The role of terrigenous sediment in controlling the occurrence of coral reef ecosystems is qualitatively understood and has been studied at local scales, but has not been systematically evaluated on a global-to-regional scale. Current concerns about degradation of reef environments and alteration of the hydrologic and sediment cycles place the issue at a focal point of multiple environmental concerns. We use a geospatial clustering of a coastal zone database of river and local runoff identified with 0.5?? grid cells to identify areas of high potential runoff effects, and combine this with a database of reported coral reef locations. Coastal cells with high runoff values are much less likely to contain reefs than low runoff cells and GIS buffer analysis demonstrates that this inhibition extends to offshore ocean cells as well. This analysis does not uniquely define the effects of sediment, since salinity, nutrients, and contaminants are potentially confounding variables also associated with runoff. However, sediment effects are likely to be a major factor and a basis is provided for extending the study to higher resolution with more specific variables. ?? 2003 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.