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Field observations of wave refraction and propagation pathways on coral reef platforms


Correspondence to: Philipp Mandlier, School of Environment, The University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand. E-mail:


Field experiments were conducted to investigate the refraction and propagation of ocean waves across two coral reef platforms in the Maldives, central Indian Ocean. A total of seven pressure sensors were deployed on each reef to quantify temporal and spatial variations in wave characteristics across the platform surfaces. Directional wave properties were calculated from high frequency (2 Hz) wave and current records obtained at two locations on each reef and corroborate theoretically predicted propagation pathways derived from an analytical wave refraction model. Results demonstrate that reef geometry critically controls the refraction and propagation behaviour of incident swell across the reef structures. Differences in the magnitude of refraction (approximately 57° and 14°) observed on each reef can be attributed to variations in platform shape and orientation to incident waves. Results demonstrate that reef flat wave patterns define the segmentation of platform surfaces into distinctive high and low wave energy zones. Furthermore, wave focussing has been identified as a major mechanism controlling the transformation of wave energy across the reefs. Results provide the first field-based validation of wave refraction and convergence on coral reefs and have significant implications for sedimentation processes and the formation of platform deposits. Reef configurations which promote marked wave convergence are more likely to retain sediment on the reef surface, whereas platforms that induce less refraction and changes in the direction of incident waves have a higher potential for the off-reef evacuation of sediment over leeward reef margins. Results of wave measurements substantiate such projections and provide a first order explanation for the existence and absence of a coral cay on the two study reefs. The study presents empirical evidence of wave refraction and convergence on coral reefs and establishes a baseline for future investigations of hydrodynamic process controls on platform sedimentation and island formation. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.