Originally created 04/13/02

Teacher studies death of sea life



AIKEN - Landlocked more than 100 miles from the coast, biology professor Garriet Smith's thoughts remain underwater.

Dr. Smith has sacrificed his Christmas vacation and part of each summer break for 20 years to take University of South Carolina Aiken students to the Bahamas to study the coral reefs off the coast of San Salvador - the same coral that is dying as huge African dust clouds deposit millions of tons of dust in the region each year.

On Friday, Dr. Smith and his colleagues in coral and dust research spoke to the South Carolina Academy and Junior Academy of Science annual meeting at the university.

"I hope you can all sleep well after you hear this," said Eugene Shinn, a researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey Center in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Since drought began throughout North Africa in the mid-1970s, scuba divers and snorkelers in the Caribbean watched as coral diseases appeared and, over time, slowly killed coral, completely wiping out one species of algae-eating urchins.

"Our thesis now - something is being carried in the dust," Dr. Shinn said.

Traces of mercury, arsenic and even 3-inch-long locusts have made it to the islands.

The notion of large insects traveling thousands of miles across the ocean swept up in a dust storm is just plain weird to Aaron Wyndham, a senior at Timberland High School in Berkeley County.

"How easy could something else be spread?" he wondered.

Heather Laughridge, of the Governor's School for Science & Mathematics, said she already knew of the problem from watching the Discovery Channel. She admitted to dozing through parts but had insight into the problem.

"Even coral reefs that are completely isolated from society are being destroyed from pollutants. That's not a good sign," she said.

Dr. Smith said his 20 years of research found evidence that something is indeed destroying the coral reefs. Now it is his students, he says, who will find the cure.

"They can take it so much further than we can," he said.

Reach Carly Phillips at (803) 648-1395 or carly.phillips@augustachronicle.com.