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The Geomorphology of the Great Barrier Reef
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  • Page extent: 548 pages
  • Size: 247 x 174 mm
  • Weight: 1.22 kg

Library of Congress

  • Dewey number: 551.42409943
  • Dewey version: 22
  • LC Classification: n/a
  • LC Subject headings:
    • Geomorphology--Australia--Great Barrier Reef (Qld.)

Library of Congress Record


 (ISBN-13: 9780521853026)

The Geomorphology of the Great Barrier Reef

Cambridge University Press
9780521853026 - The Geomorphology of the Great Barrier Reef - Development, Diversity, and Change - by David Hopley, Scott G. Smithers and Kevin E. Parnell


Over the last 25 years considerable information on the geomorphological evolution of the world’s largest coral reef system, the Great Barrier Reef, has become available. This book reviews the history of geomorphological studies of the Great Barrier Reef and assesses the influences of sea-level change and oceanographic processes on the development of reefs over the last 10 000 years. It presents analyses of recently attained data from the Great Barrier Reef and reconstructions of the sequence of events that have led to its current geomorphology. The authors emphasize the importance of the geomorphological time span and its relevance for present management applications. This is a valuable reference for academic researchers in geomorphology and oceanography, and will also appeal to graduate students in related fields.

DAVID HOPLEY is Adjunct Professor in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences (formerly the School of Tropical Environment Studies and Geography) at James Cook University, Queensland, Australia. He has spent over 40 years working on the Great Barrier Reef and has been a consultant in coastal and coral reef management since 1997.

SCOTT SMITHERS is Senior Lecturer in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at James Cook University. He has worked on the Great Barrier Reef and in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. His broad research interests are in the Quaternary evolution of coastal environments, especially coral reefs and tropical coasts.

KEVIN PARNELL is Associate Professor in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at James Cook University. After completing a Ph.D. at JCU, he worked on temperate beach systems at the University of Auckland before returning to JCU in 2003, undertaking research on reef and tropical beach systems.


Development, Diversity, and Change

James Cook University

Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo

Cambridge University Press
The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 8RU, UK

Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York
Information on this title:

© D. Hopley, S. Smithers and K. Parnell 2007

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception
and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements,
no reproduction of any part may take place without
the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2007

Printed in the United Kingdom at the University Press, Cambridge

A catalog record for this publication is available from the British Library

ISBN 978-0-521-85302-6 hardback

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or
accuracy of URLS for external or third-party internet websites referred to
in this publication, and does not guarantee that any content on such
websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.


Prefacepage ix
1Geomorphology and the Great Barrier Reef1
1.2The role of geomorphology in the understanding of coral reefs3
1.3A chronicle of geomorphology and reef research5
1.4The history of geomorphological study of the Great Barrier Reef to 19827
1.5Outline of the following chapters16
2Foundations of the Great Barrier Reef18
2.2Geological and geomorphological development of the coast19
2.3Evolution of the Coral Sea27
2.4The continental shelf of north-east Australia30
2.5The late establishment of the Great Barrier Reef34
2.6The Pleistocene Reef37
3Sea level: a primary control of long-term reef growth and geomorphological development42
3.2Quaternary sea-level change44
3.3Late Pleistocene sea level49
3.4Postglacial sea level58
3.5Historical sea-level change on the Great Barrier Reef87
4Oceanography, hydrodynamics, climate, and water quality as influences on reef geomorphological processes92
4.2The climate of the Great Barrier Reef region94
4.3Oceanography and hydrodynamics99
4.4High-frequency waves111
4.5High-intensity events118
4.6Mainland influences125
4.7Oceanographic and climatological stressors135
5Spatial analysis of the morphology of the reefs and islands of the Great Barrier Reef138
5.2Remote sensing and the Great Barrier Reef138
5.3The history of spatial data collection and analysis139
5.4Great Barrier Reef lagoon areas and volumes146
5.5Reef and reef island statistics and classification147
5.6Reef types and reef management162
6The non-reefal areas of the continental shelf166
6.2Surficial sediments167
6.3Subsurface sediments and the Pleistocene surface171
6.4Low sea-level drainage patterns175
6.5The age of shelf sediments180
6.6The Halimeda bioherms183
7Fringing and nearshore coral reefs191
7.2Distribution and settings192
7.3Fringing reef structure202
7.4Holocene reef growth207
7.5Fringing reef morphology and processes222
8The mid-shelf reefs of the Great Barrier Reef233
8.2The data base235
8.3Criteria used to classify the selected reefs247
8.4Evidence of morphological evolution from the internal structure of reefs255
8.5Evolution of windward reef fronts260
8.6Rates of geomorphological development: discussion and conclusions265
9The coral reefs of the outer shelf of the Great Barrier Reef271
9.1Introduction: shelf-edge morphology271
9.2Modes of shelf marginal reef growth and major influences on the growth morphology272
9.3Detailed structure and evolution of the shelf-edge reefs276
10Islands of the Great Barrier Reef311
10.2Classification and geomorphology of reef islands315
10.3Island distribution343
10.4Reef island formation346
10.5Reef island dynamics353
10.6Discussion: reef island prospects and potentials360
11The accumulation of the Holocene veneer to the Great Barrier Reef367
11.2The depth to the antecedent surface368
11.3The fabric of the Pleistocene foundation370
11.4Date of recolonization during the Holocene transgression372
11.5Rates of growth and accretion375
11.6The timing of reefs reaching modern sea level380
11.7Reef growth relative to sea-level rise383
11.8Holocene reef structure and facies development386
11.9Comparisons with reefs elsewhere391
11.10How does the Great Barrier Reef compare?403
12The Holocene evolution of the Great Barrier Reef province411
12.2The glacial maximum low sea level – 20 000 years BP412
12.3The early transgression to 12 000 years BP416
12.4The start of the Holocene – 10 000 years BP422
12.5The final 2000 years of the transgression – 7000 years BP424
12.6The mid to late Holocene426
13Geomorphology’s contribution to the understanding and resolution of environmental problems of the Great Barrier Reef431
13.2Sediments and reefs432
13.3Nutrient excess and the Great Barrier Reef442
13.4Geomorphological assessment for conservation447
13.5Management of reef islands450
13.6Global climate change, geomorphology, and coral reefs459
Geographic index519
Subject index526


