Coral skeletal geochemistry as a monitor of inshore water quality

Coral reefs maintain extraordinary biodiversity and provide protection from tsunamis and storm surge, but inshore coral reef health is degrading in many regions due to deteriorating water quality. Deconvolving natural and anthropogenic changes to water quality is hampered by the lack of long term, dated water quality data but such records are required for forward modelling of reef health to aid their management. Reef corals provide an excellent archive of high resolution geochemical (trace element) proxies that can span hundreds of years and potentially provide records used through the Holocene. Hence, geochemical proxies in corals hold great promise for understanding changes in ancient water quality that can inform broader oceanographic and climatic changes in a given region. This article reviews and highlights the use of coral-based trace metal archives, including metal transported from rivers to the ocean, incorporation of trace metals into coral skeletons and the current ‘state of the art’ in utilizing coral trace metal proxies as tools for monitoring various types of local and regional source-specific pollution (river discharge, land use changes, dredging and dumping, mining, oil spills, antifouling paints, atmospheric sources, sewage). The three most commonly used coral trace element proxies (i.e., Ba/Ca, Mn/Ca, and Y/Ca) are closely associated with river runoff in the Great Barrier Reef, but considerable uncertainty remains regarding their complex biogeochemical cycling and controlling mechanisms. However, coral-based water quality reconstructions have suffered from a lack of understanding of so-called vital effects and early marine diagenesis. The main challenge is to identify and eliminate the influence of extraneous local factors in order to allow accurate water quality reconstructions and to develop alternate proxies to monitor water pollution. Rare earth elements have great potential as they are self-referencing and reflect basic terrestrial input.

Saha N., Webb G. E. & Zhao J.-X., 2016. Coral skeletal geochemistry as a monitor of inshore water quality. Science of The Total Environment 566–567:652–684. Article (subscription required).

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