).

  19. 19.

    Hopley, D., Smithers, S. G. & Parnell, K. E. The Geomorphology of the Great Barrier Reef (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2017).

  20. 20.

    Davies, P. J. in Proc. 6th Int. Coral Reef Symp 9–17 (Townsville, 1988).

  21. 21.

    Gischler, E. et al. Microfacies and diagenesis of older Pleistocene (pre-last glacial maximum) reef deposits, Great Barrier Reef, Australia (IODP Expedition 325): a quantitative approach. Sedimentology 60, 1432–1466 (2013).

  22. 22.

    Linsley, B. K., Rosenthal, Y. & Oppo, D. W. Holocene evolution of the Indonesian throughflow and the western Pacific warm pool. Nat. Geosci. 3, 578–583 (2010).

  23. 23.

    Lambeck, K., Rouby, H., Purcell, A., Sun, Y. & Sambridge, M. Sea level and global ice volumes from the Last Glacial Maximum to the Holocene. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 15296–15303 (2014).

  24. 24.

    Hinestrosa, G., Webster, J. M., Beaman, R. J. & Anderson, L. M. Seismic stratigraphy and development of the shelf-edge reefs of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Mar. Geol. 353, 1–20 (2014).

  25. 25.

    Hinestrosa, G., Webster, J. M. & Beaman, R. J. Postglacial sediment deposition along a mixed carbonate-siliciclastic margin: new constraints from the drowned shelf-edge reefs of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 446, 168–185 (2016).

  26. 26.

    Perry, C. T., Smithers, S. G., Gulliver, P. & Browne, N. K. Evidence of very rapid reef accretion and reef growth under high turbidity and terrigenous sedimentation. Geology 40, 719–722 (2012).

  27. 27.

    Perry, C. T. & Smithers, S. G. Cycles of coral reef ‘turn-on’, rapid growth and ‘turn-off’ over the past 8500 years: a context for understanding modern ecological states and trajectories. Glob. Change Biol. 17, 76–86 (2011).

  28. 28.

    Blanchon, P. et al. Postglacial Fringing-Reef to Barrier-Reef conversion on Tahiti links Darwinʼs reef types. Sci. Rep. 4, 4997 (2014).

  29. 29.

    Abdul, N. A., Mortlock, R. A., Wright, J. D. & Fairbanks, R. G. Younger Dryas sea-level and meltwater pulse 1B recorded in Barbados reef-crest coral Acropora palmata. Paleoceanography 31, 330–344 (2016).

  30. 30.

    Bard, E., Hamelin, B. & Delanghe-Sabatier, D. Deglacial meltwater pulse 1B and Younger Dryas sea levels revisited with boreholes at Tahiti. Science 327, 1235–1237 (2010).

  31. 31.

    Dunbar, G. B., Dickens, G. R. & Carter, R. M. Sediment flux across the Great Barrier Reef Shelf to the Queensland Trough over the last 300 ky. Sediment. Geol. 133, 49–92 (2000).

  32. 32.

    Wooldridge, S. A. Instability and breakdown of the coral–algae symbiosis upon exceedence of the interglacial PCO2 threshold (>260 ppmv): the ‘missingʼ Earth-System feedback mechanism. Coral Reefs 36, 1025–1037 (2017).

  33. 33.

    Kojis, B. L. & Quinn, N. J. Seasonal and depth variation in fecundity of Acropora palifera at two reefs in Papua New Guinea. Coral Reefs 3, 165–172 (1984).

  34. 34.

    Montaggioni, L. F. History of Indo-Pacific coral reef systems since the last glaciation: development patterns and controlling factors. Earth-Sci. Rev. 71, 1–75 (2005).

  35. 35.

    Thomas, C. J. Connectivity between submerged and near-sea-surface coral reefs: can submerged reef populations act as refuges? Divers. Distrib. 21, 1254–1266 (2015).

  36. 36.

    De’ath, G., Fabricius, K. E., Sweatman, H. & Puotinen, M. The 27-year decline of coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef and its causes. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 17995–17999 (2012).

  37. 37.

