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Examining the impact of the Great Barrier Reef on tsunami propagation using numerical simulations


Thran,  Mandi C.
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Brune,  Sascha
2.5 Geodynamic Modelling, 2.0 Geophysics, Departments, GFZ Publication Database, Deutsches GeoForschungsZentrum;

Webster,  Jody M.
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Dominey-Howes,  Dale
External Organizations;

Harris,  Daniel
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Thran, M. C., Brune, S., Webster, J. M., Dominey-Howes, D., Harris, D. (2021): Examining the impact of the Great Barrier Reef on tsunami propagation using numerical simulations. - Natural Hazards, 108, 347-388.

Cite as: https://gfzpublic.gfz-potsdam.de/pubman/item/item_5006332
Coral reefs may provide a beneficial first line of defence against tsunami hazards, though this is currently debated. Using a fully nonlinear, Boussinesq propagation model, we examine the buffering capacity of the Great Barrier Reef against tsunamis triggered by several hypothetical sources: a series of far-field, Solomon Islands earthquake sources of various magnitudes (Mw 8.0, Mw 8.5, and Mw 9.0), a submarine landslide source that has previously been documented in the offshore geological record (the “Gloria Knolls Slide”), and a potential future landslide source (the “Noggin Block”). We show that overall, the Great Barrier Reef acts as a large-scale regional buffer due to the roughness of coral cover and the complex bathymetric features (i.e. platforms, shoals, terraces, etc.) that corals construct over thousands of years. However, the buffering effect of coral cover is much stronger for tsunamis that are higher in amplitude. When coral cover is removed, the largest earthquake scenario (Mw 9.0) exhibits up to a 31% increase in offshore wave amplitude and estimated run-up. These metrics increase even more for the higher-amplitude landslide scenarios, where they tend to double. These discrepancies can be explained by the higher bed particle velocities incited by higher-amplitude waves, which leads to greater frictional dissipation at a seabed covered by coral. At a site-specific level, shoreline orientation relative to the reef platforms also determines the degree of protectiveness against both types of tsunamis, where areas situated behind broad, shallow, coral-covered platforms benefit the most. Additionally, we find that the platforms, rather than gaps in the offshore reef structure, tend to amplify wave trains through wave focussing when coral cover is removed from simulations. Our findings have implications for future tsunami hazards along the northeastern Australian coastline, particularly as the physiological stressors imposed by anthropogenic climate change further exacerbate coral die-off and reductions in ecosystem complexity. Therefore, areas that experience a protective benefit by the Great Barrier Reef’s platforms could be disproportionately more vulnerable in the future.