To the southward of the Sandwich Islands, on the other side of the equator, there is a large group of islands in the Pacific, which have a very peculiar appearance. They are called Atolls or coral islands. Although not exactly of volcanic origin, yet the manner in which they are formed has some connection with submarine volcanic action.
An atoll consists essentially of a ring of coral rocks but little elevated above the level of the sea, and having in its centre a lagoon or salt-water lake, which generally communicates by a deep narrow channel with the sea. The ring of rocks is flat on the surface, which is composed of friable soil, and sustains a luxuriant vegetation, chiefly of cocoa nut[?] palms. It is seldom more than half a mile in breadth between the sea and lagoon, sometimes only three or four hundred yards. The outer margin of the ring is the highest, and it slopes gradually down towards the lagoon; but on the outside of the ledge of rocks is a beach of dazzling whiteness, composed of powdered and broken coral and shells. The appearance they present is thus not less beautiful than singular. Some of these islands are of large size, from thirty to fifty miles long, and from twenty to thirty broad, but they are in general considerably smaller. Their most frequent form is either round or oval. The rocks composing them are all formed by different species of coral. The animal which constructs them is of the polyp tribe, and so small that it can be seen only under the higher powers of the microscope. It multiplies by means of buds like those of a tree, the individuals all combining to form a composite stony mass, which is called a polypidom[?]. A number of such polypidoms growing close together form a coral reef.
It was at one time supposed that these coral reefs were erected on the edges of the craters of submarine volcanoes, an opinion to which their annular form, and the lagoon in the centre, lent some countenance; but the vast size of some of them, united to several other particulars connected with them, threw great doubts over this supposition.
More recently it has been shown by Mr. Darwin that, while volcanic agency does perform a part in their formation, it is different from what had been formerly imagined. His supposition is, that these coral reefs were built round the coasts of islands which had once stood very much higher above water than they do now. He conceives that the bottom of the sea under them being very volcanic, and containing large collections of molten lava beneath a thin solid crust, the islands have gradually sunk down into the lava, until their central parts have become covered with a considerable depth of water. The central parts thus submerged, he imagines, form the lagoons in the middle of the islands, while the ring of coral reefs has gradually grown upwards, as the ground on which it rested sank downwards.
The corals thus rise to near the surface, but immediately on their being uncovered by the water they die, and the reef ceases to grow. Then the waves by their action break the upper part of it into pieces, which thus become heaped up by degrees on the remainder, until the mass attain so great a height that the sea can no longer wash over it. Thus the curious ring of land is gradually formed, and affords a nutritive soil, in which cocoa-nuts, on being cast ashore, germinate and grow to be large trees. Other seeds, wafted by the waves or carried by birds, also begin to grow, until the whole surface becomes covered with vegetation. Then comes man and builds his habitation upon those fertile spots, and finds in them an agreeable and convenient abode, well suited to those who are accustomed to live by fishing and other simple means.
You will thus perceive that the connexion between the atoll and the volcano consists in this--that while the coral builds up the reef, the volcano beneath ingulfs the island and causes it to sink down. In some instances, however, the volcano, after a while, reverses its action, and raises up the island with the reef upon it. In such cases, the coral reefs are seen standing out of the water, forming perpendicular cliffs several hundred feet in height. Then also the interior of the island becomes once more dry land, and that, too, of great fertility.
Almost due south of that region, in the Pacific, where the coral islands abound, but at a great distance from them, and considerably within the limits of the Antarctic zone, lies South Victoria. Here, in lat. 76 degrees S., Captain Ross discovered, in 1841, two volcanoes, which he called Erebus and Terror, after the names of his two ships. Of the former, which is the higher of the two, a view is given in the annexed woodcut. It is covered with perpetual snow from the bottom even to the tip of the summit. Nevertheless, it is continually sending forth vast columns of vapour, which glow with the reflection of the white hot lava beneath. These vapours ascend to a great height, more than two thousand feet above the top of the cone, which is itself twelve thousand feet above the level of the sea.
There is found in these frozen regions a remarkable botanical curiosity, having a certain connexion with volcanoes. The waters of the ocean, all along the borders of the icy barrier, produce in amazing abundance the family of water-plants named Diatomaceae. The Diatoms are so called from their faculty of multiplying themselves indefinitely by splitting into two; and so rapidly is this process performed, that in a month a single diatom may produce a thousand millions. The quantity found in the Antarctic regions is so immense that, between the parallels of 60 degrees and 80 degrees of south latitude, they stain the whole surface of the sea of a pale olive- brown tint. These plants, which are so minute as to be individually invisible, save under the higher powers of the microscope, have the curious property of encrusting themselves with a sheath, or shell, of pure silica. These shells remain after the death of the plant, and are as indestructible as flint. They are marvellous objects, both as respects the elegance of their forms and the beauty of their markings. So great is the accumulation of these shells at the bottom of the sea, that they have formed an immense bank 400 miles in length by 120 in breadth, between the 76th and 78th degrees of south latitude. One portion of this bank rests on the coast at the foot of Mount Erebus.
Now, it is remarkable that these microscopic shells of Diatoms are not unfrequently found in the ejections of volcanoes; while it is generally supposed that, in the case of those situated near the sea, eruptions are caused by the formation of explosive steam consequent on the access of sea-water to the reservoirs of molten lava lying underground. The proximity of this Diatomaceous bed to Mount Erebus would easily explain how these minute shells might be found abundant in the fine dust ejected from that volcano.