Australian scientists found a detached coral reef on the Great Barrier Reef that exceeds the height of the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower, the Schmidt Ocean Institute said this week, the first such discovery in over 100 years.
The “blade like” reef is nearly 500 metres tall and 1.5 kilometres wide, said the institute founded by ex-Google boss Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy. That’s nearly as tall as the CN Tower, whose antenna reaches a height of 553 metres.
On October 20th, scientists with the <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/EdgeGBR?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#EdgeGBR</a> expedition uncovered a new detached reef to be added to the <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/GreatBarrierReef?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#GreatBarrierReef</a>. The reef is 500m high, taller than the Eiffel Tower. <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/OzOceans2020?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#OzOceans2020</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/NewReefGBR?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#NewReefGBR</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/KeepExploring?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#KeepExploring</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/NewDiscovery?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#NewDiscovery</a> <a href=”https://t.co/oiu0tVPe5B”>pic.twitter.com/oiu0tVPe5B</a>
The reef lies 40 metres below the ocean surface and about six kilometres from the edge of Great Barrier Reef.
A team of scientists from James Cook University, led by Robin Beaman, were mapping the northern sea floor of the Great Barrier Reef on board the institute’s research vessel Falkor, when they found the reef on Oct. 20. “We are surprised and elated by what we have found,” said Beaman.
He said it was the first detached reef of that size to be discovered in over 120 years and that it was thriving with a “blizzard of fish” in a healthy ecosystem.
The discovery comes after a study earlier this month found the Great Barrier Reef had lost more than half its coral in the last three decades.
Australian scientists have discovered a coral reef that’s millions of years old and dwarfs the Empire State Building. 1:51
Reef explored by robot
Using the underwater robot known as SuBastian, the scientists filmed their exploration of the new reef, collecting marine samples on the way, which will be archived and placed in the Queensland Museum and the Museum of Tropical Queensland.
“To not only 3D map the reef in detail, but also visually see this discovery with SuBastian is incredible,” Beaman added.
Although the northern section of the Great Barrier Reef suffered from bleaching in 2016, Beaman said this detached reef didn’t display any evidence of damage.
Bleaching occurs when the water is too warm, forcing coral to expel living algae and causing it to calcify and turn white.
Irridescent cuttlefish hanging out along the bottom edge of this newly discovered reef. <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/EdgeGBR?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#EdgeGBR</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/OzOceans2020?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#OzOceans2020</a> <a href=”https://t.co/r2ENBzqHg2″>https://t.co/r2ENBzqHg2</a> <a href=”https://t.co/O5R4nEDuda”>pic.twitter.com/O5R4nEDuda</a>
The Great Barrier Reef runs 2,300 km (1,429 miles) down Australia’s northeast coast spanning an area half the size of Texas. It was world heritage listed in 1981 by UNESCO as the most extensive and spectacular coral reef ecosystem on the planet.
As feared, the 900-ton instrument platform collapsed yesterday at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, falling onto the gigantic radar dish below. Photos of the scene are revealing the extent of the damage at the famous facility, which is known for contributing to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and numerous astronomical discoveries.
The collapse occurred at around 7:55 a.m. local time, as the receiving platform plunged 450 feet (140 meters) down to the 1,000-foot (305-meter) dish below, which had already been damaged in recent months by fallen cables. No injuries were reported, but the collapse has caused considerable damage to the radar dish and surrounding facilities, including a learning center, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation.
The full extent of the damage is still being assessed. The area continues to be off limits to unauthorized personnel, while engineers are evaluating the stability of the remaining structures, such as the LIDAR facility used to study the upper atmosphere. Recovery teams are also currently working to mitigate potential environmental damage caused by the collapse. Here’s how the facility looked in 2019, before this year’s cable failures:
“We knew this was a possibility, but it is still heartbreaking to see,” Elizabeth Klonoff, vice president for research at the University of Central Florida, which manages the facility for the NSF, told UCF Today.
The 900-ton instrument platform fell onto the dish below and can be seen lying on the side of the structure. It appears that the platform did not fall straight down but swung at an angle, which makes sense, given that a failed wire from one of the three support towers triggered the collapse.
A preliminary assessment of the scene shows that the tops of all three platforms were sheared off as a result of the structural breakdown and that falling debris, including the support wires, landed outside the area of the dish. The learning center located near Tower 12 appears to have sustained “significant damage,” according to the NSF. That all three support towers are still standing is fortunate, as it was feared a collapse of the towers would damage buildings nearby.
