Coral reefs globally are impacted by natural and anthropogenic stressors that are compounded by climate change. Understanding past reef responses to natural stressors (cyclones, sea-level change, freshwater inputs, and sedimentation) can provide important insights to further understand recent (within the past century) trends in coral cover and diversity. Here we use a compilation of recently published data to investigate the Holocene development of five fringing reefs that are located on a cross-shelf transect on the central Great Barrier Reef, and that are exposed to varying degrees of natural and anthropogenic sedimentation, storm exposure, and Holocene sea-level change. Forty-two reef cores collected using a combination of manual percussion coring and hydraulic drilling techniques, were analysed and dated using uranium-thorium methods. The chronostratigraphic records of reef development established using 105 recently published radiometric ages and seven new uranium-thorium ages from the reef cores and fossil microatolls preserved across the reef flats were compared to investigate cross-shelf variations in reef development. This is the first study to conduct an internal investigation of reef framework across an inshore–offshore gradient to examine the varying levels of influence of sedimentation, sea level and cyclones. Our observations from the central Great Barrier Reef show that reefs furthest offshore from the mainland coast were typically initiated earliest after the post-glacial marine transgression. Reef flat size, morphology, and growth style varied according to constraints placed on reef development by the composition, depth, shape, and relief of the underlying substrate. We establish that terrigenous sedimentation had a marked effect on the development of inshore reefs closest to the mainland (within 10 km of the mainland coast). Periods of relatively high terrigenous sedimentation correspond with enhanced reef accretion rates, and also resulted in a superior record of palaeo-ecological coral composition (i.e., better preservation) at inshore sites. In contrast, mid-Holocene cyclones played a seemingly more important role in the development of reefs >10 km from the mainland; although cyclones clearly affect reefs closer inshore, their geomorphology is affected by a range of controlling factors. Insights provided by these five Holocene reef chronostratigraphies provide useful baseline understanding of reef condition and growth along a cross-shelf transect where the reefs are exposed to variable stressors.
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