Belize is blessed by the presence of the Belize Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the second-largest barrier reef in the world. A complex marine ecosystem that is home to nearly one-quarter of all the marine species in the world’s oceans, understanding the difference between the atolls and the reefs is quite subtle.
Reefs are made from a living animal, the coral, which regularly produces a hard exoskeleton of calcium carbonate, the same substance that composes the shells of mollusks and other kinds of shellfish. Over time, the exuded exoskeleton begins to build up until it appears like an underwater hedgerow or stony “bush” that serves as the home for a multitude of aquatic creatures, including fish, juvenile mammals, sharks, and a wide variety of flora that use the coral for shelter, as a nursery, or as a feeding ground.
It is the entirety of this coral exoskeleton and its attendant marine life that makes up the coral reef. An atoll, however, is a specific kind of coral reef. All atolls are reefs that form around the mouth of an underwater volcano, growing in a circular pattern. Due to the temperature changes and other ejecta from the volcano, atolls are generally lifeless, sometimes referred to as “underwater deserts.” Generally, coral reefs, on the other hand, are the complete opposite – home to some of the densest and most biodiverse collections of marine lifeforms.
Coral reefs can grow anywhere there is a hard foundation like limestone sea floors or sunken ships that are close enough to the surface of the water to allow access to sunlight. Coral reefs grow slowly, taking hundreds, if not thousands of years, to achieve their immense size. Indeed, the Belize Barrier Reef is easily visible from outer space. And marine biologists estimate that some coral reefs are up to a million years old.
Atolls, predominately found in the Pacific Ocean, are circular in shape, growing as they do around a lagoon created by submarine volcanos. When a volcano erupts, much of the ejected material settles on the sea floor. As these deposits continue, they can create enough material that the solid material rises above the surface of the water to create islands. After the material has cooled, coral reefs can begin growing on this material, eventually covering it completely and forming true atolls.
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