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.

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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


  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


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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.

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