Fossil fuel footprint: Corals reveal industrial pollution’s deep sea impact

New study uncovers historical pollutants from burning fossil fuels in Mediterranean corals, highlighting human influence on marine ecosystems.


In a groundbreaking study, scientists have uncovered evidence of pollutants tied to the burning of fossil fuels within coral skeletons, marking a significant revelation in understanding the extent of human impact on marine ecosystems. Conducted by researchers from the Instituto de Acuicultura de Torre de la Sal and analyzed in a laboratory at University College London, the study focused on samples from the Cladocora caespitosa coral species found in the Mediterranean Sea, near Spain’s eastern coast.

The research process involved dissolving coral samples in acid to expose any embedded pollutants within the coral skeletons. Utilizing advanced techniques such as microscopy, electron microscopy, and X-ray analysis, the team discovered the presence of fly-ash particles, also known as spheroidal carbonaceous particles (SCPs), which are directly linked to the combustion of fossil fuels. These findings, published in the journal Science of The Total Environment, highlight a clear and tangible measure of the environmental impact of industrial activities over several decades.

Corals have long been valued by scientists as natural archives for paleoclimate studies, capable of preserving detailed environmental data for decades. This study’s revelations regarding the accumulation of fly-ash particles in coral skeletons from the years 1969 and 1992 provide a stark illustration of the correlation between periods of increased fossil fuel use and industrial development in Europe. The precise nature of corals’ growth allows for an almost chronological record of environmental changes and pollutant exposure.

The pollutants discovered in the corals serve as potential markers for the beginning of the Anthropocene epoch, a proposed geological time unit characterized by significant human influence on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems.

“As it becomes clearer that humans have altered the natural environment to an unprecedented level, these pollutants act as indelible markers, indicating the start of the Anthropocene epoch,” stated Lucy Roberts, lead author of the study and a lecturer in environmental change at University College London.

In addition to shedding light on historical pollution levels, the study’s findings contribute to the growing body of evidence regarding the multitude of threats facing coral reefs. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has highlighted various dangers, including pollution from agricultural runoff, rising ocean temperatures due to climate change, and destructive fishing practices. With NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch issuing warnings about increased bleaching risks and scientists predicting significant bleaching events in 2024, the urgency to address these threats has never been greater.

The implications of this research extend beyond academic interest, underscoring the pressing need for robust environmental policies aimed at reducing fossil fuel pollution and protecting marine ecosystems.

As Roberts remarked, “This is valuable to researchers trying to better understand the history of human impact on the natural world and serves as a powerful reminder of how extensive human influence is over the environment.”


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Alexandra Jacobo is a dedicated progressive writer, activist, and mother with a deep-rooted passion for social justice and political engagement. Her journey into political activism began in 2011 at Zuccotti Park, where she supported the Occupy movement by distributing blankets to occupiers, marking the start of her earnest commitment to progressive causes. Driven by a desire to educate and inspire, Alexandra focuses her writing on a range of progressive issues, aiming to foster positive change both domestically and internationally. Her work is characterized by a strong commitment to community empowerment and a belief in the power of informed public action. As a mother, Alexandra brings a unique and personal perspective to her activism, understanding the importance of shaping a better world for future generations. Her writing not only highlights the challenges we face but also champions the potential for collective action to create a more equitable and sustainable world.