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Second-hand smoke bad for coral reefs

A juvenile coral growing on the surface of a large coral. Image courtesy of K. Glenn.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

While it's clear that second-hand smoke from cigarettes is unhealthy for kids, new research shows how second hand smoke from wildfires can hurt or kill nearby coral reefs. The study suggests that smoke and ash rising from burning tropical forests in Indonesia in 1997 drifted over a coral reef, settled, and triggered a red tide -- a population explosion of tiny aquatic plants called phytoplankton.

A 6000 year old fossil coral from the Mentawai Islands, Indonesia. Fossil corals like this one can be used to reconstruct detailed records of past climate. Image courtesy of M. Gagan.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

This red tide caused oxygen levels in the water to drop. The lack of oxygen killed much of the coral in the Mentawai Islands reef ecosystem in the Indian Ocean.

To make the connection between wildfires and reef death, Nerilie Abram and her Australian and Indonesian coauthors studied the makeup of corals and the ocean water around them.

The scientists say that tropical wildfires were not as common in the past as they are now.

The frequency of these wildfires is increasing as populations rise and more forests are disrupted by human activities. This could mean that more coral reefs could get sick or die from second hand smoke from future tropical forest fires.


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