Revealing Climate Through Corals
[The Museum logo appears over footage of gently crashing ocean waves.]
NATHALIE GOODKIN (Assistant Curator, Division of Physical Sciences):
When you look at the ocean, it really looks all the same as far as the eye can see in many ways.
[Nathalie Goodkin appears onscreen with dry coral specimens behind her.]
GOODKIN: One of the jokes my children have is I took them, one of their first boat trips was off the coast of Florida, and I said well, maybe we’ll hit the Gulf Stream. And about every ten minutes, they kept saying are we in the Gulf Stream yet?
And you can’t ever tell when you’re in the Gulf Stream unless you’re making an enormous number of measurements. Because you don’t see it. There’s so much happening that the eye cannot see.
[A photograph of Nathalie Goodkin being handed a piece of coral while scuba diving appears on screen.]
GOODKIN: I am a paleoceanographer who looks at biological fossils back through time…
[The camera swims over a forest of stony coral in the ocean.]
GOODKIN: …to understand how the ocean has changed over the last 500 to 1,000 years.
[A rotating globe of the Earth as seen from space appears against a black background.]
GOODKIN: The first question we ask is, what information do we want to know about the Earth?
[As Goodkin states these questions, white question marks pop up and pulsate on screen.]
GOODKIN: And where can we go on the planet to best answer those questions?
[The glob stops spinning and an outline appears around a location in Indonesia.]
GOODKIN: Once you’ve sort of identified that location…
[The outline expands to reveal an image styled like a postcard, showing divers around a large coral boulder, with text reading “Greetings from Bali, Indonesia.”]
GOODKIN: …we go out, we look for the largest coral that we can find.
[The image of the divers becomes footage of the divers swimming around the large coral boulder, followed by a sequence of underwater footage of coral reefs.]
GOODKIN: Corals grow in these large formations, and they’re building skeleton as they grow. And as they secrete their skeletons, they will take in chemicals from the sea water based on the conditions they’re growing in.
So, as the temperature changes, they’re going to have a different chemical composition. As the salinity changes, they’re going to have a different chemical composition. As surface currents change, they’re going to reflect those changes in their skeleton as well.
[Once again, we see the diving team underwater with a large coral boulder.]
GOODKIN: The corals that we’re interested in grow into really, really large boulders that can live for five or 600 years.
And then we go ahead, and we’ll drill a core out from the center of that colony...
[The diving team uses a large machine to drill a core from the boulder.]
GOODKIN: It doesn’t kill the colony. The colony continues to thrive for decades afterwards. but it gives us a little bit of a piece from the inside of that colony that extends back through time.
[Images appear of the coral core pieces labelled and shelved in the lab.]
GOODKIN: Once you have the samples in the lab, we look at certain trace elements, like strontium and barium…
[Over an image of coral cores, Bohr models of strontium and barium fade in with their electron shells rotating around their nuclei.]
GOODKIN: …that can tell us about what’s been happening in the coral. And so, we can reconstruct those environmental conditions…
[Piece by piece, an image of a coral reef divided into a grid appears on screen, as if pieces of a puzzle are being put together.]
GOODKIN: …over the past several hundred years.
[Images of various coral reefs cycle on screen.]
GOODKIN: And looking back in time and understanding how this system works is very critical to understanding how climate will change in the future.
[Goodkin appears on screen again.]
GOODKIN: Our technology’s changed dramatically in a 10 to 15-year time period. And so, the type of analysis that we’re able to do on these samples 15 years from now is very different than the analysis we’re able to do now.
[Dry stony corals are shelved and catalogued in the Museum’s coral collection space.]
GOODKIN: And being at a place that is collecting and preserving…
[A technician in a lab coat removes a container of DNA samples from a vat in the cryogenic storage room.]
GOODKIN: …such an enormous amount of the Earth’s history through sample collection,…
[A Museum staff member looks through a cabinet in the collections.]
GOODKIN: …and to be working on not just trying to collect new data all the time,…
[A scientist looks at trilobite fossils through a microscope.]
GOODKIN: …but trying to go back and look at what else can we learn…
[A scientist adjusts a microscope to view geology specimens on a computer monitor.]
GOODKIN: …that we didn’t know we could learn 20 years ago,…
[A fountain bubbles in front of the Museum’s 77th street entrance.]
GOODKIN: …that’s what really excited me about coming to the American Museum of Natural History.
What can corals reveal about how our oceans have changed over time? Paleoceanographer Nathalie Goodkin, an assistant curator in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the American Museum of Natural History, explains how she uses coral samples to look back in time at marine conditions and why this research is critically important for protecting our oceans in the future.