In the preface to The Geomorphology of the Great Barrier Reef: Quaternary Development of Coral Reefs published by one of the present authors in 1982, the opportunity for a synthesis of ideas on the geomorphology of coral reefs was identified. Almost 25 years later and with a wealth of new research and publications, there is again the need for a holistic view of the evolution of the present geomorphological features of the world’s largest coral reef system, which it is hoped this book will provide. However, it is very different from the 1982 publication which attempted to fill a wide area of coral reef science, using the Great Barrier Reef as an example. This volume is much more focused on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) region and the way its features have evolved especially during the Holocene period of the last 10 000 years.

Much of the data for this period has come from programs of drilling into the reef to depths up to 25 m during the 1980s and 1990s, some of it for specific engineering or non-geomorphological purposes. By far the largest programs, however, were those headed by Professor Peter Davies (now Sydney University) of what was then the Bureau of Mineral Resources, Canberra, and one of the present authors (D. H.) and his postgraduate students. These and other drilling programs have created a data bank which could only be imagined in 1982 but it is not the only area in which the geosciences have added to the understanding of the development and processes which sustain the Reef. Studies of sedimentation patterns, hydrodynamics, and other geomorphological processes are integral areas of coastal geomorphology but over the last ten years in particular on the GBR such studies have often been undertaken by non-geoscientists. Whilst the quality of the data collected is unquestionable its use and interpretation has sometimes suffered from a lack of understanding of geomorphological processes, a theme that is taken up in the latter part of this book.

The geomorphological timescale is also a feature of the present work. In the past 15 years there has often been a division between geologists who see reefs as robust systems, surviving major climate and sea-level change over millions of years, and ecologists with a contrary view, monitoring the decline in reef systems over the last 50 years or more and interpreting them as fragile. The timescales used by each discipline are critical to the contradictory interpretations both of which are correct within their own dimensions. The boundary between the two is not sharp and is covered by the period considered basic to geomorphological understanding. Even since sea level reached its present position 6500 years ago, the GBR has changed enormously. It will be shown that maximum growth rates and maximum number of habitats occurred in early to mid-Holocene times. According to parameters by which ecologists may evaluate the health of a reef system, the GBR is already in a state of natural decline without any consideration of human impact. This needs to be acknowledged by management agencies that may only recognize the dynamic nature of the reef system at an ecological scale, for example, the importance of natural disturbances in creating biological diversity. However, these disturbances are superficial and changes, for example, to reef morphology and natural sediment build-up are measured at the geomorphological timescale and this provides the background trend upon which ecological periodicity is superimposed.

Thus the usefulness of geomorphology for reef management provides the theme for the final chapter in this book, drawing on the information provided earlier. The book moves from long- and short-term processes (sea-level change and oceanography) through an analysis of the GBR on a basic spatial division (inter-reefal areas, fringing reefs, mid-shelf reefs, outer shelf reefs, and reef islands). The final chapters provide a more holistic view of the data, describing the processes and rates of GBR evolution during the Holocene, and the way in which the Reef has changed dramatically over a relatively short period of 10 000 years, changes that were witnessed by the original Australians.

An enormous amount of new information has become available over the last 25 years and we have attempted the task of summarizing this and incorporating it into our ideas of how the GBR has evolved. Even as the manuscript was being written it was clear that the data flow is if anything increasing and it is our conclusion that, as in other disciplines, compilations that build on the foundations laid by earlier workers but incorporating the new data will be needed more frequently than the approximately 25 years since the publication of The Geomorphology of the Great Barrier Reef in 1982. Geomorphology is essential for the understanding of coral reefs and it is through compilations like this that professional geomorphologists can communicate their thoughts, ideas, and data to other disciplines.

© Cambridge University Press

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