Reef Sedimentary Accretion Model (ReefSAM): Understanding coral reef evolution on Holocene time scales using 3D stratigraphic forward modelling

03 December 2019

A detailed understanding of the development of coral reefs and their internal structure has important applications for predicting future reef trajectories in light of climate changes, petroleum exploration and reconstructing past environmental changes such as sea level. Numerical computer modelling provides a quantitative means of testing and understanding reef processes and better predicting past and future reef development. However, most existing carbonate stratigraphic forward models (SFMs) focus on the platform scale and several limitations in their simulation of important reef processes and reef-scale features (e.g. patch reefs, sand aprons) have been previously identified. We present the Reef Sedimentary Accretion Model (ReefSAM) – a new carbonate SFM designed to test new approaches to modelling processes important at the reef scale, with the goal of better simulating reef features and evolution at higher temporal and spatial resolutions. Specific developments include a sediment transport model which calculates deposition based on a range of grain sizes, additional controls on coralgal growth including wave energy and surface substrate specificity, and model outputs showing categorized paleo-conditions (composition, paleo-depth and paleo-energy) along with numerous quantitative measures for objective comparison of model results to real-world observational data, which is often more abundant for modern/Holocene reefs than buried ancient reefs. Simulations of the well-studied Holocene One Tree Reef (OTR) in the southern Great Barrier Reef (GBR) showed improvements upon previous modelling attempts in both quantitative measures (e.g. lagoon size or reef sea level catch-up time), and the ability to produce more realistic reef-scale morphological features (e.g. lagoonal patch-reefs, mostly sand-filled lagoon) and reef development characteristics (e.g. transition from mostly vertical aggradation during sea level catch-up to horizontal progradation afterwards). Controls on reef maturity/lagoonal filling identified in previous modelling experiments were corroborated. Sensitivity testing also revealed a very high sensitivity to reef drowning. These results indicate the new modelling approaches are viable and provide a way forward for future Holocene reef evolution model development