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Response of the Great Barrier Reef to sea-level and environmental changes over the past 30,000 years


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

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.

Correspondence to Jody M. Webster.

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Fig. 1: Geomorphic, chronostratigraphic and biological development of the Hydrographer’s Passage drill transect (HYD-01C) off Mackay.
Fig. 2: Geomorphic, chronostratigraphic and biological development of the Noggin Pass drill transect (NOG-01B) off Cairns.
Fig. 3: Evolution of the GBR over the past 30 kyr in relation to major sea-level and environmental changes.
Fig. 4: Simplified model that shows the evolution of the GBR over the past 30 kyr.