Ningaloo’s critical role in keeping Turquoise Bay pristine

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VideoTwo adult male whale sharks have been studied for a record 22 years, making their annual pilgrimage to WA's Ningaloo Reef. Credit: Indian Ocean Imagery

The North West Cape’s pristine shoreline is frequently rated among the best in the world, and a new study suggests the reef plays a vital role in keeping it intact.

University of Western Australia research has found coral reefs such as Ningaloo can naturally protect coasts from tropical cyclones by reducing the impact of large waves before they reach the shore.

ARC Centre of Excellence researcher Michael Cuttler said reefs had the ability to cause waves to break offshore, thus limiting the energy impacting the coastline.

Mr Cuttler and several colleagues studied the World Heritage-listed Ningaloo Reef, Australia’s largest fringing reef, during severe tropical cyclone Olwyn in 2015.

That cyclone caused extensive damage along the coast, but beaches protected by the Ningaloo Reef remained largely unscathed.

“The large waves generated by the cyclone were effectively dissipated by the reef situated offshore,” he said.

“The little erosion that did occur was due to smaller waves that were generated by wind within the lagoon.

“In this study, we also compared similar cyclone impacts on coastlines without reefs and found that these beaches were eroded up to 10 times more than the beach at Ningaloo.”

The study also suggested that for reef systems with lagoons, local wind effects could not be ignored when attempting to model or predict the impact of cyclones.

Mr Cuttler warned the ability of reefs to protect adjacent coastlines was threatened by both sea level rise and slowing rates of reef accretion.

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