A rare element discovered in Great Barrier Reef coral skeletons will helpscientists understand the environmental history of nearby regions.

Researchers at The University of Queensland’s Sustainable Minerals Institute(SMI) and School of Earth and Environmental Sciences (SEES) foundconcentrations of the element vanadium in coral is directly linked to forestburning and land clearing in the area.

SMI researcher Dr Narottam Saha said the remarkable correlation meantresearchers could now accurately examine the region’s environmental history.

“A Great Barrier Reef coral skeleton’s geochemistry contains a concentrationof vanadium that correlates directly with clearing and forest fires in theadjacent Fitzroy River catchment,” Dr Saha said.

“Coral skeletons contain a unique archive of geochemical data that allows foraccurate chronological interpretations of the environmental histories oftropical and sub-tropical regions.

“By analysing a coral skeleton that grew between 1957 and 2010, we were ableto distinctly observe the effects of the Vegetation Management Act 1999, whichled to a decrease in land clearing.

“We believe forest fires result in the release of a soluble form of vanadiumbound to soil minerals, allowing surface runoff to transport it to the seawhere it is incorporated into coral.

Dr Saha said the technique might provide governments with a tool to measureand monitor the effectiveness of legislation aimed at regulating catchmentmodification.

“This is the first example of an element directly relating to the timing ofland clearing or burning,” he said.

“The projected increase in forest fires associated with anthropogenic climatechange means understanding the effects of fires on water quality isincreasingly important.”

UQ palaeontologist and sedimentologist Professor Gregory Webb said the resultsprovided a valuable new tool for monitoring land clearing and burning trendsin appropriate catchments.

“Aside from increasing our understanding of the effects and nature of fires inthe environment, this research has direct relevance to environmentalprotection of the Great Barrier Reef by informing better land management andmay allow monitoring of historic and ongoing catchment management practiceselsewhere,” Professor Webb said.

SMI Professorial Research Fellow and Ecological Engineering of Mine WastesGroup Leader Professor Longbin Huang said the method also would benefitinvestigations into the impact of mining.

“This cutting-edge technology will enable us to investigate long-term andhistoric impacts of mining activities, such as bauxite mining and aluminarefinery on marine environments,” he said.

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