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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/March 1894/The Ice Age and its Work I

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 44‎ | March 1894




IT is little more than fifty years ago that one of the most potent agents in modifying the surface features of our country was first recognized. Before 1840, when Agassiz accompanied Buckland to Scotland, the Lake District, and Wales, discovering everywhere the same indications of the former presence of glaciers as are to be found so abundantly in Switzerland, no geologist had conceived the possibility of a recent glacial epoch in the temperate portion of the northern hemisphere. From that year, however, a new science came into existence, and it was recognized that only by a careful study of existing glaciers, of the nature of the work they now do, and of the indications of the work they have done in past ages, could we explain many curious phenomena that had hitherto been vaguely regarded as indications of diluvial agency. One of the first fruits of the new science was the conversion of the author of Reliquiæ Diluvianæ—Dr. Buckland, who, having studied the work of glaciers in Switzerland in company with Agassiz, became convinced that numerous phenomena he had observed in this country could only be due to the very same causes. In November, 1840, he read a paper before the Geological Society on the Evidences of Glaciers in Scotland and the North of England, and from that time to the present the study of glaciers and of their work has been systematically pursued with a large amount of success. One after another crude theories have been abandoned, facts have steadily accumulated, and their logical though cautious interpretation has led to a considerable body of well-supported inductions on which the new science is becoming firmly established. Some of the most important and far-reaching of these inductions are, however, still denied by writers who have a wide acquaintance with modern glaciers; and as several works have recently appeared on both sides of the controversy, the time seems appropriate for a popular sketch of the progress of the glacial theory, together with a more detailed discussion of some of the most disputed points as to which it seems to the present writer that sound reasoning is even more required than the further accumulation of facts.[1]

In the last century, Swedenborg, Linnæus, Pallas, De Luc, and many other eminent writers took notice of the remarkable fact that in Scandinavia, Russia, Germany, and Switzerland detached rocks or bowlders were found, often in great abundance and of immense size, and of a kind that did not exist in situ in the same district, but which were often only to be discovered in remote localities, sometimes hundreds of miles away. Those who ventured to speculate on the origin of these traveled rocks usually had recourse to water power to account for their removal; and as their large size and often elevated position required some unusual force to carry them, there arose the idea of enormous floods sweeping over whole continents; and for a long time this diluvial theory was the only one that appeared to be available, although the difficulties of its application to explain all the phenomena became greater the more closely those phenomena were studied. Still, there was apparently no other known or conceivable means of accounting for them, and for the enormous mounds of gravel or clay intermixed with bowlders which often accompanied them; and the efforts of geologists were therefore directed to the discovery of how the water power had acted, and by what means the supposed floods could have been produced.

There were not wanting men who saw that no action of water alone could account for the facts. Sir James Hall pointed this out with regard to erratics on the Jura, whose source was undoubtedly in the far-distant Alps; and Mr. Grainger, in America, described some of the parallel grooves and flutings running for nearly a mile in Ohio, strongly arguing that no action of running water could have produced them, but that an agent was required the direction of whose movement was fixed and unalterable for long distances and for a great length of time. No light was, however, thrown on the problem till 1822, when Venetz, a Swiss engineer, finding that existing glaciers varied in extent from year to year and that historical records showed them to have considerably increased during the last eight centuries, was further led to observe that long before the historical era the glaciers had been immensely more extensive, as shown by the smooth and rounded rocks, by longitudinal scratches and grooves pointing down the valleys, and by numbers of old moraines exactly similar in form and materials to those deposited by existing glaciers. He read a paper before the Helvetic Society of Natural History, and urged that glaciers once stretched down the Rhone Valley as far as the

Jura, and there deposited the erratic blocks which had so puzzled the diluvialists to explain.

Other writers soon followed the clew thus given. In 1835 Charpentier, after a close study of the erratic blocks and of their sources, adopted the views of Venetz. Agassiz followed, and by his strenuous advocacy did much to spread correct views as to the former extension of the Alpine glaciers, and their capability of explaining the numerous superficial phenomena which in all northern countries had been thought to afford proofs of enormous floods and of the submergence of a large part of Europe under a deep sea. He has, therefore, gained the reputation of being the originator of the modern school of glacialists, which undoubtedly owes much to his energy, research, and powers of exposition, though all the more important facts, as well as the logical conclusions to be drawn from them, had been pointed out by previous writers.

