Coralgal composition of drowned carbonate platforms in the Huon Gulf, Papua New Guinea; Implications for lowstand reef development and drowning

Jody M. Webster, Laura Wallace, Eli Silver, Donald Potts, Juan Carlos Braga, Willem Renema, Kristin Riker-Coleman, Christina Gallup

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

59 Scopus citations


Collision between the South Bismarck plate and the northern edge of the Australian plate has produced an actively subsiding foreland basin in the western Huon Gulf. A series of drowned carbonate platforms and pinnacles are preserved on this margin due to a combination of this rapid subsidence and eustatic sea-level changes over the last 450 ka. We analyzed sedimentary and coralgal data from the platforms to better understand lowstand reef development and drowning in the Huon Gulf. The recovered limestones are divided into five main sedimentary facies: coral reef, coralline-foraminiferal nodule, coralline-foraminiferal crust, Halimeda, and planktonic foraminiferal limestones. Based on a comparison with modern analogues in the Indo-Pacific and elsewhere, we identified coral reef, deep fore-reef slope, deeper fore-reef slope, and pelagic/hemipelagic paleoenvironmental settings. An analysis of facies relationships and their paleoenvironmental meanings revealed lowstand corals reefs preserved at the top of the platforms that grew within ∼10 m of sea level. Two different coral assemblages were identified within this facies: (1) a shallow, high energy reef community characteristic of windward margins and limited to the deep platforms (1947, 2121, 2393 m), and (2) another shallow community but indicative of more moderate lower energy reef conditions and limited to the middle (1113, 1217, 1612 m) and shallow platforms (823 m). The change from high to lower energy reef growth conditions suggests that oceanographic/climatic conditions in the Huon Gulf have changed substantially through time, primarily through the closure of the Gulf as a result of tectonic rotation and uplift of the Huon Peninsula over the last 450 ka. Despite major environmental perturbations (i.e. relative sea-level and temperature changes) the platforms and the shallow water coral reefs exposed at the top have been able to re-establish themselves time and time again over the last 450 ka. We also identified two different incipient drowning scenarios influenced by the rate of relative sea-level rise. More rapid drowning in the middle and deep platforms produced a thin veneer of coralline-foraminiferal nodule and Halimeda limestones over the shallow coral reef material while the slower drowning experienced by the shallowest platforms allowed thick coralline-foraminiferal crust limestones to develop. We recognize three main stages of platform development: (1) initiation and growth characterized by shallow coral reef growth as the platforms grew close to sea level during the lowstands, (2) incipient drowning marked by a shift to coralline-foraminiferal nodule, crust and Halimeda limestones as the platforms began to drown during rapid eustatic sea-level rise and continued subsidence, and (3) the complete drowning of the platforms characterized by platform 'turn off', increased bioerosion, Fe-Mn precipitation and pelagic/hemipelagic sedimentation as the platform surfaces finally drop below the photic zone.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)59-89
Number of pages31
JournalMarine Geology
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Feb 28 2004
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the captain and crew of RV Melville for their support during the Huon Gulf Cruise, and the crew of the ROV Jason for their outstanding work during the Jason’s last operational mission. We thank Bruce Applegate for processing the DSL-120 data, and David Caress and Jenny Paduan from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute for reprocessing the SeaBeam data. The initial draft was improved greatly by discussions with Lisa Sloan, Christina Ravelo and David Clague. We especially thank Hugh Davies for his assistance within Papua New Guinea. Finally, we thank Lucien Montaggioni, Toru Nakamori and Guy Cabioch for their detailed and helpful reviews. The project was funded by the US National Science Foundation (Grant No. OCE-9907153).


  • Carbonate platform drowning
  • Coralgal composition
  • Lowstand
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Pleistocene reef development
  • Sea-level changes


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