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A Cenozoic Great Barrier Reef on Australia's North West shelf
- McCaffrey, Jackson C., Wallace, Malcolm W., Gallagher, Stephen J.
- Global and planetary change 2020 v.184 pp. 103048
- Holocene epoch, Miocene epoch, Paleogene period, aragonite, atolls, carbonates, climatic factors, coasts, coral reefs, dry environmental conditions, geophysics, latitude, paleoceanography, subsidence, Australia, Great Barrier Reef
- The Great Barrier Reef of Australia is the largest modern coral reef system on Earth. However, a similar-sized barrier reef (~2000 km long) existed on Australia's north-western margin in the middle Miocene and to some extent, still exists today. Seismic profiles reveal that this reef system was first initiated in the late Paleogene (~34–28 Ma) and reached its zenith as a prograding barrier reef during the middle Miocene (16–15 Ma). This giant reef system backstepped in the late Miocene (~10 Ma), forming a series of isolated atolls and pinnacle reefs. These remaining reefs were gradually extinguished, leaving only a few surviving isolated atolls today (Rowley Shoals, Scott Reef, Seringapatam Reef and Ashmore Reef). The distribution of these extant reefs therefore outlines the former presence of the mid-Miocene Great Barrier Reef of the Australian North West Shelf.This middle Miocene shallow-water rimmed-reefal shelf grew contemporaneously on a deeper-water heterozoan ramp, producing an unusual mixed heterozoan/photozoan carbonate system for most of its length. The initiation of reef growth appears related to Australia's northward drift into lower latitudes, combined with warm mid-Miocene climatic optimum conditions. However, the sudden and simultaneous initiation of reef growth in the mid-Miocene across the North West Shelf was probably also related to changes in paleoceanography (increased aragonite saturation and/or nutrient-depletion) perhaps influenced by changing climatic conditions (increased aridity).From the late Miocene (~10 Ma) to Holocene, high rates of subsidence across the North West Shelf probably set the scene for ultimate demise of this giant barrier reef system and led to widespread backstepping with the development of a series of isolated atolls and pinnacle reefs. It is likely that other paleoceanographic and climatic events (like nutrient supply, carbonate saturation, eustasy etc) combined with continued high subsidence rates acted to gradually extinguish the reef system in a series of steps over a period of 10 million years. The onset (~1 Ma) of a strong Leeuwin Current (with the delivery of warm and nutrient depleted water from the north) and its effect on the Quaternary reefs of the Western Australian coast is a good example of a paleoceanographic process that would be difficult to recognize in an ancient setting. It is likely that similar paleoceanographic events have controlled the rich and complex history of reef growth and drowning since the mid-Miocene on the North West Shelf.