Coral Reefs

Page 15

Several facts having led me to disbelieve in any elevation of the whole atoll, I was at first unable to imagine what cause could have killed so large a field of coral. Upon reflection, however, it appeared to me that the closing up of the above-mentioned channels would be a sufficient cause; for before this, a strong breeze by forcing water through them into the head of the lagoon, would tend to raise its level. But now this cannot happen, and the inhabitants observe that the tide rises to a less height, during a high S.E. wind, at the head than at the mouth of the lagoon. The corals, which, under the former condition of things, had attained the utmost possible limit of upward growth, would thus occasionally be exposed for a short time to the sun, and be killed.

Besides the increase of dry land, indicated by the foregoing facts, the exterior solid reef appears to have grown outwards. On the western side of the atoll, the "flat" lying between the margin of the reef and the beach, is very wide; and in front of the regular beach with its conglomerate basis, there is, in most parts, a bed of sand and loose fragments with trees growing out of it, which apparently is not reached even by the spray at high water. It is evident some change has taken place since the waves formed the inner beach; that they formerly beat against it with violence was evident, from a remarkably thick and water-worn point of conglomerate at one spot, now protected by vegetation and a bank of sand; that they beat against it in the same peculiar manner in which the swell from windward now obliquely curls round the margin of the reef, was evident from the conglomerate having been worn into a point projecting from the beach in a similarly oblique manner. This retreat in the line of action of the breakers might result, either from the surface of the reef in front of the islets having been submerged at one time, and afterward having grown upwards, or from the mounds of coral on the margin having continued to grow outwards. That an outward growth of this part is in process, can hardly be doubted from the fact already mentioned of the mounds of Porites with their summits apparently lately killed, and their sides only three or four inches lower down thickened by a fresh layer of living coral. But there is a difficulty on this supposition which I must not pass over. If the whole, or a large part of the "flat," had been formed by the outward growth of the margin, each successive margin would naturally have been coated by the Nulliporae, and so much of the surface would have been of equal height with the existing zone of living Nulliporae: this is not the case, as may be seen in the woodcut. It is, however, evident from the abraded state of the "flat," with its original inequalities filled up, that its surface has been much modified; and it is possible that the hinder portions of the zone of Nulliporae, perishing as the reef grows outwards, might be worn down by the surf. If this has not taken place, the reef can in no part have increased outwards in breadth since its formation, or at least since the Nulliporae formed the convex mound on its margin; for the zone thus formed, and which stands between two and three feet above the other parts of the reef, is nowhere much above twenty yards in width.

Thus far we have considered facts, which indicate, with more or less probability, the increase of the atoll in its different parts: there are others having an opposite tendency. On the south-east side, Lieutenant Sulivan, to whose kindness I am indebted for many interesting observations, found the conglomerate projecting on the reef nearly fifty yards in front of the beach: we may infer from what we see in all other parts of the atoll, that the conglomerate was not originally so much exposed, but formed the base of an islet, the front and upper part of which has since been swept away. The degree to which the conglomerate, round nearly the whole atoll, has been scooped, broken up, and the fragments cast on the beach, is certainly very surprising, even on the view that it is the office of occasional gales to pile up fragments, and of the daily tides to wear them away.

Charles Darwin

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