Coral Reefs

Page 74

My former remark again applies here, with this further observation, that as the waves have to roll over a wide space of reef before they reach the fragments, their force must be greatly increased with the increasing depth of water as the tide rises, and therefore I should have expected that the chief line of present erosion would have coincided with the line of high-water mark; and if the reef had grown outwards, that there would have been lines of erosion at greater heights. The conclusion, to which I am finally led by the interesting observations of Mr. Couthouy is, that the atolls in the Low Archipelago have, like the Society Islands, remained at a stationary level for a long period: and this probably is the ordinary course of events, subsidence supervening after long intervals of rest.)

Turning now to the red colour; as on our map, the areas which have sunk slowly downwards to great depths are many and large, we might naturally have been led to conjecture, that with such great changes of level in progress, the coasts which have been fringed probably for ages (for we have no reason to believe that coral-reefs are of short duration), would not have remained all this time stationary, but would frequently have undergone movements of elevation. This supposition, we shall immediately see, holds good to a remarkable extent; and although a stationary condition of the land can hardly ever be open to proof, from the evidence being only negative, we are, in some degree, enabled to ascertain the correctness of the parts coloured red on the map, by the direct testimony of upraised organic remains of a modern date. Before going into the details on this head (printed in small type), I may mention, that when reading a memoir on coral formations by MM. Quoy and Gaimard ("Annales des Sciences Nat." tom. vi., page 279, etc.) I was astonished to find, for I knew that they had crossed both the Pacific and Indian Oceans, that their descriptions were applicable only to reefs of the fringing class; but my astonishment ended satisfactorily, when I discovered that, by a strange chance, all the islands which these eminent naturalists had visited, though several in number, namely, the Mauritius, Timor, New Guinea, the Mariana, and Sandwich Archipelagoes, could be shown by their own statements to have been elevated within a recent geological era.

In the eastern half of the Pacific, the SANDWICH Islands are all fringed, and almost every naturalist who has visited them, has remarked on the abundance of elevated corals and shells, apparently identical with living species. The Rev. W. Ellis informs me, that he has noticed round several parts of Hawaii, beds of coral-detritus, about twenty feet above the level of the sea, and where the coast is low they extend far inland. Upraised coral-rock forms a considerable part of the borders of Oahu; and at Elizabeth Island ("Zoology of Captain Beechey's Voyage," page 176. See also MM. Quoy and Gaimard in "Annales de Scien. Nat." tom. vi.) it composes three strata, each about ten feet thick. Nihau, which forms the northern, as Hawaii does the southern end of the group (350 miles in length), likewise seems to consist of coral and volcanic rocks. Mr. Couthouy ("Remarks on Coral Formations," page 51.) has lately described with interesting details, several upraised beaches, ancient reefs with their surfaces perfectly preserved, and beds of recent shells and corals, at the islands of Maui, Morokai, Oahu, and Tauai (or Kauai) in this group. Mr. Pierce, an intelligent resident at Oahu, is convinced, from changes which have taken place within his memory, during the last sixteen years, "that the elevation is at present going forward at a very perceptible rate." The natives at Kauai state that the land is there gaining rapidly on the sea, and Mr. Couthouy has no doubt, from the nature of the strata, that this has been effected by an elevation of the land.

In the southern part of the Low Archipelago, Elizabeth Island is described by Captain Beechey (Beechey's "Voyage in the Pacific," page 46, 4to edition.), as being quite flat, and about eighty feet in height; it is entirely composed of dead corals, forming a honeycombed, but compact rock. In cases like this, of an island having exactly the appearance, which the elevation of any one of the smaller surrounding atolls with a shallow lagoon would present, one is led to conclude (with little better reason, however, than the improbability of such small and low fabrics lasting, for an immense period, exposed to the many destroying agents of nature), that the elevation has taken place at an epoch not geologically remote.

Charles Darwin

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