The Elevator Pitch

Reefs worldwide are in decline – for example, the amount of coral on the Great Barrier Reef is just half of what it was in 1985.

Why?

Overfishing, marine pollution, intense cyclones, disease outbreaks, and climate change have all contributed to this loss of coral.  Many of these factors can be locally controlled by conservation and regulation.  But climate change poses a global threat to reef health.  For example, Great Barrier Reef management has named climate change the single biggest threat to the reef.  How will corals respond to ocean warming and acidification?  Some say corals will become extinct; others are more optimistic.

To anticipate the future, we first must understand the past.  Were there any temperature extremes in the past?  How well did corals endure those extremes?

My research focuses on corals across the Pacific, from the Marshall Islands to the Great Barrier Reef.  Corals grow annual bands, like tree rings, that are pages of a history book.  That book tells us about ocean temperature, water quality, and coral health.

luminescence from coral core
A coral slice from the Great Barrier Reef as seen under UV light. Bright bands record large rainfall events, especially summer rains.

I’m working on a method to answer how coral health changed to past extremes in climate.  Using a combination of living and fossil corals, we can reconstruct past climates over centuries – longer than our temperature records. Imagine all the information we could get from these ancients!

Dead corals do tell tales.  As politicians and citizens alike question Earth’s future, we shouldn’t forget that nature itself can give us answers.