Coral Reefs

Page 73

He states that he found in almost every atoll which he visited, the shores of the lagoon raised from eighteen to thirty inches above the sea-level, and containing imbedded Tridacnae and corals standing as they grew; some of the corals were dead in their upper parts, but below a certain line they continued to flourish. In the lagoons, also, he frequently met with clusters of Madrepore, with their extremities standing from one inch to a foot above the surface of the water. Now, these appearances are exactly what I should have expected, without any subsequent elevation having taken place; and I think Mr. Couthouy has not borne in mind the indisputable fact, that corals, when constantly bathed by the surf, can exist at a higher level than in quite tranquil water, as in a lagoon. As long, therefore, as the waves continued at low water to break entirely over parts of the annular reef of an atoll, submerged to a small depth, the corals and shells attached on these parts might continue living at a level above the smooth surface of the lagoon, into which the waves rolled; but as soon as the outer edge of the reef grew up to its utmost possible height, or if the reef were very broad nearly to that height, the force of the breakers would be checked, and the corals and shells on the inner parts near the lagoon would occasionally be left dry, and thus be partially or wholly destroyed. Even in atolls, which have not lately subsided, if the outer margin of the reef continued to increase in breadth seaward (each fresh zone of corals rising to the same vertical height as at Keeling atoll), the line where the waves broke most heavily would advance outwards, and therefore the corals, which when living near the margin, were washed by the breaking waves during the whole of each tide, would cease being so, and would therefore be left on the backward part of the reef standing exposed and dead. The case of the madrepores in the lagoons with the tops of their branches exposed, seems to be an analogous fact, to the great fields of dead but upright corals in the lagoon of Keeling atoll; a condition of things which I have endeavoured to show, has resulted from the lagoon having become more and more enclosed and choked up with reefs, so that during high winds, the rising of the tide (as observed by the inhabitants) is checked, and the corals, which had formerly grown to the greatest possible height, are occasionally exposed, and thus are killed: and this is a condition of things, towards which almost every atoll in the intervals of its subsidence must be tending. Or if we look to the state of an atoll directly after a subsidence of some fathoms, the waves would roll heavily over the entire circumference of the reef, and the surface of the lagoon would, like the ocean, never be quite at rest, and therefore the corals in the lagoon, from being constantly laved by the rippling water, might extend their branches to a little greater height than they could, when the lagoon became enclosed and protected. Christmas atoll (2 deg N. latitude) which has a very shallow lagoon, and differs in several respects from most atolls, possibly may have been elevated recently; but its highest part appears (Couthouy, page 46) to be only ten feet above the sea-level. The facts of a second class, adduced by Mr. Couthouy, in support of the alleged recent elevation of the Low Archipelago, are not all (especially those referring to a shelf of rock) quite intelligible to me; he believes that certain enormous fragments of rock on the reef, must have been moved into their present position, when the reef was at a lower level; but here again the force of the breakers on any inner point of the reef being diminished by its outward growth without any change in its level, has not, I think, been borne in mind. We should, also, not overlook the occasional agency of waves caused by earthquakes and hurricanes. Mr. Couthouy further argues, that since these great fragments were deposited and fixed on the reef, they have been elevated; he infers this from the greatest amount of erosion not being near their bases, where they are unceasingly washed by the reflux of the tides, but at some height on their sides, near the line of high-water mark, as shown in an accompanying diagram.

Charles Darwin

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