Satellites discover huge expanse of Earth's coral reefs that were previously unknown (2024)

Earth’s global expanse of coral reefs is significantly larger than previously known to science. Recent research spearheaded by the University of Queensland made this encouraging discovery using advanced satellite mapping. Their work marks a pivotal step forward in the conservation of these crucial ecosystems.

Dr. Mitchell Lyons, a key figure from UQ’s School of the Environment and a contributor to the Allen Coral Atlas project, shared that scientists have identified approximately 348,000 square kilometers of shallow coral reefs, extending down to depths of 20-30 meters.

“This revises up our previous estimate of shallow reefs in the world’s oceans,” Dr Lyons said. “Importantly, the high-resolution, up-to-date mapping satellite technology also allows us to see what these habitats are made from.”

The true global scale of Earth’s coral reefs

Of particular note is the discovery that 80,000 square kilometers of these reefs boast a hard bottom surface, an environment conducive to coral growth, in stark contrast to areas characterized by sand, rubble, or seagrass.

“This data will allow scientists, conservationists, and policymakers to better understand and manage reef systems,” Dr. Lyons added.

The project utilized over 1.5 million samples and 100 trillion pixels from the Sentinel-2 and Planet Dove CubeSat satellites, creating a high-resolution global map that offers an unprecedented view of the world’s coral reefs.

“This is the first accurate depiction of the distribution and composition of the world’s coral reefs, with clear and consistent terminology,” Dr Lyons said. “It’s more than just a map — it’s a tool for positive change for reefs and coastal and marine environments at large.”

Worldwide effort of science and conservation

Associate Professor Chris Roelfsema, also from UQ, highlighted the collaborative nature of the reef mapping project, which involved over 480 contributors.

The resultant maps and data are publicly available through the Allen Coral Atlas and Google Earth Engine, ensuring widespread access.

“These resources are already being utilized in coral reef conservation efforts across the globe,” Dr. Roelfsema noted, listing countries from Australia to Kenya and regions extending to western Micronesia.

The detailed insights provided by these maps equip scientists, policymakers, and local communities with the information needed to make informed decisions aimed at preserving our coral reefs.

This compelling research highlights the underestimated extent of coral reefs and sets a new standard for how we approach their protection.

With the power of detailed, accessible data, we are now better positioned than ever to safeguard these vital ecosystems for future generations.

Vital role of coral reefs in the global environment

As discussed above, coral reefs, often described as the rainforests of the sea, are among the most valuable ecosystems on our planet.

These underwater marvels play a crucial role in maintaining the health of the global environment, supporting an incredible diversity of marine life, protecting coastlines, and sustaining economies.

Biodiversity hotspots

Coral reefs support an astonishing variety of organisms. They provide habitat, breeding grounds, and nursery areas for an estimated 25% of all marine species, despite covering less than 1% of the ocean floor.

This biodiversity not only makes reefs hotbeds for marine life but also crucial for the genetic diversity that underpins resilience to environmental changes.

Earth’s coastal protection

Coral reefs act as natural barriers, absorbing the energy of waves and storms, and thereby protecting coastal communities, habitats, and shorelines from erosion and flooding.

This buffering capacity is invaluable, especially for low-lying island nations and coastal regions that are increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels and intensified storm events.

Economic value of global coral reefs

The economic contribution of coral reefs is immense, supporting millions of jobs worldwide through fisheries, tourism, and medicine.

Reefs are vital for commercial and subsistence fisheries, providing a source of protein for millions of people.

The allure of their biodiversity also underpins a thriving marine tourism industry, from snorkeling and diving to educational and conservation activities.

Moreover, coral reef organisms are a source of potential pharmaceutical compounds for medicines.

Climate regulation

Coral reefs play a role in the global carbon cycle. Although less recognized than forests for their carbon sequestration capabilities, reefs contribute to the ocean’s role as a carbon sink by capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The process of calcification, by which corals build their skeletons, indirectly removes carbon dioxide, helping to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Urgency of conservation

Despite their importance, coral reefs face unprecedented threats from climate change, pollution, overfishing, and destructive fishing practices.

The increasing frequency of coral bleaching events, driven by rising sea temperatures, threatens their survival.

Conserving and restoring coral reefs is not just an environmental imperative but a necessity for human well-being and economic stability.

Global call to action

The conservation of coral reefs requires global cooperation and action. Protecting these ecosystems means reducing greenhouse gas emissions, implementing sustainable fishing practices, managing tourism responsibly, and investing in restoration efforts.

Each action taken to preserve coral reefs contributes to the health of our planet and secures the livelihoods and futures of communities worldwide.

Coral reefs are irreplaceable treasures of the Earth, embodying the interconnectedness of life and the urgency of environmental stewardship. Their conservation is a testament to our commitment to a sustainable and resilient global environment.

The Allen Coral Atlas, a vision brought to life with funding from the late Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc. and managed by Arizona State University in partnership with Planet, the Coral Reef Alliance, and The University of Queensland, stands as a testament to collaborative innovation in environmental conservation.

The full study was published in the journal Cell Reports Sustainability.


