What a Study of a 130-year-old Brain Coral Means for Open Ocean Health

Olivia Harne


A 130-year-old brain coral has created interesting news for open ocean health. A team of researchers at Princeton University were able to measure the nitrogen in the coral skeleton to analyze nitrogen pollution, and found it on a far lower level than what had been previously estimated. This is encouraging for the Atlantic Ocean’s health, in the region off the East Coast of the United States.

However, this team has also found elevated nitrogen pollution in earlier studies, focusing in the South China Sea. This is believed to be a result of the increase in fertilizer usage and coal production in China in the prior two decades. A longer report on this finding can be viewed here.

While the North American study found no specific evidence that human-made nitrogen is on the rise, this team was able to note that the variations in nitrogen also corresponded to expected levels from a phenomenon known as North Atlantic Oscillation. However, these results may indicate a positive environmental impact from the United States’ pollution control measures.

Xingchen Wang – a now postdoctoral scholar, who had conducted this work for his geosciences doctorate at Princeton – stated, “Our finding has important implications for the future of human nitrogen impact on the North Atlantic Ocean…If emissions continue at this level, our results imply that the open North Atlantic will remain minimally affected by nitrogen pollution in coming decades.”

Brain coral (Diploria labyrinthiformis). Photo: Jan Derk, 2005, public domain, MediaWiki Commons.
Brain coral (Diploria labyrinthiformis). Photo: Jan Derk, 2005, public domain, MediaWiki Commons.

The complete study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: Wang, X. T., Cohen, A. L., Luu, V., Ren, H., Su, Z., Haug, G. H., & Sigman, D. M. (2018). Natural forcing of the North Atlantic nitrogen cycle in the Anthropocene. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1801049115

View the initial release here.

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Olivia Harne
Olivia Harne.

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