The role of subsidence in shelf widening around ocean island volcanoes: Insights from observed morphology and modeling

Rui Quartau*, Alan S. Trenhaile, Ricardo S. Ramalho, Neil C. Mitchell

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)

7 Citations (Scopus)
133 Downloads (Pure)


On reefless volcanic islands, insular shelves are thought to have formed essentially by the combined effects of wave erosion and glacio-eustatic sea-level oscillations. Subsidence, however, has also been recognized as having an important role in the development of these morphologies. Yet, few studies have quantified the relative contribution of subsidence to shelf generation and development, particularly to shelf width. A better understanding of this contribution, however, is key to understand the long-term evolution of coasts at volcanic islands, particularly given that subsidence may exacerbate the effects of marine erosion. In this study we assess quantitatively the role of subsidence in shelf development by comparing real cross-shore shelf profiles with modeled profiles using varied rates of subsidence. To achieve this, we used shelf bathymetric profiles from Faial and São Jorge islands in the Azores, which we compared with predictions of a numerical model of coastal erosion that has been calibrated previously against other field data. The first set of model runs was made to calibrate the model by determining the values that produced shelves with break depths, widths, and profile shapes that were similar to those observed. The second set of runs, which served to evaluate the contribution of subsidence to shelf widening, revealed that subsidence may have been responsible for increasing shelf widths by almost 2.5 times relative to shelves formed only by the combined effects of wave erosion and glacio-eustatic oscillations. Modeling shelf formation on the same islands but with increased subsidence rates up to 2.2 mm/yr resulted in shelf profiles up to 19 km wide, a value 3 to 6 times greater than observed on these islands. Our study therefore reinforces the idea that subsidence is a key contributor to the generation of broad insular shelves, given its role in enhancing coastal retreat. Our shelf evolution modeling also suggests that, notwithstanding the crucial role subsidence plays in increasing the width of shelves, on islands subjected to energetic wave regimes (as it happens in the Azores and Hawaii), modification by erosion is important enough to result in shelf morphologies that are not constructional in essence, but rather dominantly erosive surfaces. This study therefore contributes to a better understanding of how insular shelves and submarine terraces form and develop by proving important new quantitative insights of the role of subsidence on the generation of these morphologies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)408-417
Number of pages10
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Early online date20 Jul 2018
Publication statusPublished - 15 Sep 2018


  • insular shelves
  • modeling
  • shelf break
  • subsidence
  • Volcanic Ocean Islands

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