Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 20.djvu/92

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coral had grown. But, as the reef-making coral does not live at greater depths than about twenty-five fathoms, the immense number of these reefs formed an almost insuperable objection to this theory. The Laccadives and Maldives, for instance—meaning literally the "lac of islands" and the "thousand islands" are a series of such atolls, and it was impossible to imagine so great a number of craters, all so nearly of the same altitude. Darwin showed, moreover, that, so far from the ring of corals resting on a corresponding ridge of rock, the lagoons, on the contrary, now occupy the place which was once the highest land. He pointed out that some lagoons, as, for instance, that of Vanikoro, contain an island in the middle; while other islands, such as Tahiti, are surrounded by a margin of smooth water, separated from the ocean by a coral-reef. Now, if we suppose that Tahiti were to sink slowly, it would gradually approximate to the condition of Vanikoro; and, if Vanikoro gradually sank, the central island would disappear, while on the contrary the growth of the coral might neutralize the subsidence of the reef, so that we should have simply an atoll, with its lagoon. The same considerations explain the origin of the "barrier reefs," such as that which runs, for nearly one thousand miles, along the northeast coast of Australia. Thus Darwin's theory explained the form and the approximate identity of altitude of these coral islands. But it did more than this, because it showed us that there were great areas in process of subsidence, which, though slow, was of great importance in physical geography.[1]

Much information has also been acquired with reference to the abysses of the ocean, especially from the voyages of the Porcupine and the Challenger. The greatest depth yet recorded is near the Ladrone Islands, where a sounding of 4,575 fathoms was obtained. Ehrenberg long ago pointed out the similarity of the calcareous mud now accumulating in our recent seas to the chalk, and showed that the green-sands of the geologist are largely made up of casts of foraminifera. Clay, however, had been looked on, until the recent expeditions, as essentially a product of the disintegration of older rocks. Not only, however, are a large proportion of silicious and calcareous rocks either directly or indirectly derived from material which has once formed a portion of living organisms, but Sir Wyville Thomson maintains that this is the case with some clays also. In that case, the striking remark of Linnæus, that "fossils are not the children but the parents of rocks," will have received remarkable confirmation. I should have thought it, I confess, probable that these clays are, to a considerable extent, composed of volcanic dust.

It would appear that calcareous deposits resembling our chalk do not occur at a greater depth than 3,000 fathoms; they have not been met with in the abysses of the ocean. Here the bottom consists of

  1. I ought to mention that Darwin's views have recently been questioned by Semper and Murray.