Before proceeding further, it will be well to give a brief outline of the phenomena which lead to the conclusion that glaciers have formerly existed in districts and countries where even perpetual snow on the mountain tops is now unknown. These may be briefly classed as—1. Moraines and drifts. 2. Rounded, smoothed, or planed rocks. 3. Striæ, grooves, and furrows on rock surfaces. 4. Erratics and perched blocks.

1. Moraines are those heaps or ridges of rock and other débris which are deposited on the surface of a glacier from the precipices or mountain slopes which border it, and which form what are termed lateral and medial moraines while upon it, and terminal moraines when, being gradually discharged at its end, either from above or from beneath it, they form great heaps of rock and gravel corresponding in outline and extent to that of the terminal ice-cliff. Such moraines can be seen on and near all existing glaciers, and their mode of formation and characteristics are perfectly well known. If the glacier is continuously retreating, then the terminal moraine will form more or less irregular heaps over the surface the glacier has formerly covered; but when, as is usually the case, the glacier remains stationary for a considerable period, then the terminal moraine will have a definite form, . and will often stretch quite across the valley, but presenting one or more openings through which the glacier stream has cut its way. Such moraines form steep mounds, usually curved and often very regular, seeming from a little distance to block up the valley like an artificial earthwork. Among hundreds that might be enumerated, good examples may be seen in Glen Isla (Forfarshire), in the Troutbeck Valley near Windermere, and in Cwm Glas, on the north side of Snowdon, this latter being so regularly curved, evenly sloped, and level-topped as to look from below exactly like an ancient fortification. The characteristic features of moraines are their position in valleys where there are other indications of glacial action, their steep slopes and often level tops, but especially their composition of earth, stones, and gravel, with large fragments of rock irregularly scattered through them from top to bottom without any sign of stratification, while usually one or more large blocks rest upon their summits in positions where they could only have been left by the retreat of the glacier, or possibly stranded from floating ice. Where extensive glaciers have covered large areas of nearly level ground, the moraines form great sheets extending for many miles, often concealing the original contours of the country, and then receive the general name of drift. The composition of drift is usually the same as that of well-marked moraines, large blocks of stone being distributed throughout its mass. It is this which mainly distinguishes drift from alluvial or shore deposits, in which the materials are always more or less assorted and stratified; but the angular forms of many of the contained blocks and the striated surfaces of others are also characteristic. Besides the terminal moraines of extinct glaciers, lateral moraines are also left along the slopes of open valleys from which glaciers have retreated. As a whole, moraines are well distinguished from all accumulations formed by water, and it has not been shown that any other agency than glaciers is capable of forming them. In all recently glaciated countries they are to be found more or less frequently, and thus afford an excellent first indication of the former existence of glaciers.

