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In a discovery that greatly shifts scientists' thinking about coral formation, researchers have found a huge coral reef deep in the Atlantic Ocean about 160 miles off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina
The reef was discovered on August 23 by scientists aboard a deep-sea research submarine called Alvin. It is about half a mile below the surface and about 85 miles long.
"It was exciting to see these newly discovered habitats first-hand," said Erik Cordes, a Temple University biologist and one of the scientists who made the discovery, NBC News MACH in an email. "Every dive in Alvin is different and we always expect something new, but I've never found anything so important that has fundamentally changed our approach to where these habitats might exist."
It has long been known that Lophelia pertusa the dominant coral species that scientists discovered, exists in shallower waters off the US coast from Florida to North Carolina. But the existence of the whitish "stony" coral in deep water farther from the coast suggests that these coral habitats may be interconnected and therefore more resilient than previously thought to rising water temperatures and other environmental changes that threaten corals around the world
"When coral reefs are separated from other places and damaged, they're done," said Murray Roberts, a marine biologist at the University of Edinburgh and a coral expert who was not involved in the discovery. "But when connected, there is potential for recovery."
Given the unexpected fund, Cordes said scientists should extend their search for coral to other parts of the ocean. The discovery should also be considered by government agencies responsible for managing sensitive marine environments.
In January, the Trump administration announced a plan to expand oil and gas offshore drilling – activities that Cordes can say are "significant" impacts on these habitats. The plan met with widespread opposition.
The coral reef was discovered during an almost eight-hour dive by Alvin, owned by the US Navy and run by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and also hosted by Catherine McFadden, a biologist at Harvey Mudd College, and subs's pilot, Bruce Strickrott.
The research that led to this discovery is part of Deep Search, an ongoing marine research initiative from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US Geological Survey, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
For now, the reef appears to be healthy and hosts a large number of fish, including a swordfish that has been seen floating above the reef, and its discovery could be a prelude to further discoveries of coral reefs in the Atlantic.
" What's wrong with Africa? "Roberts asked." What's in South America? There are still many such discoveries that I would predict. "
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