Massive hidden coral reef discovered off South Carolina coast

Reef loss could cost global economies up to $750 billion, according to a new study.

Scientists aboard the vessel Atlantis have discovered a massive coral reef previously hidden off the Southeast coast, which runs from Virginia to Georgia.

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The 85-mile deep-sea coral reef system, unearthed by a team of researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the U.S. Geological Survey, lies 160 miles off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, the Huffington Post reported Saturday.

“It’s incredible that it stayed hidden off the U.S. East Coast for so long,” chief scientist Erik Cordes said of the cold water corals that may have been hiding for hundreds of thousands of years.

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Cordes and his colleagues are part of the Deep Search 2018 project aimed at exploring deep sea ecosystems. Building on previous research about hundreds of deep-sea mounds formed by corals, the scientists confirmed the reef's existence toward the end of their during their 15-day voyage, according to CNN.

Alvin collects a sample of Lophelia pertusa from an extensive mound of both dead and live coral.

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Cameras on their submersible Alvin captured "mountains" of living corals on remains of dead corals, Cordes said. The scientists also uncovered large amounts of  Lophelia pertusa polyps, corals that use the stinging cells on their tentacles to "stun prey prior to ingestion," according to the NOAA.

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Cordes told HuffPost that such coral habitats, which typically form near the surface where the sunlight can feed algae, provide secure biomes for organisms to spawn and help keep organisms’ eggs safe from predators, must be protected from oil and gas development.

The new discovery unveils amid talks of the Trump administration’s proposal to roll back a ban on offshore drilling, which would allow drilling leases in sites off the coasts of Alaska, in the Gulf of Mexico and in Pacific and Atlantic waters to be reinstated.

"It's better to produce energy here and never be held hostage by foreign enemy needs," Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a January proposal announcement, adding it's a "clear difference between energy weakness and energy dominance."

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But according to an economic review from conservation nonprofit Oceana, the proposal threatens "over 2.6 million jobs and roughly $180 billion in GDP" in coastal states.

"This puts at risk our economy, our vibrant and historic fishing industry, our tourism industry. It, of course, puts at risk our many thousands of miles of coastline in Massachusetts," state Attorney General Maura Healey told reporters at an event in Washington, D.C., in February. "We know the devastation, having seen one too many oil spills."

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Oil spills are particularly dangerous to marine life.

“Oil is composed of hundreds of chemicals, including toxic compounds that can be poisonous to blue crab larvae. It also can physically smother other wildlife and contaminate plankton near the surface,” Jacqueline Savitz, Oceana chief policy officer, and William Baker, Chesapeake Bay Foundation president, wrote in an editorial for the Baltimore Sun. “For all these reasons and more, the Trump administration must reverse course on its ill-informed plan to lease the East Coast for offshore drilling.”

The Deep Search 2018 team wrote in an NOAA article that this discovery is only the beginning. Members plan to remain "busy for months, and even years, to come."