Recent chronostratigraphic evidence suggests that the central Australian Great Barrier Reef formed within the past 780 k.y. Periplatform sediments of the same age recovered from the western Coral Sea record a progressive decrease in the δ18O of planktonic foraminifera to the present. Several investigators have proposed that this trend represents an appreciable late Pleistocene warming (∼4 °C) of ocean surface temperatures, which they posit catalyzed the growth of the Great Barrier Reef. Contrary to this hypothesis, we demonstrate using alkenone paleothermometry (

) on sediments from Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) Site 820 that sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) in the western Coral Sea changed by ∼1.5 °C or less during the past ∼800 k.y. If the central Great Barrier Reef rose in the late Quaternary, it was therefore not due to a warming of SSTs. We explore whether a major moisture balance change and/or diagenetic alteration of calcareous microfossils can explain the higher δ18O values observed at depth in the planktonic δ18O record at ODP Site 820. Our results suggest that diagenesis provides a large isotopic overprint.

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