Coral Reefs

Page 57

Let the unbroken lines and the oblique shading in the woodcut (No. 4) represent a vertical section through such an island; and the horizontal shading will represent the section of the reef. Now, as the island sinks down, either a few feet at a time or quite insensibly, we may safely infer from what we know of the conditions favourable to the growth of coral, that the living masses bathed by the surf on the margin of the reef, will soon regain the surface. The water, however, will encroach, little by little, on the shore, the island becoming lower and smaller, and the space between the edge of the reef and the beach proportionately broader. A section of the reef and island in this state, after a subsidence of several hundred feet, is given by the dotted lines: coral-islets are supposed to have been formed on the new reef, and a ship is anchored in the lagoon-channel. This section is in every respect that of an encircling barrier-reef; it is, in fact, a section taken (The section has been made from the chart given in the "Atlas of the Voyage of the 'Coquille'." The scale is .57 of an inch to a mile. The height of the island, according to M. Lesson, is 4,026 feet. The deepest part of the lagoon-channel is 162 feet; its depth is exaggerated in the woodcut for the sake of clearness.) east and west through the highest point of the encircled island of Bolabola; of which a plan is given in Plate I., Figure 5. The same section is more clearly shown in the following woodcut (No. 5) by the unbroken lines. The width of the reef, and its slope, both on the outer and inner side, will have been determined by the growing powers of the coral, under the conditions (for instance the force of the breakers and of the currents) to which it has been exposed; and the lagoon-channel will be deeper or shallower, in proportion to the growth of the delicately branched corals within the reef, and to the accumulation of sediment, relatively, also, to the rate of subsidence and the length of the intervening stationary periods.

It is evident in this section, that a line drawn perpendicularly down from the outer edge of the new reef to the foundation of solid rock, exceeds by as many feet as there have been feet of subsidence, that small limit of depth at which the effective polypifers can live--the corals having grown up, as the whole sank down, from a basis formed of other corals and their consolidated fragments. Thus the difficulty on this head, which before seemed so great, disappears.

As the space between the reef and the subsiding shore continued to increase in breadth and depth, and as the injurious effects of the sediment and fresh water borne down from the land were consequently lessened, the greater number of the channels, with which the reef in its fringing state must have been breached, especially those which fronted the smaller streams, will have become choked up with the growth of coral: on the windward side of the reef, where the coral grows most vigorously, the breaches will probably have first been closed. In barrier-reefs, therefore, the breaches kept open by draining the tidal waters of the lagoon-channel, will generally be placed on the leeward side, and they will still face the mouths of the larger streams, although removed beyond the influence of their sediment and fresh water;--and this, it has been shown, is commonly the case.

Referring to the diagram shown above, in which the newly formed barrier-reef is represented by unbroken lines, instead of by dots as in the former woodcut, let the work of subsidence go on, and the doubly pointed hill will form two small islands (or more, according to the number of the hills) included within one annular reef. Let the island continue subsiding, and the coral-reef will continue growing up on its own foundation, whilst the water gains inch by inch on the land, until the last and highest pinnacle is covered, and there remains a perfect atoll. A vertical section of this atoll is shown in the woodcut by the dotted lines;--a ship is anchored in its lagoon, but islets are not supposed yet to have been formed on the reef.

Charles Darwin

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