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Coral Shutdown

La Niña-like conditions in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Panama were closely associated with an abrupt shutdown in coral reef growth that lasted 2,500 years, according to a new study. The findings suggest that changes in climate similar to those revealed in the study could cause similar coral reef collapses in the future.

The study found cooler sea temperatures, greater precipitation, and stronger upwelling — all indicators of La Niña-like conditions — during a period in which coral reef accretion stopped in this region around 4,000 years ago. For the study, researchers traveled to Panama to collect a reef core and then used the fossil corals within the core to reconstruct what the environment was like as far back as 6,750 years ago.

photo - coral branchesPhoto:iStockPhoto.com

“Investigating the long-term history of reefs and their geochemistry is difficult to do in many places, so this was a unique opportunity to look at the relationship between reef growth and environment,” said Kim Cobb, an associate professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech. “This study shows that there appears to have been environmental triggers for this well-documented reef collapse in Panama.”

Published in the journal Nature Climate Change, the study was sponsored by the Geological Society of America, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian Institution’s Marine Science Network. The study was done in collaboration with the Florida Institute of Technology.—BRETT ISRAEL

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