A cay (also spelled key or quay; pronounced as "key" IPA: /kiː/) is a small, low-elevation, sandy island formed on the surface of coral reefs. Cays occur in tropical environments throughout the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans (including in the Caribbean and on the Great Barrier Reef and Belize Barrier Reef), where they provide habitable and agricultural land for hundreds of thousands of people. Their surrounding reef ecosystems also provide food and building materials for island inhabitants.
Formation and composition
Cays are formed when ocean currents transport loose sediment across the surface of a reef to a depositional node. The depositional node occurs where currents slow or converge, dropping their sediment load out of transport to accumulate on the reef surface (Hopley 1981, Gorlay 1998). Such nodes occur in leeward or windward areas of the reef surface in different reef settlings, and sometimes occur around an emergent outcrop of old reef or beach rock.
The resulting island accumulation is made up almost entirely of biogenic sediment – the skeletal remains of plants and animals – sourced from the surrounding reef ecosystems (Hopley 1982). If the accumulated sediments are predominantly sand then the island is called a cay whereas if they are predominantly gravel the island is called a motu.
Cay sediments are largely calcium carbonate (CaCO3) in composition, primarily of aragonite, calcite, and high magnesium calcite mineralogy. They are produced by a myriad of plants (e.g. coralline algae, species of the green algae Halimeda) and animals (e.g. coral, molluscs, foraminifera). Small amounts of silicate sediment are also contributed by sponges and other creatures (Chave 1964, Folk and Robles 1964, Scoffin 1987, Yamano 2000). Over time soil and vegetation may develop on a cay surface, assisted by the deposition of sea bird guano.
Development and stability
A whole range of physical, biological and chemical influences determines the ongoing development or erosion of cay environments. These influences include: the extent of reef surface sand accumulations, changes in ocean waves, currents, tides, sea levels and weather conditions, the shape of the underlying reef, the types and abundance of carbonate producing biota and other organisms such as binders, bioeroders and bioturbators (creatures which bind, erode and mix sediments) living in surrounding reef ecosystems (Harney and Fletcher 2003, Hart and Kench 2007).
Significant changes in cays and their surrounding ecosystems can result from natural phenomena such as severe El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycles. Also, tropical cyclones can help build or destroy these islands (Scoffin 1993, Woodroffe 2003).
There is much debate and concern over the future stability of cays in the face of growing human populations and pressures on reef ecosystems, and predicted climate changes and sea level rise (Kench and Cowell 2003, Hart 2003). There is also debate around whether these islands are relict features which effectively stopped expanding two thousand years ago during the late Holocene or, as recent research suggests, they are currently still growing with significant new additions of reef sediments (Woodroffe et al. 2007).
Understanding the potential for change in the sediment sources and supply of cay beaches with environmental change is an important key to predicting their present and future stability. Despite, or perhaps because of all the debate around the future of cays, there is consensus that these island environments are very complex and somewhat fragile.
Good examples of cays include:
- Heron Island, a coral cay on the southern Great Barrier Reef
- Warraber Island in central Torres Strait (10°12' S, 142°49' E), Australia, a small ‘vegetated sand cay’ according to the classification schemes of McLean and Stoddart (1978) and Hopley (1982). Approximately 750 by 1500 m wide, this island is situated on the leeward surface of a large 11 km2 emergent reef platform. This cay and the surrounding reef flat are Holocene in origin, having formed over an antecedent Pleistocene platform (Woodroffe et al. 2000).
- The Florida Keys are composed primarily of exposed ancient coral reefs and oolite beds formed behind reefs. A few of the Florida Keys, such as Sand Key, are "cays" as defined above.
- Chave, K. (1964) "Skeletal Durability and Preservation". In: J. Imbrie and N. Newell (Eds.), Approaches to Palaeoecology. John Wiley and Sons Inc., Sydney.
- Folk, R. and Robles, P. (1964) "Carbonate sands of Isla Perez, Alacran Reef Complex, Yucatan. Journal of Geology 72(3): 255-292.
- Gourlay, M.R. (1988) "Coral cays: products of wave action and geological processes in a biogenic environment". Proceedings of the 6th International Coral Reef Symposium, Townsville, Australia 497-502.
- Harney, J.N. and Fletcher, C.H. (2003) "A budget of carbonate framework and sediment production, Kailua Bay, Oahu, Hawaii". ;;Journal of Sedimentary Research;; 73(6): 856-868.
- Hart, D.E. (2003) "The importance of Sea-Level in an Inter-Tidal Reef Platform System, Warraber Island, Torres Strait". Proceedings of the 22nd Biennial New Zealand Geographical Society Conference, Auckland, 2003. pp 77-81.
- Hart, D.E. and Kench, P.S. (2007) "Carbonate production of an emergent reef platform, Warraber Island, Torres Strait, Australia". Coral Reefs 26: 53–68.
- Hopley, D. (1981) "Sediment movement around a coral cay, Great Barrier Reef, Australia". Pacific Geology 15: 17-36.
- Hopley, D. (1982) The Geomorphology of the Great Barrier Reef - Quaternary Development of Coral Reefs. Wiley-Interscience Publication, John Wiley and Sons Ltd., New York.
- Kench, P.S. and Cowell, P. (2002) "Erosion of low-lying reef islands". TIEMPO 46: 6-12.
- McLean, R. and Stoddart, D. (1978) "Reef island sediments of the northern Great Barrier Reef". Philosophical Transactions Royal Society London A291: 101-118.
- Scoffin, T.P. (1987) Introduction to Carbonate Sediments and Rocks. Blackwell, Glasgow.
- Scoffin, T.P. (1993) "The geological effects of hurricanes on coral reefs and the interpretation of storm deposits". Coral Reefs 12: 203-221.
- Woodroffe, C.D. (2003) Coasts: Form, Process and Evolution. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Woodroffe, C.D., Kennedy, D.M., Hopley, D., Rasmussen, C.E. and Smithers, S.G. (2000) "Holocene reef growth in Torres Strait", Marine Geology 170: 331-346.
- Woodroffe, C.D., Samosorn, B., Hua, Q. and Hart, D. E. (2007) "Incremental accretion of a sandy reef island over the past 3000 years indicated by component-specific radiocarbon dating", Geophysical Research Letters., 34, L03602, doi:10.1029/2006GL028875.
- Yamano, H., Miyajima, T. and Koike, I. (2000) "Importance of foraminifera for the formation and maintenance of a coral sand cay: Green Island, the Great Barrier Reef, Australia". Coral Reefs 19: 51-58.