Science

New spire found in Great Barrier Reef dwarfs the Empire State Building

New spire found in Great Barri...
A still from the newly discovered reef, captured by the underwater robot SuBastian
A still from the newly discovered reef, captured by the underwater robot SuBastian
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A map of the newly discovered reef structure (center), which stands 500 m (1,640 ft) tall
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A map of the newly discovered reef structure (center), which stands 500 m (1,640 ft) tall
A still from the newly discovered reef, captured by the underwater robot SuBastian
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A still from the newly discovered reef, captured by the underwater robot SuBastian

Scientists exploring the Great Barrier Reef have discovered a huge, never-before-seen coral reef that is taller than the Empire State Building. Standing detached from the main reef, the massive structure is the first new reef to be discovered in the area in over 120 years.

The amazing find was made on October 20 by an expedition from the Schmidt Ocean Institute, in the northern region of the Great Barrier Reef – just off the coast near the northern-most tip of Australia. The research vessel Falkor was conducting underwater mapping of the seabed in the area, as part of the Northern Depths of the Great Barrier Reef voyage, when it happened upon the gigantic structure.

The newly discovered reef has a base about 1.5 km (0.9 mi) wide, then rises more than 500 m (1,640 ft) from the sea bed, with the tip of the spire sitting just 40 m (131 ft) below the surface of the water. The structure is somewhat isolated, or “detached,” from the main reefs, and joins seven other similar detached reefs in the area, which were identified in the late 1800s.

“This unexpected discovery affirms that we continue to find unknown structures and new species in our ocean,” says Wendy Schmidt, co-founder of Schmidt Ocean Institute. “The state of our knowledge about what’s in the ocean has long been so limited. Thanks to new technologies that work as our eyes, ears and hands in the deep ocean, we have the capacity to explore like never before. New oceanscapes are opening to us, revealing the ecosystems and diverse life forms that share the planet with us.”

A map of the newly discovered reef structure (center), which stands 500 m (1,640 ft) tall
A map of the newly discovered reef structure (center), which stands 500 m (1,640 ft) tall

On October 25, the Falkor team conducted a dive using an underwater robot called SuBastian. In a four-hour livestream, the little rover captured high-definition video as it swam around the submerged landscape, poking and prodding at sea creatures with its robotic arms, and taking samples.

“To find a new half-a-kilometer-tall reef in the offshore Cape York area of the well-recognized Great Barrier Reef shows how mysterious the world is just beyond our coastline,” says Dr. Jyotika Virmani, executive director of Schmidt Ocean Institute. “This powerful combination of mapping data and underwater imagery will be used to understand this new reef and its role within the incredible Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.”

That understanding is crucial, given the threats that the Great Barrier Reef currently faces. Three major coral bleaching events have struck the world's largest reef within the last five years, pointing towards these devastating die-offs becoming more frequent and more severe thanks to climate change. Further research and observation can help us assess the health of the reef, and hopefully come up with ways to protect it or repair it.

Back in April, Falkor and SuBastian announced other incredible discoveries in Australian waters – 30 new species, as well as video of the longest animal ever recorded. Both expeditions were part of a year-long campaign by the Schmidt Ocean Institute.

The scientists describe their work in the video below, and share some footage from the dive.

The Northern Depth of the Great Barrier Reef - Ancient Underwater Landscapes - FK200930

Source: Schmidt Ocean Institute

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