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Satellites discover huge expanse of Earth's coral reefs that were previously unknown (2024)


Satellites discover huge expanse of Earth's coral reefs that were previously unknown? ›

Earth's global expanse of coral reefs is significantly larger than previously known to science. Recent research spearheaded by the University of Queensland made this encouraging discovery using advanced satellite mapping. Their work marks a pivotal step forward in the conservation of these crucial ecosystems.

What new coral reefs were discovered in the Gulf of Mexico? ›

How big is the newly discovered deep-sea coral reef? The reef stretches from Miami to Charleston, South Carolina, about 100 miles off the southeast U.S. coastline. It is about 310.69 miles long and reaches up 68.35 miles wide at points, NOAA said, taking up about 6.4 million acres.

When were deep-sea coral reefs discovered? ›

You will find deep-sea coral groves in all the world's oceans. Fishermen first discovered examples of deep-sea corals about 250 years ago. Before we had submersible vehicles, little was known about this habitat, but in recent decades, we've learned how these fragile environments support our fisheries.

What is the world's largest deep-sea coral reef found lurking beneath the Gulf Stream right on the doorstep of the ›

World's largest deep-sea coral reef found lurking beneath the Gulf Stream 'right on the doorstep' of US coast. A new deep-sea mapping project has revealed near-continuous reefs of cold-water corals spanning an area the size of Vermont just off the southeast U.S. coastline.

What historical baselines of coral cover on tropical reefs as estimated by expert opinion? ›

Our expert opinion survey estimated global baseline coral cover at 59%, or 58% if only considering responses from non-student scientists.

Who discovered the new coral reef? ›

The newest reef was discovered when oceanographer Stuart Banks and colleagues set out on a 30-day expedition to explore parts of the ocean using a remotely operated robot named SuBastian. While in the Galápagos Islands Marine Reserve, which included a visit to Cacho De Coral, the team spotted a second reef.

Where was the new coral reef discovered? ›

Researchers found the coral reefs during a 30-day expedition to study underwater cliff ecosystems around the Galápagos Islands. They used a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to capture images of colorful species supporting other forms of life, including crustaceans, anemones, brittle stars and urchins.

Will coral reefs exist in 50 years? ›

The bleaching of branching coral (Acropora sp.) is hastened by rising ocean temperatures. An international team of environmental scientists warn that the world's coral reefs are likely to disappear by 2050 without climate action.

Are coral reefs older than dinosaurs? ›

"Our research indicates that modern corals and their algal partners have been entwined with each other since the time of the dinosaurs, approximately 160 million years ago—100 million years earlier than previously thought," said Christian Voolstra, study co-author and a KAUST associate professor of marine science in ...

When did coral reefs start dying? ›

The first mass global bleaching events were recorded in 1998 and 2010, which was when the El Niño caused the ocean temperatures to rise and worsened the corals living conditions. The 2014–2017 El Niño was recorded to be the longest and most damaging to the corals, which harmed over 70% of our coral reefs.

Where is the biggest coral reef found in the ocean? ›

Stretching for 1,429 miles over an area of approximately 133,000 square miles , the Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef system in the world. The reef is located off the coast of Queensland, Australia, in the Coral Sea.

In which country a 500 meter high coral reef has been discovered for the first time in 120 years? ›

It was discovered when scientists were aboard Falkor, the institute's research vessel which has been undertaking a 12-month exploration mission of the ocean surrounding Australia. The reef that has been discovered is 500m tall. This is taller than the Empire State Building and the Sydney Tower.

What is the largest coral reef in the world that is also dying? ›

The southern section of the Great Barrier Reef is undergoing extensive coral bleaching, according to researchers who recently surveyed the region. The discovery has raised fears that this fragile coral reef system is on the brink of a seventh mass bleaching event since 1998.

What is the world's largest coral reef system currently undergoing damage caused by climate change? ›

Great Barrier Reef | WWF Australia.

What is the world's largest coral reef system that is currently being affected negatively by climate change? ›

Insufficient global action on climate change is taking a serious toll on the health of our Great Barrier Reef. Urgent global action to drastically and rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions is needed now if we are going to have any chance of saving coral reefs.

What is located in the coral sea and is home to the world's greatest variety of ocean life? ›

The Great Barrier Reef is a site of remarkable variety and beauty on the north-east coast of Australia. It contains the world's largest collection of coral reefs, with 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusc.

Are there coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico? ›

Emergent coral reefs that exist in the interior of the Gulf of Mexico are found only on the Mexican continental shelf and their level of development is analogous to reefs of the same type in the Caribbean Sea.

What kind of coral is in the Gulf of Mexico? ›

These deep-sea species include stony branching corals, cup corals, octocorals, and black corals; similar to the types and orders seen on some shallow reefs. Many of these species are host to shrimp, crabs, fish, sea stars, barnacles and brittle stars (Figure 2). Deep-sea coral diversity begets more diversity.

What is the largest reef in the Gulf of Mexico? ›

Arrecife Alacranes, Spanish for "Scorpion Reef," is the largest reef in the southern Gulf of Mexico.

What are three places where modern coral reefs may be found? ›

More than 100 countries have a coral reef within their borders, and over half of the world's coral reefs are found within six countries: Australia, Indonesia, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and the Maldives.

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