Scientists find huge ancient landslide on Great Barrier Reef

Darnell ReidFeb 11, 2017

Around 300,000 years ago, a ridge near Australia's Great Barrier Reef collapsed, unleashing a massive undersea avalanche.

The remains of the ancient slip, known as the Gloria Knolls Slide, were discovered 75km off the north Queensland coast, and at the bottom of the Queensland Trough - a vast basin that runs adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef. Fortunately, no one was around to witness the landslide or a resultant tsunami, as the first humans likely didn't arrive until about 250,000 years later. The discovery was made unexpectedly when researchers from Marine National Facility were carrying out a three-dimensional mapping of the seafloor around the Great Barrier Reef.

If such a landslide happened today, it's hard to tell whether it would create as massive a tsunami, because the area is now surrounded by corals of the Great Barrier Reef.

Researchers led by Angel Puga-Bernabéu from the University of Granada in Spain found the landslide after discovering a debris field of large blocks on the ocean floor that had scattered up to 30 kilometres (18.6 miles) from the site of the collapse, coming to rest in an area called the Queensland Trough.

"It's completely dark, it's quite cold, about 4 degrees Celsius, and yet we have a habitat for cold water corals that are attached to rocks buried in the mud", said Dr Beaman.

Prehistoric undersea landslides have been recorded before, including the Agulhas slide - an event that unleashed 20,000 cubic km of debris off South Africa about 2.6 million years ago.

Other evidence of the landslide would have been buried over time, he said.

Although modelling had put its elevation as high as 27m, the impact of a tsunami would have been significantly offset by the presence of coral reefs. "If it was in existence at the time of this landslide, it would have done a similar job".

Already the team of worldwide researchers have been surprised by the marine life they have found in the deep-sea conditions where temperatures can drop to 4 degrees Celsius and it is pitch black. James Cook University's researcher Dr Robin Beaman said in a statement.

After the initial discovery, there's more to be found out about this fascinating area.

Experts from the University of Sydney, the University of Edinburgh and the Australian Organization for Nuclear Science and Technology also participated in the study, which was conducted on the research ship "Southern Surveyor".

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