El Nino Influence on Holocene Reef Accretion in Hawai'i

Rooney, John
Fletcher, Charles
Grossman, Eric
Engles, Mary
Field, Michael
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University of Hawai'i Press
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New observations of reef accretion from several locations show that in Hawai'i accretion during early to middle Holocene time occurred in areas where today it is precluded by the wave regime, suggesting an increase in wave energy. Accretion of coral and coralline algae reefs in the Hawaiian Islands today is largely controlled by wave energy. Many coastal areas in the main Hawaiian Islands are periodically exposed to large waves, in particular from North Pacific swell and hurricanes. These are of sufficient intensity to prevent modern net accretion as evidenced by the antecedent nature of the seafloor. Only in areas sheltered from intense wave energy is active accretion observed. Analysis of reef cores reveals patterns of rapid early Holocene accretion in several locations that terminated by middle Holocene time, ca. 5000 yr ago. Previous analyses have suggested that changes in Holocene accretion were a result of reef growth "catching up" to sea level. New data and interpretations indicate that the end of reef accretion in the middle Holocene may be influenced by factors in addition to sea level. Reef accretion histories from the islands of Kaua'i, O'ahu, and Moloka'i may be interpreted to suggest that a change in wave energy contributed to the reduction or termination of Holocene accretion by 5000 yr ago in some areas. In these cases, the decrease in reef accretion occurred before the best estimates of the decrease in relative sea-level rise during the mid-Holocene high stand of sea level in the main Hawaiian Islands. However, reef accretion should decrease following the termination of relative sea-level rise (ca. 3000 yr ago) if reef growth were "catching up" to sea level. Evidence indicates that rapid accretion occurred at these sites in early Holocene time and that no permanent accretion is occurring at these sites today. This pattern persists despite the availability of hard substrate suitable for colonization at a wide range of depths between -30 m and the intertidal zone. We infer that forcing other than relative sea-level rise has altered the natural ability to support reef accretion on Hawaiian insular shelves. The limiting factor in these areas today is wave energy. Numbers of both large North Pacific swell events and hurricanes in Hawai'i are greater during El Nino years. We infer that if these major reef-limiting forces were suppressed, net accretion would occur in some areas in Hawai'i that are now wave-limited. Studies have shown that El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) was significantly weakened during early-mid Holocene time, only attaining an intensity similar to the current one ca. 5000 yr ago. We speculate that this shift in ENSO may assist in explaining patterns of Holocene Hawaiian reef accretion that are different from those of the present and apparently not related to relative sea-level rise.
Rooney J, Fletcher C, Grossman E, Engles M, Field M. 2004. El Nino influence on Holocene reef accretion in Hawai'i. Pac Sci 58(2): 305-324.
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