Reef Island Processes and Change in North Queensland and Torres Strait: Lessons for Management and Adaptation

Associate Professor Scott Smithers1

James Cook University


Although they are often small, low-lying and relatively young, reef islands are home to many Australians, can support key ecosystem functions, and many are culturally significant.  They are also threatened by climate change impacts.  Significant coastal changes have been noted on many reef islands in recent years raising concerns that unless something is done, reef islands and the functions and values they support will be compromised if not lost.

This presentation will discuss how understanding geomorphological processes associated with reef island formation and dynamics can contribute to coastal management and adaptation using examples from North Queensland and Torres Strait.  Examples will include contributions that improve understanding of the ‘problem’ and those that inform adaptive interventions.


Scott Smithers is a coastal geomorphologist with a strong focus on tropical systems based in the College of Science and Engineering at James Cook University. Scott completed his BEnvSci (Hons) and PhD at the University of Wollongong where he was first exposed to coral reef geomorphology through his Honours and PhD supervisor, Colin Woodroffe. Whilst at the University of Wollongong Scott was privileged to undertake research on lagoonal sedimentation and coral records of sea-level change at the Cocos Keeling Islands. Since locating to Townsville Scott has continued his research into the Holocene development of coral reefs, including investigations of the impacts of environmental change on modern coral reef systems, and the recovery and interpretation of records of environmental change preserved within coral skeletons and reef deposits.

Key areas of research include:

Understanding spatial and temporal patterns and controls of reef growth and carbonate production;
The reconstruction of records of environmental change from coral skeletons, reef framework and sedimentary deposits as a context for understanding contemporary changes;
The distribution, growth and importance of turbid zone reefs; and
Understanding the geomorphological development and morphodynamics of coral reef islands.
Unsurprisingly, Scott’s research is largely focused on the Great Barrier Reef, but he worked on reefs from elsewhere in the Pacific (e.g. Torres Strait, Kiribati, PNG) and Indian Oceans (Maldives), as well as in the Caribbean Sea (Bahamas, Bonaire, Belize). Scott finds working with communities to better understand coastal problems particularly rewarding; a key personal goal is to undertake research that can be applied to support environmental management in both developed and developing nations. Recent work in this domain includes research focused on understanding coastal erosion and its impacts on livelihoods in Torres Strait, and understanding geomorphological processes as the basis for adaptive management at Raine Island, the world’s largest green turtle rookery. Working with the Traditional Owners and the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage this research has underpinned recent work to reshape the Raine Island to successfully improve turtle nesting and hatchling outcomes.