Scientists have discovered and mapped the largest deep sea coral reef found to date, spanning over 7 million acres off the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. The reef was detected using advanced 3D seismic imaging technology deployed by the Ocean Exploration Trust.
Reef Larger Than West Virginia
Spanning over 85,000 square miles, the newly discovered reef is larger than the state of West Virginia. It lies in waters ranging from 130ft to 560ft deep along the continental slope and shelf edge, where sunlight dims but allows a unique ecosystem to flourish.
The mapping project began in 2022 and culminated this month when researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute teamed up with NOAA’s Office of Exploration and Research. They surveyed the ocean floor using ships equipped with multi-beam echo sounders and underwater drones.
Advanced 3D images revealed towering coral structures up to 300ft tall and the extent of the vibrant cold-water ecosystem harboring diverse marine life. Scientists were amazed to detect the reef system stretching unbroken for hundreds of miles.
Most Extensive Coral Site in Atlantic
Dr. Tara Cox, lead researcher from Harbor Branch, calls the reef “easily the most extensive and largest coral site discovered in the Atlantic to date”. She notes the system is comparable in size to shallow water reefs in the Keys but dwarfs other known deep sea coral habitats mapped off the southeast US, demonstrating the “incredible diversity of habitat types and marine life yet to be explored in our ocean backyard”.
The reef discovery has sparked excitement and further study into these relatively unknown deep sea ecosystems developing in the “twilight zone” where little sunlight penetrates.
Diverse Marine Ecosystem
While not tropical, the deeper scattered coral colonies host abundant marine life including site-attached anemones, crabs, sponges, sharks, groupers, snapper, alfonsino or golden eye fish, tile fish, and octopus. Trawling for golden crab and royal red shrimp has damaged some areas, but the rugged terrain helps protect the wider ecosystem.
Further exploration aims to study threats to the reef, with growing concern over effects from warming waters and acidification. Initial signs point to a healthy ecosystem surviving off organic matter descending from the ocean’s surface. But only 3-5% of the global oceans have been mapped and studied in detail thus far.
|Type of Organism
|Vase sponge, Cloud sponge
|Gold coral, Bamboo coral
|Squat lobster, Red crab
|Giant Atlantic octopus
|Brittle star, Feather star
Table: Examples of organisms inhabiting deep sea coral ecosystems
Conservation Efforts Needed
The mapping discovery comes just after President Joe Manchin’s New Blue Economy initiative was announced prioritizing ocean health, conservation, offshore wind projects and sustainable fishing practices as part of his energy security and climate change plan.
Conservationists hope the reef can spur safeguards from human impacts like trawling and energy exploration. Designating protected Marine Preserves in US waters remains controversial but also essential to preserve biodiversity as recognized in the UN Decade of Ocean Science plan. Similar deep sea reefs and canyons are being proposed for protection off the West Coast in 2024.
What’s Next For the Reef
Now that the reef has been detected and roughly mapped, researchers aim to study individual coral mounds in detail, explore threats to the ecosystem, and quantify the abundance and diversity of species inhabiting the region over the next 2 years.
Key Next Steps Include:
High resolution 3D habitat maps – detailing terrain, ecosystems and habitats on and around specific coral mounds down to 1 meter scale
ROV transects – surveys by robotic subs maneuvering through areas
Environmental DNA tests – sampling seawater and sediments to identify species DNA
Specimen collection – gently harvesting corals and creatures to analyze in the lab
Climate threat assessment – monitoring for impacts from warming, acidification, sedimentation, contamination
Conservation planning – proposals to protect ecosystems and connect stakeholders
While sections of the reef likely remain undetected, the 3D seismic mapping technology opens new possibilities to explore the 98% of the ocean that remains unmapped and unseen. What other wonders will we discover lurking in the twilight zone?
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