This is a particularly painful view of the damage, showing the mangled instrument platform, the busted Gregorian Dome (a multi-beam receiver capable of scanning multiple points in the sky at once), and the fallen support cables, which sliced through the dish like knives. The cause of the collapse is still under investigation, but as NSF officials pointed out during a press conference held on November 19, the cables did not perform as expected, possibly on account of exposure to excessive moisture. A forensic investigation of the cables is still ongoing, and we eagerly await the results.
The view from the ground is not much better, showing the destruction in detail.
The collapse of the instrument platform on December 1 was not a surprise. The famous radar dish was recently slated for controlled demolition following a series of cable failures. An auxiliary cable slipped from its socket in August, and a main cable snapped in early November due to the added strain. Engineers said the structure was at risk of imminent collapse and that it would be too dangerous for workers to attempt repairs. Monday’s unplanned collapse was not ideal, as officials were hoping to preserve scientific and educational infrastructure at the facility. Arecibo hosts 90,000 visitors each year.
For context, here’s what the radar dish looked like on November 19, 2020, following two cable failures.
Completed in 1963, the Arecibo Observatory contributed to a host of astronomical discoveries. The dish was used to detect the very first exoplanets and the first binary pulsar (which resulted in a Nobel Prize in physics), and it famously transmitted a message to aliens. The radio telescope was also used to study planets and nearby asteroids and to assist in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). The loss of the dish is a major blow to the scientific community (particularly those working in Puerto Rico), as it was the second largest radio dish in the world. No word yet on whether the dish will ever be replaced, but it’s a conversation that’s already starting.
Thanks to its love for extreme depths and remote oceanic corners, no one had ever seen the blob, or even knew it existed
Deep in the dark, murky waters of our oceans, a gelatinous blob, shaped like a dislodged human molar, floats along the seabed.
Thanks to its love for extreme depths and remote oceanic corners, no one had ever seen the blob, or even knew it existed, until a team of scientists accidentally discovered it during a deep-sea dive off the coast of Puerto Rico in 2015, with help from an underwater, remotely-operated vehicle called ‘Deep Discover.’
Five years on, in a paper published this month, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have confirmed that the blob is an entirely new species of undersea creature, Duobrachium sparksae – a never-before-seen species of jelly-like ctenophore. It’s also the first time that researchers have discovered a species using high-definition video footage only.
“It’s unique because we were able to describe a new species based entirely on high-definition video,” explained NOAA marine biologist Allen Collins in a release.
“We don’t have the same microscopes as we would in a lab, but the video can give us enough information to understand the morphology in detail, such as the location of their reproductive parts and other aspects.”
Ctenophores, also known as comb jellies, have bulbous, balloon-like bodies, from which protrude two tentacle-like strings, known as cilia. There are between 100 and 150 species of comb jellies, according to the NOAA, and despite their name, they are not at all related to jellyfish. Ctenophores, the group explains, are carnivorous, and many are highly efficient predators that eat small arthropods and many kinds of larvae.
Three different specimens were filmed by the vehicle at depths around 3,900 metres, in an underwater area called the Arecibo Amphitheater, which lies within a trench known as the Guajataca Canyon, off Puerto Rico. One of the animals appeared to use its tentacles to touch the seabed, scientists said.
“It was a beautiful and unique organism,” oceanographer Mike Ford was quoted as saying in a release.
“It moved like a hot air balloon attached to the seafloor on two lines, maintaining a specific altitude above the seafloor. Whether it’s attached to the seabed, we’re not sure. We did not observe direct attachment during the dive, but it seems like the organism touches the seafloor.”
Identifying a new species solely via photographic and video evidence has often yielded contentious results, the scientists explained in their paper, as natural classification “relies heavily” on the physical specimen samples preserved in museums “to serve as references to which other material can be compared.”
“Indeed, the idea of using photographic evidence to establish new species has been highly contentious in recent decades.”
In this case, however, the team was able to avoid any pushback due to the high-definition quality of the footage they recorded of the three observed specimens. The team hopes to collect real-life specimens on future dives, but fears it may be decades before they run into the species again.
“Even if we had the equipment, there would have been very little time to process the animal because gelatinous animals don’t preserve very well,” Collins said.
“Ctenophores are even worse than jellyfish in this regard.”
