A hidden reef was discovered behind the Great Barrier Reef -- and it's massive

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Australia's A$1B Plan to Save the Great Barrier Reef

The iconic Great Barrier Reef is hiding something.

Researchers have created the first detailed maps of the ocean floor behind the Great Barrier Reef and discovered a field of giant ring-shaped mounds of limestone, according to research published in the journal Coral Reefs.

There's essentially an entire second reef hiding behind the Great Barrier Reef.

"We've known about these geological structures in the northern Great Barrier Reef since the 1970s and '80s, but never before has the true nature of their shape, size and vast scale been revealed," Robin Beaman, a scientist who worked on the research, said in a statement.

A hidden reef was discovered behind the Great Barrier Reef — and it's massive

Satellite image of the Great Barrier Reef

Source: NOAA

The mounds are between 200 and 300 meters across, and some stand about 10 meters tall. They're called Halimeda bioherms. They form when green algae called Halimeda die and form flakes of limestone. The limestone accumulates over time into mounds.

A hidden reef was discovered behind the Great Barrier Reef — and it's massiveGreen areas show deep water while red areas show shallow water
Source: JCU

Researchers created the maps by using planes equipped with a kind of laser radar. The field of mounds spans much farther than researchers previously believed.

"We've now mapped over 6,000 square kilometers," lead author Mardi McNeil said in the statement. "That's three times the previously estimated size, spanning from the Torres Strait to just north of Port Douglas."

Researchers say that the mounds might be in danger. Halimeda algae may be harmed by acidification of the oceans, caused by increasing carbon dioxide emissions. In the future, they hope to explore the area further using methods including robotic underwater vehicles to learn more about the structures and the ocean.

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A photo taken on September 22, 2014, shows fish swimming through the coral on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The 2,300-kilometre-long reef contributes AUS$5.4 billion (US$4.8 billion) annually to the Australian economy through tourism, fishing, and scientific research, while supporting 67,000 jobs, according to government data. According to an Australian government report in August, the outlook for the Earth's largest living structure is 'poor', with climate change posing the most serious threat to the extensive coral reef ecosystem. AFP PHOTO/William WEST (Photo credit should read WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)
A photo taken on September 22, 2014, shows fish swimming through the coral on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The 2,300-kilometre-long reef contributes AUS$5.4 billion (US$4.8 billion) annually to the Australian economy through tourism, fishing, and scientific research, while supporting 67,000 jobs, according to government data. According to an Australian government report in August, the outlook for the Earth's largest living structure is 'poor', with climate change posing the most serious threat to the extensive coral reef ecosystem. AFP PHOTO/William WEST (Photo credit should read WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)
A photo taken on September 22, 2014, shows a turtle on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. The 2,300-kilometre-long reef contributes AUS$5.4 billion (US$4.8 billion) annually to the Australian economy through tourism, fishing, and scientific research, while supporting 67,000 jobs, according to government data. According to an Australian government report in August, the outlook for the Earth's largest living structure is 'poor', with climate change posing the most serious threat to the extensive coral reef ecosystem. AFP PHOTO/William WEST (Photo credit should read WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images)
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