Coral Reefs

Page 62

It is historically known that these atolls have long existed in their present state; and we can believe, that even during a very slow subsidence they might thus remain, the central expanse being kept at nearly its original depth by the accumulation of sediment. But in the action of such nicely balanced forces during a progressive subsidence (like that, to which by our theory this archipelago has been subjected), it would be strange if the currents of the sea should never make a direct passage across some one of the atolls, through the many wide breaches in their margins. If this were once effected, a deep-water channel would soon be formed by the removal of the finer sediment, and the check to its further accumulation; and the sides of the channel would be worn into a slope like that on the outer coasts, which are exposed to the same force of the currents. In fact, a channel precisely like that bifurcating one which divides Mahlos Mahdoo (Plate II., Figure 4.), would almost necessarily be formed. The scattered reefs situated near the borders of the new ocean-channel, from being favourably placed for the growth of coral, would, by their extension, tend to produce fresh margins to the dissevered portions; such a tendency is very evident (as may be seen in the large published chart) in the elongated reefs on the borders of the two channels intersecting Mahlos Mahdoo. Such channels would become deeper with continued subsidence, and probably from the reefs not growing up perpendicularly, somewhat broader. In this case, and more especially if the channels had been formed originally of considerable breadth, the dissevered portions would become perfect and distinct atolls, like Ari and Ross atolls (Plate II., Figure 6), or like the two Nillandoo atolls, which must be considered as distinct, although related in form and position, and separated from each other by channels, which though deep have been sounded. Further subsidence would render such channels unfathomable, and the dissevered portions would then resemble Phaleedoo and Moluque atolls, or Mahlos Mahdoo and Horsburgh atolls (Plate II., Figure 4), which are related to each other in no respect except in proximity and position. Hence, on the theory of subsidence, the disseverment of large atolls, which have imperfect margins (for otherwise their disseverment would be scarcely possible), and which are exposed to strong currents, is far from being an improbable event; and the several stages, from close relation to entire isolation in the atolls of the Maldiva Archipelago, are readily explicable.

We might go even further, and assert as not improbable, that the first formation of the Maldiva Archipelago was due to a barrier-reef, of nearly the same dimensions with that of New Caledonia (Plate II., Figure 5), for if, in imagination, we complete the subsidence of that great island, we might anticipate from the present broken condition of the northern portion of the reef, and from the almost entire absence of reefs on the eastern coast, that the barrier-reef after repeated subsidences, would become during its upward growth separated into distinct portions; and these portions would tend to assume an atoll-like structure, from the coral growing with vigour round their entire circumferences, when freely exposed to an open sea. As we have some large islands partly submerged with barrier-reefs marking their former limits, such as New Caledonia, so our theory makes it probable that there should be other large islands wholly submerged; and these, we may now infer, would be surmounted, not by one enormous atoll, but by several large elongated ones, like the atolls in the Maldiva group; and these again, during long periods of subsidence, would sometimes become dissevered into smaller atolls. I may add, that both in the Marshall and Caroline Archipelagoes, there are atolls standing close together, which have an evident relationship in form: we may suppose, in such cases, either that two or more encircled islands originally stood close together, and afforded bases for two or more atolls, or that one atoll has been dissevered.

Charles Darwin

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