Arecibo Observatory’s massive radio telescope has collapsed; with it has gone a crucial tool in understanding asteroid risks to Earth — and it would take a serious government initiative to replace.
Before the facility sustained irreversible damage in a series of cable failures this year, Arecibo Observatory was Earth’s most powerful planetary radar system. Astronomers can’t use radar to discover new asteroids, but the data that these systems provide can give scientists the details about an object’s size, shape and location they need to better and more quickly evaluate the threat that individual asteroids might pose to Earth.
“This is a hard thing to have to take [down] an iconic facility like this that’s provided so much for the radio astronomy and planetary radar community over so many decades; it’s really sad to see,” Lindley Johnson, who leads NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, said during a virtual meeting of NASA’s Planetary Advisory Committee held on Nov. 30, the day before the structure collapsed. “It’s certainly not an ideal situation, but I think it really comes down to, it’s time to really get moving on investing in a new planetary radar capability.”
But that’s easier said than done. There are two key complications at play when it comes to investing in planetary radar capability.
One is bureaucratic: Planetary radar has to be done from Earth’s surface. And while NASA leads the country’s asteroid-focused work, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) heads the federal government’s ground-based observations, as it does Arecibo Observatory; NASA merely paid for observation time on the radar system. With the sole exception of NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii, all of the agency’s observing facilities are in space.
(This is also complicated. Technically, the world’s other planetary radar facility, at Goldstone in California, is run by NASA, but that’s because its primary duty is to communicate with spacecraft traversing the solar system. The radar facility recently completed an upgrade and is back to normal observations, although it has a less flexible schedule than Arecibo did and can’t see objects as far from Earth.)
“The way our agencies are tasked, ground-based observations are the responsibility of NSF,” Lori Glaze, who leads NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said during the same meeting. “It’s not in NASA’s purview.”
A second complication is the cost. A radar beam as powerful as Arecibo’s requires both a powerful transmitter and a massive radio dish, neither of which is cheap.
Taken together, the challenges mean that NASA would likely need to work out agreements with one or more government counterparts before a new planetary radar system comes online.
“This kind of thing really takes a partnership of agencies,” Johnson said, adding that Arecibo itself traced its roots to a Department of Defense-led partnership. Something similar could rev up planetary radar, he said. “We do definitely have an opportunity and an interest in partnering with the U.S. Space Force on a more capable radar system.” The military branch is interested in the technology as a way to track satellites between Earth and the moon, he added.
A reduction in planetary radar doesn’t strike at the heart of NASA’s planetary defense system, which focuses on discovering and tracking relatively large asteroids that come relatively close to Earth. Spotting such objects relies on facilities that detect optical and infrared light and scan large swaths of the sky regularly enough to notice when a new, fast-moving dot appears against the background of stars.
Radar can’t do that; it requires that scientists have a good idea of precisely where the object they want to study is, so that they can point the narrow radar beam precisely enough to bounce off the object. Instead, planetary defense experts use radar to more quickly plot an object’s orbit farther into the future and to determine characteristics of the object like its shape and density that might affect attempts to deflect an asteroid if it does appear to be on course to impact Earth.
“As far as planetary defense and NEO [near-Earth object] observations are concerned, it’s only a slight negative impact,” Johnson said of the loss of Arecibo’s radar system. “It doesn’t affect our discovery rate of near-Earth objects at all, it only has some impact on the opportunities we have to characterize these objects.”
Nevertheless, radar data is nice to have — and definitely the sort of thing Johnson would want for the planetary defense community.
Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia was already planning to add radar capability to its primary radio dish before the loss of Arecibo, scientists say, although the system, like that at Goldstone, won’t replicate Arecibo’s specific skills. And even that new capability would build on an existing facility, rather than starting from scratch, which comes with both benefits and risks.
“In a perfect world, I would pursue a new planetary radar capability,” Johnson said, even before Arecibo’s final collapse. “Trying to keep these old facilities going — they are high maintenance.”
But new capability wouldn’t mean a copy of Arecibo’s iconic dish, he emphasized. “It’s really time to be looking at the next generation of planetary radar capabilities,” he said, in particular hypothesizing that an array of dishes may be a more appealing approach now than Arecibo’s single massive dish.
“Technology has moved on since the 30, 40 years ago that the radar capability was installed at Arecibo,” Johnson said. “We need to take advantage.”
Email Meghan Bartels at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow uson Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.
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