Scientists find reef taller than Empire State Building

Denise Chow

NBC NEWS – An enormous, 1,600-foot-tall coral reef was discovered in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, scientists announced on Monday, in the first such find in more than a century.

The massive underwater structure — the first newfound reef in 120 years — dwarfs iconic skyscrapers such as New York City’s Empire State Building and the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The detached reef was first observed on October 20 by a team of Australian scientists aboard a research vessel from the Schmidt Ocean Institute, a nonprofit foundation that supports marine research. The 12-month expedition is designed to explore the oceans surrounding Australia and map the seafloor around the northern Great Barrier Reef.

“This unexpected discovery affirms that we continue to find unknown structures and new species in our ocean,” Wendy Schmidt, the institute’s co-founder, said in a statement.

On Sunday, the team used an underwater robot to explore the new reef, finding that it measures almost a mile wide at its base. The reef’s tallest point extends to roughly 130 feet below the ocean’s surface, according to the researchers.

File photo shows an aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of the Whitsunday Islands, along the central coast of Queensland. PHOTO: AFP

The robotic dive was streamed live over the weekend, offering close-up views of the massive reef structure.

“We are surprised and elated by what we have found,” Robin Beaman, a marine geologist at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, who is leading the expedition, said in a statement.

The reef is located off the coast of North Queensland, in the area around Cape York. Seven other detached reefs have been discovered in this region since the late 1800s.

“To find a new half-a-kilometre tall reef in the offshore Cape York area of the well-recognised Great Barrier Reef shows how mysterious the world is just beyond our coastline,” Jyotika Virmani, executive director of Schmidt Ocean Institute, said in a statement.

“This powerful combination of mapping data and underwater imagery will be used to understand this new reef and its role within the incredible Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.”

Beaman and his colleagues will continue exploring the northern area of the Great Barrier Reef until November 17. Data from the expedition will be publicly available through AusSeabed, a national Australian seabed-mapping programme.