By Eve Kirman
In the midst of today’s climate crisis, good news concerning the state of our planet is rare. Yet recently, a notable coral discovery has signalled hope for the future of our currently declining marine ecosystem.
In October 2020, Australian scientists from James Cook University (JCU) discovered a 500m tall “blade-like” coral reef during a seabed mapping expedition. The habitat, situated within Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, is thought to be 1500m wide at the base, and rises up to just 40m below the water’s surface.
Easily towering over London’s tallest landmark, The Shard, by almost 200m, it’s a shock to scientists that the underwater reef wasn’t discovered sooner.
This discovery thus highlights the lack of knowledge we have regarding our oceans. Wendy Schmidt, of Schmidt Ocean Institute, said, “The state of our knowledge about what’s in the ocean has long been so limited.” Could this finding be a sign that there are many other thriving corals still undiscovered?
Dr Bridge, of JCU, has said the newly-found area has an “incredible abundance” of sea creatures and organisms – some of which could be entirely undocumented species.
Coral reefs play an integral role in marine life. Thought to be the most diverse ecosystems on the globe, they provide protection for coastlines, a habitat for various organisms, and are an essential source of nutrients in the marine food chain.
Furthermore, the human benefit from reefs cannot be understated. The Great Barrier Reef Foundation has valued the Barrier Reef to be worth just over £40 billion, as it supports 64,000 jobs in tourism, fishing and recreation.
Sadly, the abundance of diversity in this skyscraper-like reef is not representative of the whole story.
Today, our reefs face bleaching from increasing ocean temperatures as well as the prospect of total destruction from oceanic acidification. The impact of these dual threats are now being seen globally – spelling bad news for both marine life and mankind. Last month, The Guardian reported that 50% of our coral reefs have been lost in the last two decades, and 90% more are expected to perish by 2050.
So, how could this coral structure sustain life so well when countless reef systems around it wither?
Falkor, the ship that discovered the reef while surveying the northern Barrier Reef floor, is now coming to an end of its 12-month voyage; and in retrospect, it appears that this new-found, biodiverse reef is anomalous. Atypical to the “coral graveyards” charted by Falkor at the beginning of 2020, the thriving coral structure may just be a survivor doomed to the same fate.
However, in our ever-changing climate, this discovery gives hope that we haven’t yet reached a state beyond recovery. There is plenty more we can do to protect our oceans. Dr Bridge said, “We know more about the surface of the moon than we know about what lies in the depths beyond our coastlines.” Who knows what more we will discover as we research how best to protect the future of marine life.
Illustration: Adeline Zhao