2. Smoothed and rounded rocks, called in Switzerland "roches moutonnées," from their supposed resemblance at a distance to sheep lying down, are perhaps the most general of all the indications of glacial action. Every glacier carries with it, imbedded in its under surface, numbers of rocks and stones, which, during the slow but unceasing motion over its bed, crush and grind down all rocky projections, producing in the end gently rounded or almost flat surfaces even on the hardest and toughest rocks. In many of the valleys of Wales, the Lake District, and Scotland every exposed rock has acquired this characteristic outline, and the same feature can be traced on all the rocky slopes, and often on the summits of the lesser heights; and the explanation how these forms have been produced is not a theory only, but has been observed in actual operation in the accessible portions of many glaciers. Rocks and stones are to be seen imbedded in the ice and actually scratching, grooving, and grinding the rock beneath in their slow but irresistible onward motion. The rocky islets in Windermere, Ullswater, and other lakes, as well as the Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence, are thus ice-ground; and the amount of the grinding can often be seen to be proportional to the pressure and motion of the advancing glacier. I recently noticed in the marshy alluvial plain above Derwentwater a projecting rock which has been ground down to so regular a curve as to look like a portion of an enormous globe buried in the earth. By rough measurement and estimate this rock was about two hundred and fifty feet across, and twenty or thirty feet high. It was formed of hard slate, with numerous quartzite veins, the whole ground down to a uniform spherical surface. It had evidently once been an island in the lake, having a much broader base now hidden by the alluvium, and may originally have been one of those abrupt craggy rocks a few hundred feet high, which, owing to their superior hardness or tenacity, resisted ordinary denudation, and which, when above the old ice-level, form those numerous "pikes" which add so much to the wild and picturesque scenery of the district. Looking at such rocks as this, with outlines so utterly unlike any that are produced in similar formations by subaërial denudation—and they are to be seen by scores in all glaciated regions—we can not but conclude that the ice tool has done more than merely rub off the angles and minor prominences, and that it has really ground away rocky hills to an unknown but very considerable extent; and this conclusion is, as we shall see, supported by a very large amount of confirmatory evidence. It may be noted that ice-ground rocks usually show the direction in which the ice has moved, by the side opposed to the motion being more completely smoothed than the lee side, which often retains some of its ruggedness, having been protected partly by the ice overriding it and partly by the accumulation of its own débris. Where such rocks occur in the higher parts of valleys the smooth side always looks up the valley from which the glacier has descended. In the more open parts of valleys, or in high coombs or cirques, where two or more small ravines meet and where the ice may have been embayed and have acquired a somewhat rotary motion, the rocks are seen to be ground down on all sides into smooth mammillated mounds or hummocks, showing that the ice has been forced into all the irregularities of the surface. An example on a small scale is to be seen in Cwm Glas, on the north side of Snowdon, above the fine moraine already mentioned, and in many other places around the same mountain. On the whole, considering their abundance in all glaciated regions, and the amount of information they give as to the direction and grinding power of ice, these rounded rocks afford one of the most instructive indications of the former presence of glaciers; and we must also agree with the conclusin of Darwin (in a paper written after studying the phenomena of ice-action in North Wales, and while fresh from his observations of glaciers and icebergs in the Southern hemisphere) that "one of the best criterions between the effects produced by the passage of glaciers and of icebergs is boss or dome-shaped rocks."

3. Striated, grooved, and fluted rocks, though closely connected with the preceding, form a distinct kind of evidence of the greatest value. Most of the bosses of rock just described have been exposed to the action of the atmosphere, perhaps since the ice left them, and have thus become more or less roughened or even disintegrated; but where the rocks have been protected by a covering of drift, or even of turf, and have been recently exposed, they often exhibit numerous parallel striæ, varying from the finest scratches to deep furrows a foot or more in diameter. Fine examples are to be seen near the lakes of Llanberis, and they occur more or less frequently in every glaciated country. Perhaps none of the effects of ice so clearly demonstrate the action of glaciers as opposed to that of icebergs, owing to the general constancy of the direction of the striæ, and the long distances they may be traced up and down slopes, with a steadiness of motion and evenness of cutting power which no floating mass could possibly exert. Sir A. Geikie tells us that in Gareloch, Bute, and Canty re the striations on the rocks run up and over the ridges, and are as clearly shown on the hill tops as in the valleys. Mr. D. Mackintosh states (in his paper on the Ice-sheet of the Lake District and of North Wales) that in the valley above Windermere the striæ cross Rydal Fell, Loughrigg Fell, and Orrest Head, ascending and descending their slopes, often obliquely. But it is in the United States that the most remarkable rock-groovings are to be found, extending over a large portion of the northeastern States. In his report on The Rock-scorings of the Great Ice Invasions Mr. T. C. Chamberlin gives many fine illustrations, from photographs, showing striæ and grooves along sloping, curved, or vertical surfaces, the striæ following the changes of curve, so that the grinding material must have been slowly forced into close contact with the irregular surface. Of one of these examples Mr. Chamberlin says:

