What Can You Learn from Coral?

by Sarah Patterson

How do scientists know what the environment and climate was like hundreds, thousands, even millions of years ago? Dr. Kristine Delong, a LSU professor in the Department of Geography and Anthropology, does it through the study of coral and trees. This type of study is called paleoclimatology and paleoceanography. Or the study of the climate and ocean over Earth’s history.

DeLong had an interesting start into the world of science. She got her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering with her minor in theater technology. Right out of college she went on the road with a traveling Disney theater. After four years of “living the rock star lifestyle”, she worked for a big corporate digital production company. DeLong was making six figures, had the fancy house and car, but she got bored. Decided to go back to school at the University of South Florida, not sure for what but she wanted a change. She ended up taking an oceanography class and did some citizen science work, which led to her deciding her PhD in oceanography. She was hired by LSU as the first female in her department. She is a big supporter of Women in Science and strives to make science a more accepting place of women scientists. DeLong says that although being a scientists doesn’t pay as much, she gets to make her own schedule and her own goals, and she gets to do what she loves.

CoralDeLong studies the climate and environment of the past through coral and trees. Coral has dark lines called density bands that can be seen when the coral is shelled. Like trees, these bands represent the coral growth every year. However a coral grows in many different directions, which according to DeLong, “makes it fun”. What DeLong does is as she calls it “backward chemistry”. She samples the coral’s skeleton along the density bands, and studies its chemical variations to discover what the environment was like during those years. “We do the experiments backwards, we get the resultant and then by understanding how the chemical properties work for that animal, we can go backwards and figure out what was the temperature when the skeleton was being deposited”. So DeLong can discover climate patterns hundreds and hundreds of years ago, depending on how old the coral is.


DeLong also studies the climate and the environment through trees. She is currently researching cypress trees in the Gulf of Mexico. Cypress tree stumps were discovered off the coast in 60ft deep waters. The trees were in amazing condition because they were buried under all this sediment. “In these muds, organic material gets preserved it doesn’t decompose” which is the reason the trees were in pristine condition.  Cypress trees grow in fresh water, not salt water. This means that at some point those cypress trees were in fresh water marsh, and now there way off the coast in the Gulf. DeLong has discovered even more evidence of sea level rise and climate change.

When people ask Dr. Kristine DeLong weather she believes in climate change she says “climate change is what I study”.To DeLong, climate change is her life, it is not something she “believes”, like a religion, it’s something she experiences every day in her work. Anyone who talks to DeLong will know that she loves what she studies and is extremely good at what she does.


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