Tsunamis, hurricanes, the demise of coral reefs and shifts in prehistoric human populations in the Caribbean

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Scheffers, S, Haviser, J, Browne, T & Scheffers, A 2009, 'Tsunamis, hurricanes, the demise of coral reefs and shifts in prehistoric human populations in the Caribbean', Quaternary International, vol. 195, no. 1-2, pp. 69-87.

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A review of extreme natural events and their impact on coral reefs and prehistoric human society for the wider Caribbean is presented. As a biological and geological archive of hurricane or tsunami chronology, onshore coarse coral deposits were used. The influence of natural disturbances on coral reefs is extremely complex and the relatively short time span of historical records does not provide sufficient long-term information on extreme natural events such as tropical hurricanes or tsunami variability. The sedimentary record of extreme natural events, such as tsunamis and tropical storms, and their impacts on coral reefs are present in the form of coarse onshore reef debris. These coarse sediments provide information on, for example, spatial and temporal variability of extreme events. The short-term impact of tropical hurricanes on coral reefs is well documented and has been studied in great detail, but the impact of tsunamis on coral reefs was rather neglected until the recent past, when the Indian Ocean Tsunami in December 2004 caused the greatest tsunami catastrophe in human history. This contribution focuses on natural extreme events, such as tsunamis and hurricanes and presents evidence and case studies of modern and ancient tropical examples, the problem of distinguishing deposits from these two different wave events, and the significance of the deposits for reef evolution studies within the Caribbean region. A better understanding of coral reef morphologies/structures or disconformities and their origins can be gained by incorporating long-term (multi-century to millennial) records captured in coarse depositional units. The extreme wave event records also provide explanations to prehistoric human dynamics.