From Academic Kids

For other uses, see Atoll (disambiguation).
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Fanning Atoll (Tabuaeran) is a typical, small to moderate-sized atoll located in the central Pacific Ocean. Its lagoon is shallower than is the case for most atolls (thus, the light blue color in this satellite image}.

An atoll is a type of low, coral island found in tropical oceans and consisting of a coral-algal reef surrounding a central depression. The depression may be part of the emergent island, but more typically is a part of the sea (that is, a lagoon), or very rarely is an enclosed body of fresh, brackish, or highly saline water.

Definition and mode of formation

The word atoll comes from the Dhivehi (Indo-Aryan language of the Maldive Islands) word atolu. Its first recorded use in English was in 1625. However, the term was popularised by Charles Darwin (1842, p. 2), who described atolls as a subset in a special class of islands, the unique property of which is the presence of an organic reef. More modern definitions of atoll are those of McNeil (1954, p. 396) as " annular reef enclosing a lagoon in which there are no promontories other than reefs and [islets] composed of reef detritus" and Fairbridge (1950, p. 341) " an exclusively morphological sense, [as] ...a ring-shaped ribbon reef enclosing a lagoon in the centre."

Charles Darwin published an explanation for the creation of coral atolls in the South Pacific (Darwin, 1842) based upon observations made during a five-year voyage aboard the HMS Beagle (1831-1836). His explanation, which is accepted as basically correct, involved considering that several tropical island types—from high volcanic island, through barrier reef island, to atoll—represented a sequence of gradual subsidence of what started as an oceanic volcano. He reasoned that a fringing coral reef surrounding a volcanic island in the tropical sea will grow upwards as the island subsides (sinks), eventually becoming a barrier reef island (as typified by an island such as Bora Bora and others in the Society Islands). The fringing reef becomes a barrier reef for the reason that the outer part of the reef maintains itself near sea level through biotic growth, while the inner part of the reef falls behind, becoming a lagoon because conditions are less favorable for the corals and calcareous algae responsible for most reef growth. In time, subsidence carries the old volcano below the ocean surface, but the barrier reef remains. At this point, the island has become an atoll.

Portion of a  atoll showing two islets on the ribbon or barrier reef separated by a deep pass betwen the ocean and the lagoon.
Portion of a Pacific atoll showing two islets on the ribbon or barrier reef separated by a deep pass betwen the ocean and the lagoon.

Atolls are the product of the growth of tropical marine organisms, so these islands are only found in warm tropical waters. Volcanic islands located beyond the warm water temperature requirements of reef building (hermatypic) organisms become seamounts as they subside and are eroded away at the surface. An island that is located where the ocean water temperatures are just sufficiently warm for upward reef growth to keep pace with the rate of subsidence is said to be at the Darwin Point. Islands more polar evolve towards seamounts or guyots; islands more equatorial evolve towards atolls (see Kure Atoll).

Reginald Aldworth Daly offered a somewhat different explanation for atoll formation: islands worn away by erosion (ocean waves and streams) during the last glacial stand of the sea of some 300 feet below present sea level, developed as coral islands (atolls) (or barrier reefs on a platform surrounding a volcanic island not completely worn away) as sea level gradually rose from melting of the glaciers. Discovery of the great depth of the volcanic remnant beneath many atolls (see Midway Atoll), favors the Darwin explanation, although there can be little doubt that fluctuating sea level has had considerable influence on atoll and other reefs.

Distribution and size

An atoll in the western
An atoll in the western Pacific Ocean

The distribution of atolls around the globe is instructive: most of the world's atolls are in the Pacific Ocean (with concentrations in the Tuamotu Islands, Caroline Islands, Marshall Islands, Coral Sea Islands, and the island groups of Kiribati and Tuvalu) and Indian Ocean (the Maldives, the Laccadive Islands, the Chagos Archipelago and the Outer Islands of the Seychelles). The Atlantic Ocean ocean has no large groups of atolls, other than eight atolls east of Nicaragua that belong to the Colombian department of San Andres and Providencia.

As noted above, reef-building corals can thrive only in warm tropical and subtropical waters of oceans and seas, and therefore atolls are only found in the tropics and subtropics. The northernmost atoll of the world is Kure Atoll at 2824' N, along with other atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The southernmost atolls of the world are Elizabeth Reef at 2958' S, and nearby Middleton Reef at 2929' S, in the Tasman Sea, both of which are part of the Coral Sea Islands Territory. The next southerly atoll is Ducie Island in the Pitcairn Islands Group, at 2440' S. Bermuda is sometimes claimed as the "northernmost atoll" at a latitude of 3224' N. At this latitude coral reefs would not develop without the warming waters of the Gulf Stream. However, Bermuda is what is termed a pseudo-atoll because its general form, while resembling that of an atoll, has a very different mode of fomation.

In terms of total area (lagoon plus reef), the largest atolls are found in the Maldives: Huvadhoo Atoll, having an area of 2800 (or 3200?) km; the area of Thiladhunmathi and Miladhunmadulu Atolls (two names, but a single atoll structure) is even larger at 3680 km. Another large atoll is Lihou Reef in the Coral Sea, with a lagoon of 2,500 km. However, by far the largest atoll structure of the world is the Great Chagos Bank in the Indian Ocean, a mostly submerged atoll, part of the Chagos Islands, with an area of roughly 13,000 km. If Saya de Malha Bank were to be recognized as a wholly submerged atoll structure, it would be the world's largest, at 40,000 km. Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, which is sometimes listed as the largest atoll of the world (largest in the Pacific), measures only 846 km, by contrast. Large atolls are also found in the Tuamotu Archipelago, the largest being Rangiroa, with a lagoon area of 1018 km.

In most cases, the land area of an atoll is very small in comparison to the total area. The largest atoll in the world in terms of "land area" (land "permanently" above sea level) is Kiritimati (321.37 km land area; according to other sources even 575 km), 160 km main lagoon, 168 km other lagoons (according to other sources 319 km total lagoon size). If the Caicos Islands are to be considered a huge coral atoll, with the Caicos Bank as a lagoon, this complex would be the the largest atoll in land area (460.2 km) and second largest in total area (lagoon size roughly 3700 km).



  • Darwin, C. 1842. The structure and distribution of coral reefs. London. This book is available online at [1] (
  • Fairbridge, R. W. 1950. Recent and Pleistocene coral reefs of Australia. J. Geol., 58(4): 330-401.
  • McNeil, F. S. 1954. Organic reefs and banks and associated detrital sediments. Amer. J. Sci., 252(7): 385-401.
  • Formation of Bermuda reefs (

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