Coral Reefs

Page 65

The remarkable point is that movements to such an extent should have taken place within a period, during which the polypifers have continued adding matter on and above the same reefs. Another and less obvious objection to the theory will perhaps be advanced from the circumstance, of the lagoons within atolls and within barrier-reefs never having become in any one instance during prolonged subsidences of a greater depth than sixty fathoms, and seldom more than forty fathoms; but we already admit, if the theory be worth considering, that the rate of subsidence has not exceeded that of the upward growth of the coral on the exterior margin; we are, therefore, only further required to admit, that the subsidence has not exceeded in rate the filling up of the interior spaces by the growth of the corals living there, and by the accumulation of sediment. As this filling up must take place very slowly within barrier-reefs lying far from the land, and within atolls which are of large dimensions and which have open lagoons with very few reefs, we are led to conclude that the subsidence thus counter-balanced, must have been slow in an extraordinary degree; a conclusion which accords with our only means, namely, with what is known of the rate and manner of recent elevatory movements, of judging by analogy what is the probable rate of subsidence.

In this chapter it has, I think, been shown, that the theory of subsidence, which we were compelled to receive from the necessity of giving to the corals, in certain large areas, foundations at the requisite depth, explains both the normal structure and the less regular forms of those two great classes of reefs, which have justly excited the astonishment of all persons who have sailed through the Pacific and Indian Oceans. But further to test the truth of the theory, a crowd of questions will occur to the reader: Do the different kinds of reefs, which have been produced by the same kind of movement, generally lie within the same areas? What is their relation of form and position,--for instance, do adjoining groups of atolls, and the separate atolls in these groups, bear the same relation to each other which islands do in common archipelagoes? Have we reason to believe, that where there are fringing-reefs, there has not lately been subsidence; or, for it is almost our only way of ascertaining this point, are there frequently proofs of recent elevation? Can we by this means account for the presence of certain classes of reefs in some large areas, and their entire absence in others? Do the areas which have subsided, as indicated by the presence of atolls and barrier-reefs, and the areas which have remained stationary or have been upraised, as shown by fringing-reefs, bear any determinate relation to each other; and are the dimensions of these areas such as harmonise with the greatness of the subterranean changes, which, it must be supposed, have lately taken place beneath them? Is there any connection between the movements thus indicated, and recent volcanic action? All these questions ought to receive answers in accordance with the theory; and if this can be satisfactorily shown, not only is the theory confirmed, but as deductions, the answers are in themselves important. Under this latter point of view, these questions will be chiefly considered in the following chapter.

(I may take this opportunity of briefly considering the appearances, which would probably be presented by a vertical and deep section across a coral formation (referring chiefly to an atoll), formed by the upward growth of coral during successive subsidences. This is a subject worthy of attention, as a means of comparison with ancient coral-strata. The circumferential parts would consist of massive species, in a vertical position, with their interstices filled up with detritus; but this would be the part most subject to subsequent denudation and removal. It is useless to speculate how large a portion of the exterior annular reef would consist of upright coral, and how much of fragmentary rock, for this would depend on many contingencies,--such as on the rate of subsidence, occasionally allowing a fresh growth of coral to cover the whole surface, and on the breakers having force sufficient to throw fragments over this same space. The conglomerate which composes the base of the islets, would (if not removed by denudation together with the exterior reef on which it rests) be conspicuous from the size of the fragments,--the different degrees in which they have been rounded,--the presence of fragments of conglomerate torn up, rounded, and recemented,--and from the oblique stratification.

Charles Darwin

All Pages of This Book