Dr Jennie Mallela
Position: Research Fellow & Marine Environmental consultant
Department: Research Sch. Biology, Res. and Res. Sch. Earth Sciences
University/Institute/Company: Australian National University
I am a multidisciplinary scientist and my research answers real world problems aimed at improving our understanding of coral reefs. I am currently focusing on pollution and climate change research. Research questions include:
-“Can coral skeletons provide missing information on how human activity is changing our coral reefs?”
Corals are long-lived and lay down annual growth rings. As they grow corals capture the environmental signature of ambient seawater in their skeletons. I use novel geochemical techniques (e.g. Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry) to extract this information and reconstruct past environmental conditions. I then combine this with ecological reef growth data to understand how changing seawater conditions influence our reefs. A major break-through included being able to recreate phosphorus proxy events from 60 year old coral cores on the Great Barrier Reef. This has helped us understand how land-based nutrients impact our reefs.
-“Was the 2016 coral bleaching event caused by climate change or was it part of the planets natural cycle?”
This is a highly controversial question that I am regularly asked. I teamed up with an expert modeller, Sophie Lewis, and the ANU super computer to ask if anything else could have caused this bleaching event (e.g. pollution, natural climate variability). The results were clear, after simulating different climate models, we found that human induced climate gases were the primary driver of the 2016 bleaching event.
-“How is environmental change influencing coral reef bio-engineers?”
I am investigating how reef building organisms respond to pollution and heat stress, which species are most resilient (e.g. who wins and who loosers?) and how this influences the physical shape of the reef. This is critical as coral reefs protect our coastlines from severe wave damage dissipating up to 97% of wave energy. It is only by understanding how these critical “biological engineers” (organisms which build the reef) respond to our rapidly changing environment that we can protect our reefs, and our coastlines, for future generations.