The climax of adaptability is reached in the striation of warped and twisted surfaces, and of tortuous valleys. One of the most remarkable known instances of this within the limits of photographic illustration is furnished by the great glacial grooves at Kelly's Island (Fig, 17). These exhibit not only the pliancy of the ice, but at the same time its strong hold upon the armature with which it did its work of abrasion, grooving, and striation. For, while these grooves can scarcely be supposed to have been originated de novo by the gouging action of the ice, they are, nevertheless, plowed with deep furrows, the symmetry, continuity, and peculiar form of some of which are only intelligible on the supposition that they were cut by a single graving tool, held with sufficient tenacity by the ice to execute by a single movement a deep, sharply defined groove. There is, perhaps, no finer illustration of the pliancy with which the ice yielded to its encompassing barriers, the tenacity with which it held its armature, and withal the pressure that both forced it into compliance with its tortuous channel, and pressed it relentlessly forward.[2]

Kelly's Island is at the western end of Lake Erie, and in the direction of the striae to the northeast there is no high ground for about four hundred miles. Looking at these facts, I can not give any weight to the opinions of those who, from observations of existing glaciers, declare positively that ice can not go up-hill, and can exert no grinding power on level ground.

4. Erratic blocks were among the phenomena that first attracted the attention of men of science. Large masses of granite and hard metamorphic rock, which can be traced to Scandinavia, are found scattered over the plains of Denmark, Prussia, and northern Germany, where they rest either on drift or on quite different formations of the Secondary or Tertiary periods. One of these blocks, estimated at fifteen hundred tons weight, lay in a marshy plain near St. Petersburg, and a portion of it was used for the pedestal of the statue of Peter the Great. In parts of North Germany they are so abundant as to hide the surface of the ground, being piled up in irregular masses forming hills of granite bowlders, which are often covered with forests of pine, birch, and juniper. Far south, at Fürstenwalde, southeast of Berlin, there was a huge block of Swedish red granite, from one half of which the gigantic basin was wrought which stands before the New Museum in that city. In Holstein there is a block of granite twenty feet in diameter; and it was noticed by De Luc that the largest blocks were often found at the greatest distance from the parent rock, and that this fact was conclusive against their having been brought to their present position by the action of floods.

It is, however, in Switzerland that we find erratic blocks which furnish us with the most conclusive testimony to the former enormous extension of glaciers; and as these have been examined with the greatest care, and the facts, as well as the main inductions from the facts, are generally admitted by all modern writers, it will be well to consider them somewhat in detail. It will be found that they give us most valuable information both as to the depth and extension of ancient glaciers, and also to the possibilities of motion in extensive ice-sheets.

The most important of these facts relate to the erratic blocks from the higher Alps, which are found on the flanks of the Jura Mountains wholly formed of limestone, on which it is therefore easy to recognize the granites, slates, and old metamorphic rocks of the Alpine chain. These erratic blocks extend along the Jura range for a distance of one hundred miles, and up to a height of two thousand and fifteen feet above the Lake of Neufchâtel. The first important point to notice is that this highest elevation is attained at a spot exactly opposite, and in the same direction as, the Rhone Valley, between Martigny and the head of the Lake of Geneva, while north or south of this point they gradually decline in elevation to about five hundred feet above the lake. The blocks at the highest elevation and central point can be traced to the eastern shoulder of Mont Blanc. All those to the southwest come from the left-hand side of the lower Rhone Valley, while those to the northeast are all from the left side of the upper Rhone Valley and its tributaries. Other rocks coming from the right-hand side of the upper Rhone Valley are found on the right hand or Bernese side of the great valley between the Jura and the Bernese Alps.[3]

