Hurricane control on shelf-edge-reef architecture around Grand Cayman



Rimming the outer shelf of Grand Cayman is a submerged, 87 km long shelf-edge reef that rises to within 12 m of mean sea level. It consists of an array of coral-armoured buttresses aligned perpendicular to shore and separated by steep-sided sediment-floored canyons. Individual buttresses have a diverse coral-dominated biota and consist of three architectural elements: a shield-like front wall colonized by platy corals, a dome-shaped crown colonized by head corals, and a shoreward-projecting spur covered by varying amounts of branching coral. Buttresses are commonly fronted by coral pinnacles that, in some areas, have amalgamated with buttress walls to produce pinnacle-and-arch structures.

As margin orientation changes, shelf-edge-reef architecture shows systematic variations that are consistent with changes in fetch and height of hurricane waves. Along margins exposed to fully developed storm waves, shelf-edge-reef buttresses are deep, have large amplitudes, and are dominated by robust head corals. These characteristics are consistent with hurricane-induced pruning of branching corals and the flushing of significant quantities of sand from buttress canyons by return flows. Along margins impacted by fetch-limited storm waves, reef buttresses are shallower, have intermediate-amplitudes, and have a significantly higher proportion of branching corals. These characteristics are consistent with less coral pruning and sand flushing by weaker hurricane waves. Along margins fully protected from storm waves, the buttresses-canyon architecture of the shelf-edge reef breaks down producing a series of shallow, undulating, branching-coral-dominated ridges that merge laterally into an unbroken belt of coral. These characteristics correspond with negligible amounts of pruning and flushing during hurricanes.

In addition to differences between margins, local intra-marginal changes in shelf-edge reef architecture are consistent with changes in the angle of hurricane-wave approach. Open sections of the shelf-edge reef, which face directly into storm waves, are pruned of branching corals and the fragments swept back onto the shelf producing extensive spurs. By contrast, on more sheltered, obliquely orientated sections, storm-waves sweep debris along and off shelf producing little or no spur development. Instead, the debris shed seawards accumulates in front of the buttress walls and initiates the development of coral pinnacles.

Over time, repeated buttress pruning and canyon flushing during hurricanes not only controls reef architecture but may also influence accretion patterns. Vertical accretion is limited by the effective depth of storm-wave fragmentation. Once this hurricane-accretion threshold is reached the reef moves into a shedding phase and accretes laterally via pinnacle growth, amalgamation, and infilling. Consequently, the reef steps out over its own debris in a kind of balancing act between lateral growth and slope failure — a pattern widely recognized in ancient reefs.