Abstract

Relative sea-level rise has been a major factor driving the evolution of reef systems during the Holocene. Most models of reef evolution suggest that reefs preferentially grow vertically during rising sea level then laterally from windward to leeward, once the reef flat reaches sea level. Continuous lagoonal sedimentation (“bucket fill”) and sand apron progradation eventually lead to reef systems with totally filled lagoons. Lagoonal infilling of One Tree Reef (southern Great Barrier Reef) through sand apron accretion was examined in the context of late Holocene relative sea-level change. This analysis was conducted using sedimentological and digital terrain data supported by 50 radiocarbon ages from fossil microatolls, buried patch reefs, foraminifera and shells in sediment cores, and recalibrated previously published radiocarbon ages. This data set challenges the conceptual model of geologically continuous sediment infill during the Holocene through sand apron accretion. Rapid sand apron accretion occurred between 6000 and 3000 calibrated yr before present B.P. (cal. yr B.P.); followed by only small amounts of sedimentation between 3000 cal. yr B.P. and present, with no significant sand apron accretion in the past 2 k.y. This hiatus in sediment infill coincides with a sea-level fall of ∼1–1.3 m during the late Holocene (ca. 2000 cal. yr B.P.), which would have caused the turn-off of highly productive live coral growth on the reef flats currently dominated by less productive rubble and algal flats, resulting in a reduced sediment input to back-reef environments and the cessation in sand apron accretion. Given that relative sea-level variations of ∼1 m were common throughout the Holocene, we suggest that this mode of sand apron development and carbonate production is applicable to most reef systems.

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