Now, this peculiar and definite distribution, which has been worked out with the greatest care by numerous Swiss geologists, is a necessary consequence of well-known laws of glacier motion. The débris from the two sides of the main valley form lateral moraines which, however much the glacier may afterward be contracted or spread out, keep their relative position unchanged. Each important tributary glacier brings in other lateral moraines, and thus when the combined glacier ultimately spreads out in a great lowland valley the several moraines will also spread out, while keeping their relative position, and never crossing over to mingle with each other. So soon as this definite position of the erratics was worked out it became evident that the first explanation—of a great submergence during which the lower Swiss valleys were arms of the sea and the Rhone glacier broke off in icebergs which carried the erratics across to the Jura—was altogether untenable, and that the original explanation of Venetz and Charpentier was the true one. Sir Charles Lyell, who had first adopted the iceberg theory, gave it up on examining the country in 1857 and ascertaining that the facts were correctly stated by the Swiss geologists; and there is at the present day no writer of the least importance who denies this. Sir Henry Howorth, who is one of the strongest opponents of what he considers the extreme views of modern glacialists, gives a full summary of the facts as to the old Rhone glacier from Charpentier. He states that between Martigny and St. Maurice the moraine débris on each side of the valley shows the glacier to have reached a height of three thousand feet above the river; farther on, where the valley widens over the Lake of Geneva, it sank to two thousand feet, while on the Jura itself it seems to have been again raised to three thousand feet at its highest point;[4] and he quotes Charpentier's general conclusion:

It goes without saying that not only all the valleys of the Valais were filled with ice up to a certain height, but that all lower Switzerland in which we find the erratic débris of the Rhone Valley must have been covered by the same glacier. Consequently all the country between the Alps and the Jura, and between the environs of Geneva and those of Soleure, has been the bed of a glacier.

And then, after quoting the observations of Agassiz on the same phenomena and of those of North America, he gives his own conclusions in the following words:

It is plain to those who would look without prejudice that the rounded and mammillated surfaces, the scratched, polished, and grooved rocks, and a great number of the phenomena which accompanied the distribution of the bowlders and the drift, are consistent only with the fact that in the last geological age there was an immense development of glaciers which occupied not only the high ranges of the Alps and the Dovrefelds, but the secondary ranges and lower heights of the continents of Europe and North America. This conclusion seems supported by every form of converging evidence, and is apparently beyond the reach of cavil. So far there is no question at issue.[5]

We may take it, therefore, that the views of Charpentier, Agassiz, and Sir Charles Lyell as to the extent and thickness of the great Rhone glacier are admitted to be correct, or, at least, not to be exaggerated, by the most strenuous opponents of the extreme glacialists. We may, therefore, use this as a fixed datum in our further investigations, and I think it will be found to lead us irresistibly to conclusions which in other cases these writers declare to be inadmissible.—Fortnightly Review.


The cities and towns visited by the Rev. J. A. Wylie during an excursion to central Manchuria in September and October, 1892, were centers of trade for the surrounding country, many of them having very large distilleries, inn-yards of great extent capable of accommodating hundreds of guests, and oil-works of various kinds; while outside their walls were generally some brick-kilns, brickworks, and lime-kilns. The houses were chiefly built of brick; burned brick was used for the better houses in the town, while unburned brick or mud only was used in the country. In some of the towns the shop-fronts were quite imposing, substantially built, and lavishly decorated. The streets were wide and level. Mr. Wylie visited the region in the dull season, and saw, either in town or country, none of the stir which all these arrangements betoken for the busy season.
  1. The works referred to are: Do Glaciers Excavate? by Prof. T. G. Bonney, F. R. S. (The Geographical Journal, vol. i, No. 6); The Glacial Nightmare and the Flood, by Sir H. H. Howorth, M. P., F. R. S.; Fragments of Earth Lore, by Prof. James Geikie, F. R. S.; Man and the Glacial Teriod, by Prof. G. F. Wright, F. G. S. A.; La Période Glaciaire, by A. Falsan; and the Glacialist's Magazine, edited by Percy F. Kendall, F. G. S.; from which works, and from those of Lyell, Ramsay, Geikie, and the American geologists, most of the facts referred to in the present article are derived.
  2. Seventh Annual Report of the United States Geological Survey, p. 179. Arrangements have now been made for the preservation of these remarkable examples of ice-work.
  3. A map showing the lines of dispersal of these erratics is given in Lyell's Antiquity of Man, p. 144, and is reproduced in my Island Life, p. 111.
  4. These figures are almost certainly incorrect, as the upper surface of the glacier must have had a considerable downward slope to produce motion. The recent work of M. Falsan, La Période Glaciaire, gives the thickness as about 3,800 feet at the head of the lake and 3,250 feet at Geneva.
  5. The Glacial Nightmare and the Flood, p. 208.