    Hughes, T. P. et al. Global warming and recurrent mass bleaching of corals. Nature 543, 373–377 (2017).

  38. 38.

    Abbey, E., Webster, J. M. & Beaman, R. J. Geomorphology of submerged reefs on the shelf edge of the Great Barrier Reef: the influence of oscillating Pleistocene sea levels. Mar. Geol. 288, 61–78 (2011).

  39. 39.

    Obrochta, S. P. et al. The undatables: quantifying uncertainty in a highly expanded Late Glacial–Holocene sediment sequence recovered from the deepest Baltic Sea basin—IODP Site M0063. Geochem. Geophys. Geosystems 18, 858–871 (2017).

Download references

Acknowledgements

We thank the IODP and ECORD (European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling) for drilling the GBR, and the Bremen Core Repository for organizing the onshore sampling party. Financial support was provided by the Australian Research Council (grant no. DP1094001 and no. FT140100286), ANZIC, Institut Polytechnique de Bordeaux and KAKENHI (no. 25247083).

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Geocoastal Research Group, School of Geosciences, The University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia

    • Jody M. Webster
    •  & Gustavo Hinestrosa
  2. Departamento de Estratigrafía y Paleontología, Universidad de Granada, Granada, Spain

    • Juan Carlos Braga
  3. Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Nagoya University, Nagoya, Japan

    • Marc Humblet
  4. Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Santa Cruz, CA, USA

    • Donald C. Potts
  5. Institute of Geology and Paleontology, Graduate School of Science, Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan

    • Yasufumi Iryu
  6. Atmosphere and Ocean Research Institute, University of Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan

    • Yusuke Yokoyama
  7. Department of Earth and Planetary Science, Graduate School of Science, University of Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan

    • Yusuke Yokoyama
  8. Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, Yokosuka, Japan

    • Yusuke Yokoyama
  9. Department of Physics and Earth Sciences, University of the Ryukyus, Okinawa, Japan

    • Kazuhiko Fujita
  10. EA 4592G&E, ENSEGID, Bordeaux INP, Pessac Cedex, France

    • Raphael Bourillot
  11. Research School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia

    • Tezer M. Esat
    •  & Stewart Fallon
  12. Research School of Physics and Engineering, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia

    • Tezer M. Esat
  13. Department of Geology & Geophysics, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA, USA

    • William G. Thompson
  14. School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK

    • Alexander L. Thomas
  15. Graduate School of Integrated Sciences for Global Society Kyushu University, Fukuoka, Japan

    • Hironobu Kan
  16. School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, Australia

    • Helen V. McGregor
  17. Graduate School of International Resource Science, Akita University, Akita, Japan

    • Stephen P. Obrochta
  18. LSCE/IPSL, Laboratoire CNRS-CEA-UVSQ, Gif-sur-Yvette, France

    • Bryan C. Lougheed

Authors

  1. Search for Jody M. Webster in:

  2. Search for Juan Carlos Braga in:

  3. Search for Marc Humblet in:

  4. Search for Donald C. Potts in:

  5. Search for Yasufumi Iryu in:

  6. Search for Yusuke Yokoyama in:

  7. Search for Kazuhiko Fujita in:

  8. Search for Raphael Bourillot in:

  9. Search for Tezer M. Esat in:

  10. Search for Stewart Fallon in:

  11. Search for William G. Thompson in:

  12. Search for Alexander L. Thomas in:

  13. Search for Hironobu Kan in:

  14. Search for Helen V. McGregor in:

  15. Search for Gustavo Hinestrosa in:

  16. Search for Stephen P. Obrochta in:

  17. Search for Bryan C. Lougheed in:

Contributions

J.M.W. and Y.Y. were co-chief scientists of Expedition 325. J.M.W. wrote the manuscript in collaboration with J.C.B., M.H., D.C.P., Y.I., R.B., T.E., Y.Y. and H.M., and the paper was refined by contributions from the rest of the co-authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jody M. Webster.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Notes, Tables and Figures

About this article

Publication history

Received

Accepted

Published

DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-018-0127-3

Rights and permissions

To obtain permission to re-use content from this article visit RightsLink.