Coral Reef off southeast US Covers Area Larger than Vermont


Covering 6.4 million acres, an area larger than Vermont, an underwater seascape of cold-water coral mounds off the shore of the southeast United States coast has been deemed the largest deep-sea coral reef habitat discovered to date, according to a paper recently published in the scientific journal Geomatics. 

“This strategic multiyear and multi-agency effort to systematically map and characterize the stunning coral ecosystem right on the doorstep of the U.S. East Coast is a perfect example of what we can accomplish when we pool resources and focus on exploring the approximately 50% of U.S. marine waters that are still unmapped,” says Derek Sowers, Ph.D., Mapping Operations Manager for the Ocean Exploration Trust and lead author of the study. “Approximately 75% of the global ocean is still unmapped in any kind of detail, but many organizations are working to change that. This study provides a methodology aimed at interpreting mapping data over large ocean regions for insights into seafloor habitats and advancing standardized approaches to classifying them to support ecosystem-based management and conservation efforts.”

For the study, “Mapping and Geomorphic Characterization of the Vast Cold-Water Coral Mounds of the Blake Plateau,” scientists synthesized bathymetric data from 31 multibeam sonar mapping surveys, the largest of which were led by NOAA Ocean Exploration, to produce a nearly complete map of the seafloor of the Blake Plateau, located about 100 miles off the southeast U.S. coastline.

The study area that includes the coral reef is nearly the size of Florida. It is approximately 35-75 miles (60–120 km) offshore of the southeast coast beginning off Miami and stretching to the area offshore of Charleston, South Carolina. The authors used a standardized system developed as part of the study to classify, delineate and quantify coral mound features. This automated system identified 83,908 individual coral mound peak features in the mapping data, providing the first estimate of the overall number of potential cold-water coral mounds mapped in the region to date.

The study documents the massive scale of the coral province, an area composed of nearly continuous coral mound features that span up to 500 kilometers (310 miles) long and 110 kilometers (68 miles) wide, with a core area of high-density mounds up to 254 kilometers (158 miles) long and 42 kilometers (26 miles) wide. The results also highlight how different regions of the Blake Plateau exhibit large variations in the density, height and pattern of coral mound formation.

Data analyzed, which included imagery from 23 submersible dives in addition to mapping data, were collected as part of a coordinated, multi-year ocean exploration campaign involving NOAA Ocean Exploration, NOAA Ocean Exploration Cooperative Institute partners Ocean Exploration Trust and the University of New Hampshire, the Bureau of Ocean Energy ManagementTemple University, and the U.S. Geological Survey, with contributions from Fugro, the NOAA Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program, and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council

The largest area, nicknamed “Million Mounds” by scientists, is primarily made up of Desmophyllum pertusum (previously called Lophelia pertusa), a stony coral most commonly found at depths between 200 – 1,000 meters (656 – 3,280 feet), where waters have an average temperature of 4°C (39°F). Cold-water corals such as these grow in the deep ocean where there is no sunlight and survive by filter-feeding biological particles. While they are known to be important ecosystem engineers, creating structures that provide shelter, food and nursery habitat to other invertebrates and fish, these corals remain poorly understood. 

Studies such as this one provide a better understanding of how populations of corals and other deep-sea species may be related across geographically separated locales (a concept known as connectivity) which in turn can offer insight into the resiliency of these populations. This is important for predicting the impacts of human activities on coral communities and for developing plans for their protection. 

“For years we thought much of the Blake Plateau was sparsely inhabited, soft sediment, but after more than 10 years of systematic mapping and exploration, we have revealed one of the largest deep-sea coral reef habitats found to date anywhere in the world,” said Kasey Cantwell, operations chief for NOAA Ocean Exploration. “Past studies have highlighted some coral in the region, particularly closer to the coast and in shallower waters, but until we had a complete map of the region, we didn’t know how extensive this habitat was, nor how many of these coral mounds were connected. This discovery highlights the importance of exploring our deepwater backyard and the power of interagency collaboration and public-private partnerships.”

This work was conducted as part of the Atlantic Seafloor Partnership for Integrated Research and Exploration (ASPIRE). This major multiyear, multinational collaborative field campaign focused on raising collective knowledge and understanding of the North Atlantic Ocean included multiple expeditions, including several on NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer and through the DEEP SEARCH: DEEP Sea Exploration to Advance Research on Coral/Canyon/Cold seep Habitats project.

Please go online to read the the Geomatics research paper: Mapping and Geomorphic Characterization of the Vast Cold-Water Coral Mounds of the Blake Plateau

Go online to view a NOAA Ocean Exploration video about Blake Plateau, which is a broad, flat feature with a steep drop-off into the very deep sea. The work of NOAA Ocean Exploration and partners on the Blake Plateau is of particular interest to the National Ocean Mapping, Exploration, and Characterization Council (NOMEC), providing data on resources that will help inform their sustainable use and management.