Scientists have discovered a mystery 4,000 foot coral reef in the middle of an Australian desert. Researchers’ efforts to understand more about the origins of our solar system and of Earth itself may benefit from further investigation of the Nullarbor region’s geology.
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In the middle of an Australian desert, the remnants of a coral reef that dates back millions of years have been found.
The reef was discovered in southern Australia’s Nullarbor Plain, which is now a 76,000-square-mile desert made of limestone bedrock. However, during the Cenozoic era, about 14 million years ago, a tropical ocean washed over it.
On new, high-resolution satellite imagery, the reef can be seen as a bull’s-eye shape by scientists from Curtin University’s School of Earth and Planetary Sciences in Perth. The discovery cast doubt on their prior beliefs that the Nullarbor Plain had never had any features.
“Unlike many parts of the world, large areas of the Nullarbor Plain have remained largely unchanged by weathering and erosion processes over millions of years, making it a unique geological canvas recording ancient history in remarkable ways,” co-author and geologist Milo Barham of Curtin University said in a statement.
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“Through high-resolution satellite imagery and fieldwork we have identified the clear remnant of an original sea-bed structure preserved for millions of years, which is the first of this kind of landform discovered on the Nullarbor Plain,” Barham said.
Modern Australia has been mostly dry, with 18% of the nation being designated as desert. However, Australia was shrouded in rain forests and seas for hundreds of millions of years, including the ocean that once submerged the Nullarbor Plain.
As per a paper printed in the journal Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, the coral reef formation has a circular elevated rim and a central dome shape. The structure has a diameter of between 3,950 and 4,250 feet.
The structure also differs from other plain landforms and cannot be accounted for by any of the local geological processes, according to the paper.
“The ring-shaped ‘hill’ cannot be explained by extra-terrestrial impact or any known deformation processes but preserves original microbial textures and features typically found in the modern Great Barrier Reef,” Barham said.
The researchers have been able to identify far more nuanced characteristics of the Nullarbor Plain thanks to their access to new high-resolution satellite imagery. They discovered that it was not the featureless, static landscape they had assumed it to be after its ocean dried up.
“Evidence of the channels of long-vanished rivers, as well as sand dune systems imprinted directly into limestone, preserve an archive of ancient landscapes and even a record of the prevailing winds,” Barham said.
“And it is not only landscapes. Isolated cave shafts punctuating the Nullarbor Plain preserve mummified remains of Tasmanian tigers and complete skeletons of long-extinct wonders such as Thylacoleo, the marsupial lion,” he said.
Researchers’ efforts to understand more about the origins of our solar system and of Earth itself may benefit from further investigation of the Nullarbor region’s geology.
“At the surface, due to the relatively stable conditions, the Nullarbor Plain has preserved large quantities of meteorites, allowing us to peer back through time to the origins of our solar system,” Barham said.
“These features, in conjunction with the millions of years old landscape features we have now identified, effectively make the Nullarbor Plain a land that time forgot and allow a fascinating deeper understanding of Earth’s history,” he said.