Student research points coral decay to global warming

By Lana Groves, Asst. News Editor

A U graduate student is learning clams and worms are not the major cause of coral reef deterioration8212;instead, it’s caused by factors such as global warming and harmful chemicals being pushed into the water.

Michelle Mary, a geology graduate student, visited the Florida Keys on a research trip a year ago and became fascinated with clams, worms and the coral reefs in which they make their homes.

“It’s important to figure out what happened to the geologic region (of the Florida Coast) 125,000 years ago,” she said. “You have to learn about what happened in the past to be prepared for the future.”

Mary said a major change in the last 125,000 years is the large amount of coral dying.

Although organisms bore their way into the hard rock to make their home in the water-logged coral, they are not to blame for the rapid deterioration of the reefs.

Tony Ekdale, a geology and geophysics professor, said the rising water temperature and fertilizer in agricultural fields, which washes into the ocean and causes increases in algae growth, is inhibiting coral growth.

Ekdale said Mary’s research will help scientists studying bioerosion, the erosion of hard ocean materials, to understand what happened to coral reefs thousands of years ago.

“In the last 100,000 years, Earth saw tremendous climatic fluctuations,” Ekdale said. “When the glaciers covered extensive areas of the continents in the Northern Hemisphere, sea levels went down.”

Organisms like marine worms and clams can’t survive on coral reefs if they are not submerged in water. Waves that crash against coral bring tiny food-like plankton to other organisms.

Coral reef records are an indication of how sea life is affected through climate change.

“It’s an extremely important topic for scientists (to consider) the way that climate on planet Earth has been changing in recent years,” he said. “It’s even a topic in the presidential election.”

Ekdale said other scientists have studied coral reefs, but few have looked at how bioeroding clams and worms affect coral along the Florida coast.

Besides studying specimens of older coral from Florida, Mary is in the process of creating a photo mosaic from a large set of photographs taken at the Windley Key Geological State Park in the Florida Keys.

She took pictures of the 8-foot tall walls of a fossil coral reef over the summer, and she will use the photos to create a statistical method to see how much bioerosion occurred in that coral.

Ekdale said Mary will present her work at the Geological Society of America National Convention in Houston this October.

“There are going to be many other scientists interested in hearing about her results,” he said.

Mary believes she will be completing her work within the next year.

After finishing her research, Mary intends to pursue her doctoral degree and teach at a university someday.

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Anna Kartashova

Michelle Mary, a third-year graduate student in geology, measures 125,000-year-old Florida corals to study their bioerosion rates.