Scientists Say: Atoll

This word describes a ring-shaped coral reef surrounding a lagoon

an areial view of a a ring-shaped coral reef surrounds the dark blue water of a lagoon in the lighter blue water of the open ocean

Atolls are ring-shaped coral reefs that surround a body of water called a lagoon.

Enrique Aguirre Aves/Getty Images

Atoll (noun, “AT-all”)

An atoll is a ring-shaped coral reef, island or chain of islands around a body of water called a lagoon. An atoll forms when an underwater volcano spills lava onto the seafloor. Over many eruptions, that volcanic rock piles up. Eventually, it rises above the water. This creates an island. Sea creatures called corals settle around the edges of that island. Their stony skeletons form a coral reef.

Over time, the central island erodes and sinks back down into the sea. Meanwhile, the coral reef remains. Over time, ocean waves break off bits of coral and grind them into sand. That sand builds up, along with other material swept in by wind and waves. This gives rise to a ring-shaped island, or smattering of islands, around the bowl of water, or lagoon, left by the sunken volcano.

In a sentence

On Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, dead albatross chicks are often found with stomachs full of plastic trash.

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Maria Temming is the Assistant Managing Editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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