A remarkable record of reef research



A James Cook University professor has produced an earth science encyclopaedia on coral reefs in what is most likely the most comprehensive record of work carried out in the area since Charles Darwin first attempted to understand reef evolution.

Emeritus Professor David Hopley has launched Encyclopaedia of Modern Coral Reefs: Structure, Form and Process at a special function at JCU’s Townsville campus.

The encyclopaedia covers a wide range of topics, including biological, chemical and physical processes, exploration and the history of geoscientific studies, theories of reef growth, reef classification, reef islands, climate change and descriptions of the major reef areas.

Professor Hopley said coral reefs were the largest landforms built by plants and animals and their study incorporated a wide range of disciplines.

“This encyclopaedia approaches coral reefs from an earth science perspective, concentrating especially on modern reefs,” he said.

“Currently coral reefs are under high stress, most prominently from climate change with changes to water temperature, sea level and ocean acidification particularly damaging.

“Modern reefs have evolved through the massive environmental changes of the recent glacial epochs with long periods of exposure during glacially lowered sea level times and short periods of interglacial growth.”

Professor Hopley said the encyclopaedia, which weighs 4kg and took three years of full-time work to compile, condensed the large amount of work currently being carried out by earth scientists, with 154 contributors from 18 different nationalities.

Townsville institutions, including JCU, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Museum of Tropical Queensland were major players, with 15 contributors in total.

“Leading authorities from many countries have contributed to the entries covering areas of geology, geography and ecology, providing comprehensive access to the most up-to-date research on the structure, form and processes operating on Quaternary coral reefs, especially over the past 10,000 years.”

Professor Hopley said his research over a 45-year period as an academic had centred on coastal geomorphology and especially Holocene sea level change.

“After coming to Townsville in 1965, research was initially focused on the mainland, including the Burdekin Delta but progressed seawards, initially to the high islands and their reefs – the Palm Group – and, after the University obtained the vessel, the R.V. James Kirby, to the outer Great Barrier Reef.”

He said the evolution of the Great Barrier Reef over the past 10,000 years subsequently became the main area of attention through drilling and dating studies, establishing a rapid growth history from around 9000 years BP (before present), to the time sea level stabilised about 6000 years ago.

Professor Hopley said the encyclopaedia will be an important resource for future studies or work in the study of coral reefs.

“The encyclopaedia summarises all the ideas up to the present time, providing a comprehensive set of references for any further study,” he said.

Professor Hopley said the encyclopaedia was expected to be used extensively by reef researchers, graduate students and reef managers.

“I imagine it will also be used in complementary disciplines such as ecology, where earth science helps explain some of the biology and ecology of coral reefs. The study of coral reefs is a very complex area and you need to have an understanding to some extent of a broad range of disciplines.”

Professor Hopley has received a number of awards, including the 1984 Royal Geographical Society of Australasia J.P. Thomson silver medal awarded by H.R.H the Duke of Kent and the 1994 PACON (Pacific Congress of Marine Science and Technology) Service Award and Life Membership.