corals and Cernobyl

Bob Buddemeier bob_buddemeier at
Wed Apr 16 10:59:01 EDT 1997

Dear Reinhold  and coral-listers,

Preface 1:  Effective almost immediately, my only e-mail address will be
<buddrw at> -- please check/correct your records.

Preface 2:  Nervous  as I am about broadcast replies, I thought this might
have some cultural value, so I risk the wrath of my companions in e-mail
overload.  If you think this doesn't belong on the list-server, reply
privately and I'll publish the vote totals.

Response: There was a lot of work done in the 70's on both natural and
man-made radionuclide records in coral skeletons.  Almost all of the
literature on this can be accessed through the bibliographies provided in (1)
Buddemeier, R. W. and Kinzie, R. A. III, 1976, Coral Growth, Oceanogr. Mar.
Biol. Annu. Rev. 14:183-225 and (2) Dodge, R. E. and Vaisnys, J. R. 1980,
Skeletal Growth Chronologies of Recent and Fossil Corals, Ch. 14 in Rhoads,
D. C. and Lutz, R. A. (Eds) Skeletal Growth of Aquatic Organisms, Plenum
Press, NY, pp 493-517.

Since that time most of the emphasis has been on natural radionuclides and
dating or tracing of oceanic processes; with apologies to those not
acknowledged, I'd say that Ellen Druffel's continuing work on C-14 in corals
is quite relevant to "fallout detection."  However, there has been a big
expansion of (stable) trace element studies, the results and methods of which
are both very relevant to radionuclide studies -- with similar and even
broader apologies to the rest of the world, I'd say start with Glen Shen's

Why do I go into this background instead of just answering the question? 
Because (and Reinhold, I'm sorry if I seem to pick on you in public, but...)
it's not a very well-formulated question.  The appropriate question is
something more like "would it be feasible to detect the Chernobyl event in
coral skeletal records, and has anyone tried?"  The answer to the first part
is either no, or that it would be so laborious and uncertain that it would be
hard to see what scientific use it would have, given the large amount of
information already available on the Chernobyl fallout plume and on coral
uptake of and responses to radioactivity.

I suggest that a few hours in the library should convince most people that
(a) the Chernobyl plume, although traced around the world several times,
dissipated to  below detection limits mostly in the higher (non-coral)
latitudes, (b) although locally impressive, it represents a trivial excursion
once it is mixed into the existing global background inventory of
radionuclides, and (c) between problems of chemistry, biology, and air-sea
circulation, coral skeletal records do not have the precison or temporal
resolution to  reliably detect a small, distant, and very transient pulse.

If there ever was a hermatypic coral experiment to have been performed, it
was probably (I don't remember the exact patterns, so even this suggestion
may not be good) in the northern Red Sea or Arabian Gulf within the first few
years after the event, and exploiting the characteristic short half-life
nuclides for which there is no natural background.  If there were an
experiment still waiting to be done it would be on Mediterranean ahermatypics
(I seem to remember that Italy took a fairly serious fallout hit), collected
from regions that are shallow, have relatively slow water exchange times, and
were in major fallout areas (which were quite well mapped and modelled). 
BUT, I would not  set foot into the field without doing the basic
calculations of deposition, dilution, calcification, decay, and detecton
because I strongly suspect that any signal would be operationally buried in
the noise. 

Unavoidable philosophical comment -- the list server is a powerful tool for
networking, but there is a trade-off in its use.  If I see a query that I
think I have something to contribute to that could save the questioner a lot
of time and effort without costing too much of mine, I answer (on- or
off-line, whichever I  guess to be most appropriate).  However, about 95% of
the "can anybody tell me anything about....." questions get a prompt delete,
since I can often tell far more than I have time to communicate and am
disinclined to support the research habits of people who don't put in some
time and thought of their own on the front end.  [The exception to this is
people who are clearly in a position where they do not have access to a
library, colleagues, or maybe even the WWW -- but even in those cases, some
question formulations are more evocative than others.]  My advice to students
and other gleaners of knowledge is to think 3 times, go to the library twice,
and then write once.

Again with apologies to Reinhold, who was just innocently doing the sort of
thing that everybody else does, this query was an example of one that fell in
both my categories -- coral radionuclide studies is a fairly specialized
field, with a dispersed and now ageing literature, so it is fair game for
appeals to experience.  On the other hand, there is quite a lot of readily
available mainline literature on both the Chernobyl event and corals as
radioactivity samplers, so it wouldn't take much time to focus the questions
and interests quite a bit.

End of sermon.  If I turn out to be wrong, send me the reprint -- it's a
slower process now, but I'm still learning things.

Bob Buddemeier

Dr. Robert W. Buddemeier
Kansas Geological Survey
University of Kansas
1930 Constant Ave.
Lawrence, KS 66047

(913) 864-3965 w
(913) 864-5317 fax
buddrw at KGS.UKANS.EDU  (Internet)

To: Coral-List
From: Reinhold Leinfelder on 16Apr1997 06:01
Subject: corals and Cernobyl
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Subject: corals and Cernobyl
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Dear colleagues,

does anybody of you have informations on the expression of the Cernobyl
desaster in coral skeletons? Are there elevated Caesium values in the
respective annual growth bands? If so, are these records from the Red Sea,
the Caribbean or the Pacific?

Thanks for your help

Reinhold Leinfelder

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