It may seem odd to be discussing coral reefs in a section about geology, but due to the stony calcium carbonate skeletons secreted by many coral species, coral reefs are as interesting as geological features as they are biological ones. Corals grow best in warm, clear, tropical water, that is close enough to the surface for light to support photosynthesis by the algae living in the coral tissues. Because of this need for light, new coral will often grown on top of the stony skeletons of older corals.
In the 1830s Charles Darwin made some observations about different types of coral reefs, and hypothesized that they represent a progression from one form to the next. The types of reefs he examined were fringing reefs, barrier reefs, and atolls, which are associated with oceanic islands (Figure 4.10.1). Fringing reefs are reefs that are close to or are connected to shore. Barrier reefs are offshore reefs that are separated from the land by an expanse of water, such as a lagoon. Atolls are circular or oval reefs surrounding a lagoon, without any central land mass in the lagoon. Darwin speculated that reefs progressed from fringing, to barrier, to atolls as the land mass subsided. However, he had no explanation for how volcanic islands could sink. Today we know that Darwin was correct, and that islands can sink as oceanic crust subsides as it moves away from a spreading center, or as sea level rises as glaciers melt.