Colossal Coral Reef Found Alongside a Natural Wonder of the World
By Chloe-Anne Swink
A massive ─ literally! ─ discovery was made in October 2020 by scientists on a 12-month mission to map Australia’s oceans. Scientists found a towering coral reef off Australia’s coast near Cape York.
Detached from the Great Barrier Reef itself ─ and standing at over a mile tall ─ this is the first discovery of its kind in over 120 years.
Australia’s Oceans Leave Much to Discover
Such a colossal feature having yet to be discovered until now is less surprising than you may think. According to Dr. Carlie Wiener, spokesperson for the Schmidt Ocean Institute, “Australia has no dedicated underwater vehicle. So there are a lot of areas that haven’t been looked at before.”
The Schmidt Ocean Institute is a nonprofit organization based in California. They’re the minds behind the mission that led to this jaw-dropping discovery.
The reef was uncovered by an underwater ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) named SuBastian. The discovery of the reef was live-streamed on Youtube. You can see it for yourself right here.
Discovery of The Reef Live on Youtube
Schmidt Ocean Institute researchers, aboard a ship called Falkor, operated SuBastian. This massive discovery wasn’t Falkor’s only success over the 12 month mission. The team uncovered many new species along with the “world’s longest recorded sea creature.”
This Towering Reef Is Amazing but It’s Not One of a Kind
1.5 kilometers ─ nearly a mile ─ wide at its base and rising over a mile high from the seafloor. This reef dwarfs our world’s largest skyscrapers. It stands taller than both the Empire State Building in New York and the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Its sheer scale isn’t this massive coral reef’s only amazing factor. At its deepest depths this reef is estimated to be over 20 million years old. You might not assume something so old to hold much life. But what this reef offers might surprise you.
The recently discovered reef sits among seven other detached reefs. The other seven reefs were mapped way back in the 1800s. The shocking thing about this reef, other than its size, is the vibrant life it hosts.
While the seven similar detached reefs are a bit desolate, that isn’t the case here.
The upper crest of this new reef plays host to a thriving ecosystem. According to research leader Robin Beamna from James Cook University the reef holds “a thriving coral community at its pinnacle.” Fish, coral and even a hearty shark population can be found here.
The Role of This Newly Found Reef Within the Great Barrier Reef UNESCO World Heritage Site
At this point, you might be wondering so, what is a detached reef anyway? A detached reef is a structure that stands freely from the main body of the coral reef system. Although this new reef is a part of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef it is not physically connected to the 1,400 mile-long reef system.
Instead, this blade-like reef tower stands on its own. It attaches to the seafloor a mile below.
Global Warming and Its Impact on the Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It’s the world’s largest coral reef. More than 1,500 species of fish and 411 species of coral call The Great Barrier Reef home.
The Great Barrier Reef is likely one of the most incredible, awe-inspiring feats of nature you’ll ever see.
Sadly, in recent years the reef has reflected the consequences of global warming. Species housed on the Great Barrier Reef are at risk of losing their home. With the warming of the ocean’s currents, mass bleaching has been observed on the reef.
A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B in October 2020 brought light to a shocking reality. Climate change has contributed to the loss of half of all the Great Barrier Reef’s corals since 1995.
The warming of our oceans causes a phenomenon known as bleaching. When stressed, a coral loses its vibrant color and turns stark white. Stress can stem from various factors ─ warming water temperatures is one of them.
This is referred to as bleaching. The white “bleaching” effect is caused by the coral expelling the algae that live in its tissues.
A bleached coral is not a dead coral. Although, bleaching and stress does leave the coral at a higher risk of mortality.
Mesophotic Reefs: A Mysterious Ecosystem
Shallow water reefs are under siege from global warming. Yet somehow, our newly discovered reef remains unscathed. These deepwater reefs are called mesophotic reefs. These are the zones that sit below 30 meters under the water’s surface.
In the past, mesophotic reefs have largely remained a mystery to us. But as technology improves we are gaining the ability to explore these ecosystems.
What scientists have come to learn about mesophotic reefs is exciting, to say the least! “…it turns out there’s probably at least as much coral habitat below 30 meters as there is above it. And people are still mapping it,” said Professor Terry Hughes. Terry Hughes co-authored the study defining the extent of coral lost on the GBR since 1995.
Furthermore, the amount of deep water between mesophotic reefs and the nearest coral community is vast. This unique environment leaves great potential for evolving new species. Thus is the case with our latest discovered colossal reef. Its discovery hints that there’s likely more to uncover in this eccentric ecosystem.
While mesophotic reefs are dodging the brunt of the impact of climate change, they’re not out of the woods yet. Mesophotic reefs are less susceptible to bleaching, cyclones, and terrestrial-based pollution. This is due to their depth and being further from shore. Though similar to shallow-water reefs, they’re still degrading ─ just at a slower pace.
Do species in mesophotic reefs offer hope for healing their shallow-water counterparts? Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear so. Most corals and marine species are subject to “zoning”. Zoning refers to the limited depths at which a species can survive in the sea.
According to Professor Hughes, “Many corals are shallow-water specialists. Others are deepwater specialists. And only a few have a broader depth range. There are corals that you only find below five meters and there are other corals you only find deeper than 30.”
In short, the healthy corals found on mesophotic reefs wouldn’t survive in shallow water. There is little hope that they could be used to repopulate reefs damaged by bleaching.
How Will We Save Our Coral Reefs?
The discovery of this skyscraper-like reef has made one thing very clear. Our oceans are still alien to us. They house mysterious, undiscovered landscapes and species worth studying, exploring and protecting.
We owe it to our Earth to respect and conserve these marine environments. If we hope to continue to study and enjoy our oceans ─ and thrive on this planet! ─ we must preserve them for generations to come.
It’s up to us, humankind, to stabilize the global temperature. To maintain the integrity of these environments. The bleaching events we’ve experienced are due to a global temperature increase of 1.1 degrees celsius. It’s urgent that humanity succeeds at reducing emissions and halting global warming. Ideally, with no more than a 1.5-2 degrees celsius total increase to the global temperature.
With only .9 degrees celsius to go before hitting that mark ─ we face a lofty and pressing goal.
You Can Get Involved in Safeguarding Our Coral Reefs
Our shallow-water reefs are on life support. Deepwater reefs are the next target. The good news is that there’s room for everyone on the frontline to fight for our coral reefs.
You can get involved. And bring your loved ones and social networks with you! With enough consciousness, awareness and commitment, our world’s coral reefs can thrive.
Are you wondering what you can do today to take a stand?
- Plant trees, gardens, and ground cover around your home. This minimizes potentially harmful water runoff from making its way to our oceans.
- Sign up for Ocean Blue Project’s newsletter. Stay up to date on conservation efforts and keep an eye out for volunteer opportunities.
- Donate to Ocean Blue Project. Every dollar donated removes one pound of plastic from our oceans.
- Remain conscious of the carbon emissions you produce. Try biking to work one day a week or carpooling with a coworker. Support sustainable agriculture and farms versus industrial agriculture. Consider renewable energy sources such as solar or wind power if they’re accessible to you.
- Share this article with your friends, family, and social media followers. Individuals are more likely to make small changes that will save our oceans. They will do this if they’re first aware of what’s at stake.
And most of all, don’t give up! Stay conscious and keep up the good work. We have the power to save these amazing marine ecosystems.
Author Bio: Chloe-Anne Swink is a copywriter for the outdoor industry based in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Her drive to write about stewardship and our human relationship with the great outdoors stems from a deep love of experiencing nature through rock climbing, freediving, and wakeboarding.