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Corals unlock secrets of climate change

PICTURE CAPTION: Coral Skeletons can be up to 100,000 years old.

Scientists believe that corals retrieved from the depths of tropical waters may hold the key to patterns in climate change thousands of years ago. And their research could uncover information which may be helpful in predicting climate change in the future.

The experts in climate reconstruction at the University of St Andrews have been awarded £145,000 by the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC) for a two year study into the way in which coral skeletons encode climate change over thousands of years.

It is hoped that by examining corals for information on changes in climate over time, including climactic phenomenon, it will give scientists a better understanding of climate change now and in the future.

Dr Nicky Allison, the researcher in charge of the project, is a marine biologist who has worked on climate change documented from corals for many years. Dr Allison used her diving skills to gather coral samples from the Pacific Ocean off Hawaii, which she has brought to the School of Geography and Geosciences at St Andrews. She will work alongside fellow Senior Research Fellow Dr Adrian Finch, a crystallographer and an expert in mineralogy and materials science, in examining the corals using novel methods.

“We will use the chemistry of coral skeletons to tell us about conditions in the past. This could tell us how rapidly climate change has occurred and help us to predict the likelihood of changes in the future,” said Dr Allison.

“We are particularly interested in the element strontium (similar to calcium), which is found in corals, for example how does it get there, how does it vary according to sea temperature etc.”

“We collected samples during the day and night as we know that corals precipitate differently depending on the time of day. We also know that coral usually grows more rapidly over warm seasons,” she continued.

The four coral colonies (three male and one female) under analysis will benefit from the use of the World’s most advanced x-ray source (the APS – Advanced Photon source) in Illinois. The source will allow them to map variations in the corals in 3-D – there is no other technique available which will allow them to do this. The process of examining cross sections of corals can be likened to the processes used when ageing trees. Corals are sliced and x- rayed, and each section holds information on age and climate.

Coral is found in warm tropical waters and is made up of colonies of thousands of animals, not dissimilar to sea anemones. Most corals live for between 200 and 300 years, but coral fossils up to 100,000 years old exist. Corals deposit large bone-like skeletons and trace elements, in the deposits are thought to point to long-term sea temperature changes.

ENDS

NOTE TO EDITORS:

DR ALLISON IS AVAILABLE FOR INTERVIEW ON 01334 463952, OR EMAIL na9@st-andrews.ac.uk

NOTE TO PICTURE EDITORS:

STUNNING EMAILABLE PICTURES OF CORAL ARE AVAILABLE FROM GAYLE COOK – CONTACT DETAILS BELOW.

Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews Contact Gayle Cook on 01334 467227, mobile 07900 050103, or email gec3@st-andrews.ac.uk Ref: Corals and Climate Change pr 240402 View the latest University news at http://www.st- andrews.ac.uk/extrel/press.htm

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