A new coral reef discovered at the mouth of the Amazon River surprised and stunned scientists in the area to study climate change. Announced Thursday in the journal Science, the newly-found reef stretches over 600 miles in length and sprawls 3,600 square miles out into the Atlantic Ocean.
A team of scientists led by Patricia Yager, a professor of oceanography and climate change at the University of Georgia, made the discovery. Her team was initially in the area to study how water draining from the Amazon affects the ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide.
One of the Brazilian scientists wanted to take some time during the expedition to look for a coral reef believed to be in the region. Rodrigo Moura had a 1977 article that suggested a reef may exist underneath the dark, muddy waters of the Amazon River and was curious to see if it was possible.
Using dredging equipment, an area of the river was dug up. Stunning the researchers, the machine pulled up corals, sponges, stars, and fish revealing a thriving reef beneath the murky water.
“We brought up the most amazing and colorful animals I had ever seen on an expedition,” Yager said.
Since the mud shields the reef from the sun, the scientists could not believe it could exist at all. Further research revealed the southern part of the area gets more light, allowing for a wider variety of creatures to survive. Moving north, the water gets darker and most of the reef inhabitants are sponges.
The discovery of the coral reef in the Amazon River has scientists rethinking how coral reefs form and grow. Known as the Amazon plume, the area at the mouth of the river where freshwater mixes with the saltwater of the Atlantic is not generally thought to be ideal for reef creatures to live.
“Traditionally, our understanding of reefs has focused on tropical shallow coral reefs which harbor biodiversity that rivals tropical rainforests,” said Rebecca Albright, a coral researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science. “More recently, we’re starting to explore and appreciate different types of reefs that exist in marginal environments. The new Amazonian reef system described in this paper is another example of a marginal reef that we didn’t previously know existed.”
The mighty Amazon River, the largest in the world, begins high up in the Andes Mountains in Peru as a small stream. The tiny trickle of water flows down, joins a network of other small streams, and becomes one massive river charging across the South American continent. Carrying nutrients essential to oceanic algae, the river eventually drains into the Atlantic.
While the reef discovery is exciting, scientists are concerned that nature combined with the effects of global warming may threaten its existence. On top of that, the Brazilian government has authorized 80 sites for oil exploration and drilling right at the mouth of the Amazon.
“From ocean acidification and ocean warming to plans for offshore oil exploration right on top of these new discoveries, the whole system is at risk from human impacts,” Yager said. “[Moura] sent me a map of the leases, they’re just right there—right at the shelf break, right on top of the reef.”
In a related report from the Inquisitr, the Great Barrier Reef near Australia is turning white due to the effects of climate change. Changes in ocean conditions, such as temperature, light, and nutrition, are pushing food sources out of the region, potentially starving the reef.
The new coral reef discovered in the Amazon River is farther north than any other previously known Brazilian underwater structure. As scientists scramble to map the Amazonian reef, they speculate the reef may act as a connection between the southern Brazilian and more northern Caribbean reefs.
[Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images]