Coral Reef Taller Than Empire State Building Discovered in Australia

It's the first detached coral reef found in the Great Barrier Reef in more than 120 years.

Mapping image of new reef.
The new reef is 500 meters (about 1,600 feet) tall.

Schmidt Ocean Institute

A "massive" detached coral reef has been discovered in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Measuring 1,640 feet in height, the reef is taller than the Empire State Building and many of the world's other skyscrapers.

Scientists discovered the reef off North Queensland while on board the Schmidt Ocean Institute’s research vessel Falkor. They used an underwater robot named SuBastian to discover the reef, which is the first detached coral reef found in the Great Barrier Reef in more than 120 years. It is called a detached reef because it does not sit on the Great Barrier Reef shelf itself.

The reef was first discovered on Oct. 20 when scientists were conducting underwater mapping of the seafloor.

They returned a few days later with the underwater robot to explore the new reef. They live-streamed the dive.

Underwater robot Subastian being deployed off of Falkor's back deck
Underwater robot Subastian being deployed off of Falkor's back deck.

Schmidt Ocean Institute

"We always knew the Great Barrier Reef was poorly mapped in the far Northern, deeper waters of the Marine park. We built up to it for a few days," principal investigator Robin Beaman from James Cook University, tells Treehugger.

"Our first pass over the area, we got a reading that said it was much shallower than we expected. Very carefully we crept over it, and it was like climbing a mountain. You can see it in full three dimensions on the screens as we were mapping, and it just kept rising and rising and rising. It was thrilling."

Researchers described the reef as "blade-like." They said it measures 0.9 miles wide, then rises 1,640 feet at its greatest height, to its shallowest depth of 131 feet below the sea surface. By comparison, the Empire State Building stands 1,250 feet at its top floor.

There are seven other tall detached reefs in the area that have been mapped since the late 1800s, including the reef at Raine Island, which is an important nesting spot for green sea turtles.

screenshot from the new reef dive
A screenshot taken from the new reef during a dive.

Schmidt Ocean Institute

"Only 20% of our ocean floor has been mapped to the detail that we were mapping the northern Great Barrier Reef," Dr. Jyotika Virmani, executive director of Schmidt Ocean Institute, tells Treehugger.

"Discovering this new detached coral reef shows that even in an iconic marine feature such as the Great Barrier Reef, that many assume has been very well explored, we still have much to discover and learn. Imagine what we will find when the remaining 80% of the sea floor is mapped at this resolution."  

The Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest coral reef, covering 133,000 square miles. It includes 3,000 coral reefs, 600 continental islands, 300 coral cays, and about 150 mangrove islands. The reef is home to more than 1,625 species of fish, 600 types of corals, 133 varieties of sharks and rays, more than 30 species of whales and dolphins, and hundreds of other species.

The reef, however, is in danger. The reef lost half its coral population over the past 25 years, according to a study published in October in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society. It's a trend that was likely to continue, researchers said, unless drastic steps are taken to diminish the effects of climate change.

“We used to think the Great Barrier Reef is protected by its sheer size – but our results show that even the world’s largest and relatively well-protected reef system is increasingly compromised and in decline,” study co-author Terry Hughes of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, said in a statement.