Geochemical significance of Acropora death assemblages in the northern South China Sea: implications for environmental reconstruction using branching corals


  • Acropora-derived SST reconstruction using Sr/Ca has registered SST shifts around 4–5 ka BP and the modern warming.
  • The universal Li/Mg-SST calibration tends to underestimate the SST reconstruction.
  • Reduced pHcf is found for the post-industrial corals compared to the ancient corals.
  • Coral DICcf exhibits a progressive decrease since the mid-Holocene.
  • Skeletal δ13C is intrinsically linked to the coral CF carbonate chemistry.


The geochemistry preserved in coral skeletons provides access to pre-instrumental records of environmental changes. While a variety of proxies have been established for coral paleoclimatology, their applications to the use of Acropora to generate longer-term reconstructions have been studied less. Here, we examine the geochemical proxies (i.e., Sr/Ca, Li/Mg, δ18O, δ13C, δ11B, and B/Ca) of dead Acropora assemblages collected from a fringing reef off Hainan Island in the northern South China Sea. These samples have been precisely dated using Usingle bondTh isotopes and record reef development episodes since the mid-Holocene, allowing us to assess their potential as paleoclimate archives. The sea surface temperature (SST) trend reconstructed by Sr/Ca and Li/Mg exhibits better consistency with each other, and they have recorded the SST shifts around 5–4 ka BP and the subdued variability during the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA), whereas the δ18O-SST record exhibits less clear variations over the past 7000 years. However, the universal Li/Mg-SST calibration tends to underestimate the SST reconstruction from tropical corals, highlighting the importance of using a site- and species-specific calibration of the Li/Mg-SST. Boron systematics are used to reconstruct the carbonate chemistry of coral calcifying fluid (CF), which reveals significant differences between the ancient and modern corals. The pH of the coral CF (pHcf) is significantly lower in the modern Acropora compared to the ancient corals, with a mean difference of ~0.08 pH, corroborating the pronounced influence of ocean acidification on the coral CF chemistry. The dissolved inorganic carbon of the coral CF (DICcf) is also lower for modern Acropora, and this decreasing trend seems to have persisted over the past 7000 years. In addition, the skeletal δ13C is closely related to the CF carbonate chemistry, highlighting the intrinsic relationship between the coral internal carbon pool used for calcification and the up-regulation of the pHcf.

Chen X., Deng W., Yan S., Liu X., Zhao J. & Wei G., 2022. Geochemical significance of Acropora death assemblages in the northern South China Sea: implications for environmental reconstruction using branching corals. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 603: 111197. doi: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2022.111197. Article (subscription required).

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