The Origin of Coral Reefs
1 Coral reefs are natural structures formed from deposits of the calcium carbonate secretions of coral, a marine animal that lives in colonies. In general, coral reefs are grouped into one of three categories, atolls, barrier reefs, and fringing reefs. Atolls are usually easily distinguished because they are modified horseshoe-shaped reefs that rise out of very deep water far from land and enclose a lagoon (a body of certain water surrounded by a coral reef). With few exceptions, atolls are found only in the Indo-Pacific area. Barrier reefs and fringing reefs, on the other hand, tend to grade into each other and are not readily separable. Some scientists would prefer to group them into a single category. Both types occur adjacent to a landmass, with a barrier reef being separated from the landmass by a greater distance and deeper water channel than the fringing reef. Fringing reefs and barrier reefs are common throughout the coral reef zones in all oceans.
Different types of reefs and reefs in different oceans may have diverse origins and histories. The greatest interest in the origin of reefs has centered on atolls. For many years, humans speculated as to how such reefs could develop in such deep water, miles from the nearest emergent land. This interest was heightened when it was discovered that reef corals cold not live deeper than 50-70 meters. This led to the development of several theories concerning the origin of atolls. Only one need be discussed here——the the theory proposed that atolls grow on the shores of newly formed volcanic islands that have pushed to the surface from deep water. These islands often begin to subside, and if the subsidence is not too fast, reef growth will keep up with the subsidence. The reef growth will then form a barrier reef and, ultimately, an atoll as the island disappears beneath the sea. When the island has disappeared, corals continue to grow on the outside and keep the reef at the surface. On the inside, where the island used to be, quiet water conditions and high sedimentation prevail. These conditions prevent continued vigorous coral growth, hence, a lagoon develops. This theory links all three reef types into evolutionary sequence, but is not an explanation for all fringing and barrier reef types.
Since the current surface features of atolls give no evidence of a volcanic base, in the years after the development of Darwin’s theory other explanations were offered, and the whole concept of the origin of atolls became embroiled in the controversy over the origin of coral reefs. If Darwin’s theory was correct, it must be assumed that drilling down through the current atoll reefs would yield layer after layer of reef limestone until, finally, volcanic rock would be encountered. The ability to drill to the base of atoll reefs and resolved the problem had to wait until the mid-twentieth century in 1953. Ladd and other geologists reported borings at Eriwetok atoll in the Marshall Islands that penetrated 1,283meters of reef limestone and then hit volcanic rock. ■This was the evidence that Darwin’s theory was substantially correct. ■The correctness of this theory has been strengthened by the discovery of flat-topped mountains or guyots that, at present, have their tops many hundreds or thousands of meters below the ocean surface, but have on their surface the remains of shallow water corals. ■Evidently, these mountains sank too fast for reef growth to keep above the ocean surface. ■
Although the subsidence theory links all three reef types in a successional sequence, not all barrier reefs and fringing reefs can be explained by this mechanism. Indeed, the reasons barrier and fringing reef types occur around continental margins and high non-volcanic islands are simply that these areas offer suitable environmental conditions for the growth of reefs and a suitable substrate (surface) on which to begin growth. The extensive reefs around the Indonesian Islands, the Philippines, New Guinea, Fiji and most of the Caribbean Islands are there because a suitable substrate in shallow water existed on which they could initiate growth. In none of these areas are large land areas subsiding, not will these reefs ultimately become atolls.