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Pacific Coral Signals Climate Change

Coral extracted from a remote island in the Pacific Ocean has enabled scientists at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego to construct a new record of climate conditions during the 20th century.

The coral cores allow researchers to trace sea surface conditions over a 112-year-period, and may hold implications for long-range climate forecasting and predictability.

Samples were drawn from a tiny Pacific atoll called Palmyra by Kim Cobb and Christopher Charles. Using mass spectrometry, Cobb measured tiny differences in the ratio of oxygen isotopes in the coral cores. These differences allowed Cobb to determine precisely how the monthly sea water temperatures changed, thus becoming a detailed climate record for the tropical Pacific.

"Several important implications arise from these findings, including the possibility that the observed global climate variability on decadal time scales reflects a 'teleconnected' response to changing conditions in the central tropical Pacific Ocean," said Kim Cobb, a lead author of the study published in the June 1 issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

Climate scientists have developed models that outline several scenarios for air-sea interactions that operate on cycles described by Cobb and Charles, known as "decadal variability." However, proof from the field, or instrumental records, have been sparse. Prior to World War II, significant gaps existed in critical regions of the ocean, especially from the vital tropics regions. Over two weeks, Cobb and a small team used portable drills to extract more than 70 samples from coral heads above and below sea level.

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