Tidally incised valleys on tropical carbonate shelves: an example from the northern Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Harris, Peter T., Heap, Andrew, Passlow, Vicki, Hughes, Michael, Daniell, James, Hemer, Mark, and Anderson, Ole (2005) Tidally incised valleys on tropical carbonate shelves: an example from the northern Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Marine Geology, 220 (1-4). pp. 181-204.

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The formation of incised valleys on continental shelves is generally attributed to fluvial erosion under low sea level conditions. However, there are exceptions. A multibeam sonar survey at the northern end of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, adjacent to the southern edge of the Gulf of Papua, mapped a shelf valley system up to 220 m deep that extends for more than 90 km across the continental shelf. This is the deepest shelf valley yet found in the Great Barrier Reef and is well below the maximum depth of fluvial incision that could have occurred under a − 120 m, eustatic sea level low-stand, as what occurred on this margin during the last ice age. These valleys appear to have formed by a combination of reef growth and tidal current scour, probably in relation to a sea level at around 30–50 m below its present position.

Tidally incised depressions in the valley floor exhibit closed bathymetric contours at both ends. Valley floor sediments are mainly calcareous muddy, gravelly sand on the middle shelf, giving way to well-sorted, gravely sand containing a large relict fraction on the outer shelf. The valley extends between broad platform reefs and framework coral growth, which accumulated through the late Quaternary, coincides with tidal current scour to produce steep-sided (locally vertical) valley walls. The deepest segments of the valley were probably the sites of lakes during the last ice age, when Torres Strait formed an emergent land-bridge between Australia and Papua New Guinea. Numerical modeling predicts that the strongest tidal currents occur over the deepest, outer-shelf segment of the valley when sea level is about 40–50 m below its present position. These results are consistent with a Pleistocene age and relict origin of the valley.

Based on these observations, we propose a new conceptual model for the formation of tidally incised shelf valleys. Tidal erosion on meso- to macro-tidal, rimmed carbonate shelves is enhanced during sea level rise and fall when a tidal, hydraulic pressure gradient is established between the shelf-lagoon and the adjacent ocean basin. Tidal flows attain a maximum, and channel incision is greatest, when a large hydraulic pressure gradient coincides with small channel cross sections. Our tidal-incision model may explain the observation of other workers, that sediment is exported from the Great Barrier Reef shelf to the adjacent ocean basins during intermediate (rather than last glacial maximum) low-stand, sea level positions. The model may apply to other rimmed shelves, both modern and ancient.

Item ID: 18404
Item Type: Article (Research - C1)
ISSN: 1872-6151
Keywords: Great Barrier Reef; Gulf of Papua; tidal currents; continental shelf; submarine valleys; sea level change; Quaternary
Date Deposited: 26 Sep 2011 06:39
FoR Codes: 04 EARTH SCIENCES > 0406 Physical Geography and Environmental Geoscience > 040601 Geomorphology and Regolith and Landscape Evolution @ 100%
SEO Codes: 97 EXPANDING KNOWLEDGE > 970104 Expanding Knowledge in the Earth Sciences @ 100%
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