New insights from coral growth band studies in an era of rapid environmental change

The rapid formation of calcium carbonate coral skeletons (calcification) fuelled by the coral-algal symbiosis is the backbone of tropical coral reef ecosystems. However, the efficacy of calcification is measurably influenced by the sea’s physico-chemical environment, which is changing rapidly. Warming oceans have already led to increased frequency and severity of coral bleaching, and ocean acidification has a demonstrable potential to cause reduced rates of calcification. There is now general agreement that ocean warming and acidification are attributable to human activities increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, and the large part of the extra carbon dioxide (the main greenhouse gas) that is absorbed by oceans. Certain massive corals provide historical perspectives on calcification through the presence of dateable annual density banding patterns. Each band is a page in an environmental archive that reveals past responses of growth (linear extension, skeletal density and calcification rate) and provides a basis for prediction of future of coral growth. A second major line of research focuses on the measurement of various geochemical tracers incorporated into the growth bands, allowing the reconstruction of past marine climate conditions (i.e. paleoclimatology). Here, we focus on the structural properties of the annual density bands themselves (viz. density; linear extension), exploring their utility in providing both perspectives on the past and pointers to the future of calcification on coral reefs. We conclude that these types of coral growth records, though relatively neglected in recent years compared to the geochemical studies, remain immensely valuable aids to unravelling the consequences of anthropogenic climate change on coral reefs. Moreover, an understanding of coral growth processes is an essential pre-requisite for proper interpretation of studies of geochemical tracers in corals.

Lough J. M., & Cooper T. F., in press. New insights from coral growth band studies in an era of rapid environmental change. Earth-Science Reviews. doi:10.1016/j.earscirev.2011.07.001. Article (subscription required).

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