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The Anthropocene geochemical footprint in the Great Barrier Reef

School of Geography, Geology and the Environment

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Prof J Zinke , Dr T Barry No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
Leicester United Kingdom Environmental Biology Geochemistry Other Other

About the Project

Funding Source: CENTA DTP

Proposed start date: 27th September 2021

Project Highlights:

• Study a set of unique tropical coral cores covering up to 430 years of ocean climate history from Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef to reveal the onset of the Anthropocene in the tropical Pacific Ocean

• Carry out research with cutting edge multiple isotope and trace element geochemistry with national and international partners

• Contribute to a multi-disciplinary international research effort to define the ‘Golden Spike’ for the Anthropocene with society-relevant implications of research outputs


Many geo-ecosystems around the world are increasingly modified by humans. Coral reefs are no exception. Geologists are currently debating the formalisation of the term Anthropocene as a new chronostratigraphic geological unit. The selection of a Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP) candidate section for the Anthropocene is a requirement in seeking formalisation of the term as a potential new unit of the International Chronostratigraphic Chart. Currently, the GSSP candidate sites and archives are chosen by an international working group that will strive to provide compelling evidence for a transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. All sections will be in borehole/drill cores, most showing annually resolved laminations that can be independently dated radiometrically to confirm a complete succession extending back to pre-Industrial times. Airborne signals provide the most geographically widespread and near-isochronous proxies, applicable across most of these environments, which are expected to provide distinctive markers at around the mid-20th century, the preferred start/base of the Anthropocene. The question arises if coral reefs provide clear Anthropocene markers which set them apart from previous reef development stages in Earth history.

Coral skeletal proxy archives are a prime GSSP boundary candidate from the tropical oceans due to their yearly growth banding providing highly precise age control over several centuries locking a suite of geochemical information into their skeleton (Waters et al., 2018; Hennekamet al., 2018). Corals have been shown to record climatic and environmental change over several decades to centuries related to natural processes. Furthermore, coral provide invaluable records of anthropogenic activity, e.g. CO2 uptake by the oceans (Suess effect; Swart et al., 2010), radiocarbon bomb spikes, radionuclide distributions, heavy metal discharge and eutrophication (Lee et al., 2014). All this makes corals a key GSSP candidate from the oceans to define the start of the Anthropocene.


The coral cores from the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) were obtained in 1987 and 2017 by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS, Australia) covering 430 years of coral growth. The cores will be subsampled in the coral palaeoclimatology lab of Prof. Zinke and at partners labs at AIMS (Australia). Splits of carbonate powder samples will be analysed at geochemical laboratories in Leicester and elsewhere in the UK (University College London & University of Southampton) and international partner laboratories (ETH Zurich, Max Planck Institute Mainz) to conduct specific geochemical analysis (14C, Pu, d15N, Boron isotopes, SCP’s). At Leicester, cores will be analysed for trace element/Ca composition, oxygen and carbon isotopes and to reconstruct sea surface temperatures, the hydrological cycle and atmospheric pollution (Hennekam et al., 2018). Lead isotopes will be analysed at British Geological Survey to reconstruct sources of lead pollution.

Training and skills:

The student will become proficient in experimental design and protocols, in use of sophisticated analytical equipment including inductively-coupled-plasma mass spectrometry, stable isotopes, XRD, X-ray and CT-scanning (mostly at the University of Leicester). This combination of innovative methods and state-of-the-art analytical equipment will provide you with a truly unique set of skills that will be attractive to both industrial and academic employers.

Entry requirements:

Applicants are required to hold/or expect to obtain a UK Bachelor Degree 2:1 or better in a relevant subject.

The University of Leicester English language requirements apply where applicable:

Application advice:

To apply please refer to

Project / Funding Enquiries: Jens Zinke [Email Address Removed] or [Email Address Removed]

Application enquiries to [Email Address Removed]

Funding Notes

This studentship is one of a number of fully funded studentships available to the best UK and EU candidates available as part of the NERC DTP CENTA consortium.

For more details of the CENTA consortium please see the CENTA website:


Hennekam, R., Zinke, J., ten Have, M., Brummer, G.J.A. and Reichart, G.-J. (2018) ‘Cocos (Keeling) corals reveal 200 years of multi-decadal modulation of southeast Indian Ocean hydrology by Indonesian Throughflow’, Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology, 33, doi: 10.1002/2017PA003181.

Lee et al. (2014) ‘Coral based history of lead and lead isotopes of the surface Indian Ocean since the mid-20th century’, Earth and Planetary Sci. Letters, 598, pp. 37‐47.

Pelejero, C. et al. (2005) ‘Preindustrial to modern interdecadal variability in coral reef pH.’ Science, 309, 2204-2207.

Swart et al. (2010) ‘The 13C Suess effect in scleractinian corals mirror changes in the anthropogenic CO2 inventory of the surface oceans.’ Geophys. Res. Letters, 37, L05604, doi:10.1029/2009GL041397.

Waters et al. (2018) ‘Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP) for the Anthropocene Series: Where and how to look for potential candidates.’ Earth Science Reviews, 178, 379-429.
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