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4.10: Coral Reefs

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    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 \(\PageIndex{1}\)). 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.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) A fringing reef (left), barrier reef (center), and atoll (right) (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).
    The progression starts with a fringing reef built against the shores of island (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). If sea level doesn’t change or the land doesn’t sink, many reefs will not progress beyond this stage. But if the land does subside, the corals would eventually sink too deep for light penetration (see section 6.5) and they would die. So as the reef gets deeper, the corals continue to grow upwards, at a rate of about 3-5 m per 1000 years, and eventually a lagoon develops between the reef and the island; the reef is now a barrier reef. If the land continues to subside until it is completely submerged, all that is left is a ring of coral that has been growing upwards around the central lagoon; an atoll.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) Steps in the development of coral reefs (Steven Earle, “Physical Geology”).

    *”Physical Geology” by Steven Earle used under a CC-BY 4.0 international license. Download this book for free at

    This page titled 4.10: Coral Reefs is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Paul Webb via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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