A new reef system has been found at the mouth of the Amazon river by a team of Brazilian and American scientists. The reef of sponge and coral more than 600 miles long covers over 3,600 square miles of ocean floor at the edge of the South American continental shelf, from the southern tip of French Guiana to Brazil’s Maranhão State where oil companies threaten like storm clouds.
Science Daily announced on Thursday, April 21, 2016, that Carlos Rezende from the State University of North Fluminense, Fabiano Thompson from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and Rodrigo Moura, a reef ecologist also from U.F.R.J., led the team that found the new reef system. University of Georgia professor Patricia Yager, the principal investigator of the River-Ocean Continuum of the Amazon project, spoke on behalf of the group.
“Our expedition into the Brazil Exclusive Economic Zone was primarily focused on sampling the mouth of the Amazon. But Dr. Moura had an article from the 1970s that mentioned catching reef fish along the continental shelf and said he wanted to try to locate these reefs.”
The new reef system was found as a coincidental result of research spanning three decades. Yager said that she was using the RV Atlantis mainly to investigate how the Amazonian plume affects the ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide. The happenstance occurred when Rodrigo Moura, one of the senior Brazilian scientists, said that he wanted to take advantage of their shipboard time by looking for a reef that could exist in the region.
At the time the new reef system was found, scientific understanding of reefs focused on tropical shallow coral reefs, which harbor biodiversity that rivals tropical rainforests. Carnegie Institution for Science oceanographer Rebecca Albright described the discovery as part of a recent appreciation of reefs that exist in marginal environments. She called the new Amazonian reef system “another example of a marginal reef that we didn’t previously know existed”.
According to the Atlantic, the new reef system was found to begin in Peru, less than 75 miles from the Pacific shore, among glacial streams from the Andes forming a river, which drains through more than three million square-miles of land, to eventually gush into the Atlantic. When measured by discharge, the Amazon qualifies as the largest river in the world, with one-fifth of all the water flowing from all Earth’s rivers daily into oceanic reservoirs. The resulting nutrient spill feeds algae hundreds of miles into the ocean.
According to the Guardian, the new reef system was not found earlier because of the prevailing belief that the world’s great rivers cause major gaps in reef systems where no corals grow. Also, corals are known to thrive in clear, sunlit, salt water, and the Amazon mouth spews some of the muddiest in the world, river sediment runoff, thousands of miles worth.
The new reef system below the Amazon’s freshwater “plume,” or outflow, is relatively “lightweight” compared to other known reefs. However, the discovery team found over 60 species of sponges, 73 species of fish, spiny lobsters, and starfish among other life forms. According to National Geographic, Yaeger remarked on the sea fans, yellow tubes, fish, crusted algae called rhodoliths, and sponges.
“We brought up the most amazing animals I’ve ever seen on an expedition like this. All the scientists just hung over the rails amazed at what we were finding.”
The National Geographic coverage includes the fact that the new reef system, no sooner found, is already in grave danger. The Brazilian government has allegedly sold 80 blocks for oil exploration and drilling at the mouth of the Amazon, with 20 of the allotments already producing oil around where the reef is.
Challenging environmentalists is the awful fact that some 35 sections of the continental shelf acquired by companies for oil exploration will be producing oil near the new reef system just found.
[Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images]