Late Quaternary shedding of shallow-marine carbonate along a tropical mixed siliciclastic–carbonate shelf: Great Barrier Reef, Australia


  • Gavin B. Dunbar,

    1. Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, PO Box 600, Wellington, New Zealand (E-mail: )
    2. School of Earth Sciences, James Cook University, Townsville, QLD 4811, Australia
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    • 1

      Present address: Research School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200, Australia.

  • Gerald R. Dickens

    1. School of Earth Sciences, James Cook University, Townsville, QLD 4811, Australia
    2. Department of Earth Science, Rice University, Houston, TX 77005, USA (E-mail: )
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Abstract The north-east Australian margin is the largest modern example of a tropical mixed siliciclastic/carbonate depositional system, with an outer shelf hosting the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) and an inner shelf dominated by fluvially sourced siliciclastic sediment wedges. The long-term interplay between these sediment components and sea level is recorded in the Queensland Trough, a 1–2 km deep N–S elongate basin situated between the GBR platform and the Queensland Plateau. In this paper, 154 samples from 45 surface grabs and six well-dated piston cores were analysed for total carbonate content, carbonate mineralogy and Sr concentration to establish spatial and temporal patterns of carbonate accumulation in the Queensland Trough over the last 300 kyr. Surface carbonate contents are lowest on the inner-shelf (<5%) and in the trough axis (<60%) because of siliciclastic dilution. Carbonate on the shelf is mostly Sr-rich aragonite and high-Mg calcite (HMC), whereas that in the basin is mostly low-Mg calcite. Once normalized to remove the effects of siliciclastic dilution, surface Sr-rich aragonite and HMC abundances decrease linearly to background levels ≈ 100 km seaward of the shelf edge. Core samples show that, over time, normalized aragonite and Sr abundances are greatest during periods of shelf flooding and lowest when sea level drops below the shelf edge. This is consistent with changes in the production of coral and calcareous algae, and the shedding of their debris from the shelf. Interestingly, normalized HMC concentrations on the slope peak during periods of major transgression, perhaps because of maximum off-shelf transport from inter-reef areas or intermediate water dissolution. After accounting for siliciclastic dilution, there are strong similarities in both spatial and temporal patterns of carbonate minerals between slopes and basins of the north-east Australian margin and those of pure carbonate margins such as the Bahamas. A limited set of basic processes, including the formation and breakdown of carbonate on the shelf, the transport of carbonate off the shelf and eustatic sea level, probably controls carbonate accumulation in slope and basin settings of tropical environments, irrespective of proximal siliciclastic sediment sources.