Upwellings mitigated Plio-Pleistocene heat stress for reef corals on the Florida platform (USA)

Prof. Dr. Thomas Brachert

Dr. S. Krüger

J. Kirkerowicz

Internationale Zusammenarbeit

PD Dr. M. Reuter
Institut für Erdwissenschaften, Graz, Austria

Prof. Dr. J.S. Klaus
Department of Geological Sciences, Coral Gables, USA


Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft


The fast growing calcareous skeletons of zooxanthellate reef corals (z-corals) represent unique environmental proxy archives through their oxygen and carbon stable isotope composition (δ18O, δ13C). In addition, the accretion of the skeleton itself is ultimately linked to the environment and responds with variable growth rates (extension rate) and density to environmental changes. Here we present classical proxy data (δ18O, δ13C) in combination with calcification records from 15 massive z-corals. The z-corals were sampled from four interglacial units of the Florida carbonate platform (USA) dated approximately 3.2, 2.9, 1.8 and 1.2 Ma (middle Pliocene to early Pleistocene).

The z-corals (Solenastrea, Orbicella, Porites) derive from unlithified shallow marine carbonates and were carefully screened for primary preservation suited for proxy analysis. We show that skeletal accretion was non-linear and responded with decreasing overall calcification rates (decreasing extension rate but increasing density) to warmer water temperatures. Under high annual water temperatures, inferred from subannually resolved δ18O data, skeletal bulk density was high, but extension rates and overall calcification rates were at a minimum (endmember scenario 1). Maximum skeletal density was reached during the summer season giving rise to a growth band of high density within the annually banded skeletons ("high density band", HDB). With low mean annual water temperatures (endmember scenario 2), bulk skeletal density was low but extension rates and calcification rates reached a maximum, and under these conditions the HDB formed during winter.

Although surface water temperatures in the Western Atlantic warm pool during the interglacials of the late Neogene where ~2 °C higher than they are in the present-day, intermittent upwelling of cool, nutrient rich water mitigated water temperatures off southwestern Florida in the middle of the Atlantic warm pool and created temporary refuges for z-coral growth. Based on the subannually resolved δ18O and δ13C records, the duration of the upwelling episodes causing the endmember 2 conditions was variable and lasted from a few years to a number of decades. The episodes of upwelling were interrupted by phases without upwelling (endmember 1) which lasted for at least a few years and led to high surface water temperatures.

This variable environment is likely one of the reasons why the coral fauna is dominated by the eurytopic genus Solenastrea, also a species resistant to high turbidity. Over a period of ~50 years, the oldest subannually resolved proxy record available (3.2 Ma) documents a persistent occurrence of the HDB during winter. In contrast, the HDB forms in summer in modern z-corals from the Florida reef tract. We suggest this difference to be the expression of a tendency towards decreasing upwelling since the middle Pliocene. The number of z-coral sclerochronological records for this time period is still, however, rather low and requires an improved resolution through data from additional time-slices. These data can contribute to predicting the effects of future ocean warming on z-coral health along the Florida reef tract.