Geodetic measurements reveal modern rates of tectonic deformation along subduction zones, but the kinematics of long-term deformation are typically poorly constrained. We explore the use of submarine coral reefs as a record of long-term coastal vertical motion in order to determine deformation rate and discuss its origins. The Lesser Antilles arc results from the subduction of the American plates beneath the Caribbean plate and undergoes regional vertical deformation. Uplifted reefs along forearc islands are markers of the interplay between tectonics and sea-level variations since the late Pleistocene. We compared results from a numerical model of reef-island profile development to high-resolution marine geophysical measurements of Les Saintes reef plateau (Guadeloupe, French West Indies), a ~20-km-wide, 250-m-thick submerged platform that lies at 45 m below sea level along the volcanic arc, to constrain its vertical deformation history. Models explore different scenarios over wide parameter domains including start time, basement morphology, sea level variations, reef growth rate, subaerial erosion rate, and vertical motion history. The major features of the plateau (its depth, internal structure, unusual double-barrier) is only reproduced in a context of subsidence, with a constant rate of −0.3 to −0.45 mm/yr since the late Pleistocene, or in a context of increasing subsidence, presently of ~–0.2 mm/yr. Discussed in the framework of the forearc vertical deformation history, this result indicates subsidence is promoted by local faulting, volcanic, and deep subduction processes. Coseismic deformation accumulation could be a mechanism by which deformation builds up in the long-term. We show that subduction can drive long-term subsidence of a volcanic arc, and demonstrate that submarine reefs are powerful markers of long-term vertical motion.

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