Detecting changes to the transparency of the water column is critical for understanding the responses of marine organisms, such as corals, to light availability. Long-term patterns in water transparency determine geographical and depth distributions, while acute reductions cause short-term stress, potentially mortality and
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Detecting changes to the transparency of the water column is critical for understanding the responses of marine organisms, such as corals, to light availability. Long-term patterns in water transparency determine geographical and depth distributions, while acute reductions cause short-term stress, potentially mortality and may increase the organisms’ vulnerability to other environmental stressors. Here, we investigated the optimal, operational algorithm for light attenuation through the water column across the scale of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), Australia. We implemented and tested a quasi-analytical algorithm to determine the photic depth in GBR waters and matched regional Secchi depth (ZSD
) data to MODIS-Aqua (2002–2010) and SeaWiFS (1997–2010) satellite data. The results of the in situ
/satellite data matchup showed a simple bias offset between the in situ
and satellite retrievals. Using a Type II linear regression of log-transformed satellite and in situ
data, we estimated ZSD
and implemented the validated ZSD
algorithm to generate a decadal satellite time series (2002–2012) for the GBR. Water clarity varied significantly in space and time. Seasonal effects were distinct, with lower values during the austral summer, most likely due to river runoff and increased vertical mixing, and a decline in water clarity between 2008–2012, reflecting a prevailing La Niña weather pattern. The decline in water clarity was most pronounced in the inshore area, where a significant decrease in mean inner shelf ZSD
of 2.1 m (from 8.3 m to 6.2 m) occurred over the decade. Empirical Orthogonal Function Analysis determined the dominance of Mode 1 (51.3%), with the greatest variation in water clarity along the mid-shelf, reflecting the strong influence of oceanic intrusions on the spatio-temporal patterns of water clarity. The newly developed photic depth product has many potential applications for the GBR from water quality monitoring to analyses of ecosystem responses to changes in water clarity.