Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/May 1894/The Ice Age and its Work III




LAKES are distributed very unequally over the various parts of the world, and they also differ much in their position in relation to other physical peculiarities of the surface. Most of the great continents have a considerable number of lakes, many of great size, situated on plateaus or in central basins; while the northern parts of Europe and North America are thickly strewn with lakes of various dimensions, some on the plains, others in subalpine valleys, others again high up among the mountains, these latter being of small size and usually called tarns. The three classes of lakes last mentioned occur in the greatest profusion in glaciated districts, while they are almost absent elsewhere; and it was this peculiarity of general distribution, together with the observation that all the valley lakes of Switzerland and of our own country occurred in the track of the old glaciers, and in situations where the erosive power of the ice would tend to form rock-closed basins, that appears to have led the late Sir Andrew Ramsay to formulate his theory of ice-erosion to explain them. He was further greatly influenced by the extreme difficulty or inadequacy of any possible alternative theory—a difficulty which we shall see remains as great now as at the time he wrote.

This question of the origin of the lake basins of the glaciated regions is especially interesting on account of the extreme divergence of opinion that still prevails on the subject. While the general facts of glaciation, the extent and thickness of the old glaciers and ice-sheets, and the work they did in distributing huge erratics many hundred miles from their sources and in covering thousands of square miles of country with thick layers of bowlder clay and drift, are all admitted as beyond dispute, geologists are still divided into two hostile camps when the origin of lake basins is concerned; and the opposing forces seem to be approximately equal. Having for many years given much attention to this problem, which has had for me a kind of fascination, I am convinced that the evidence in favor of glaciation has not been set forth in all its cumulative force, while many of the arguments against it seem to me to be either illogical or beside the point at issue. I have also to adduce certain considerations which have hitherto been overlooked, but which appear to me to afford very strong if not conclusive evidence for erosion as against any alternative theory yet proposed. I shall, therefore, first set forth, as fully as the space at my command will allow, the general evidence in favor of the ice origin of certain classes of lakes, and the special conditions requisite for the production of lakes by this agency. The objections of the best authorities will then be considered and replied to, and the extreme difficulties of the alternative theories will be pointed out. I shall then describe certain peculiarities, hitherto unnoticed, which clearly point to erosion, as opposed to any form of subsidence and upheaval, in the formation of the lakes in question. Lastly, the special case of the Lake of Geneva will be discussed, as affording a battle ground that will be admitted to be highly favorable to the anti-glacialists, since most of them have adduced it as being entirely beyond the powers of the ancient glaciers to have produced.

The Different Kinds of Lakes and their Distribution.—To clear the ground at the outset, it may be well to state that the great plateau lakes of various parts of the world have no doubt been formed by some kind of earth movements occurring subsequent to the upheaval and partial denudation of the country. It is universally admitted that existing lakes can not be very ancient, geologically speaking, since they would inevitably be filled up by the sediment carried into them by the streams and by the wind. Our lakes must, therefore, be quite modern features of the earth's surface. A considerable proportion of these plateau lakes are in regions of little rainfall, and many of them have no outlet. The latter circumstance is a consequence of the former, since it indicates that evaporation balances the inflow. This would have favored the formation of such lakes, since it would have prevented the overflow of the water from the slight hollow first formed, and the cutting of an outlet gorge which would empty the incipient lake. Captain Dutton, in his account of the geology of the Grand Cañon district, lays stress on this fact, "that the elevation of a platform across the track of a river rarely diverts it from its course, for the stream saws its bed into the rocks as fast as the obstacle rises." Scanty rainfall and great evaporation seem therefore to be almost essential to the formation of the larger plateau lakes. Rarely, such lakes may have been formed in comparatively well-watered districts, but the earth movements must in these cases have been exceptionally rapid and extensive, and they are accordingly found most often in countries subject to volcanic disturbances. Such are the lakes of southern Italy, of Macedonia, of Asia Minor, and perhaps those of Central Africa.

Quite distinct from these are the subalpine lakes of those mountain groups which have been subject to extreme glaciation. These are characteristically valley lakes, occurring in the lower portions of the valleys which have been the beds of enormous glaciers, their frequency, their size, and their depth bearing some relation to the form and slope of the valleys and the intensity of the glaciation to which they have been subject. In our own country we have in Wales a small number of valley lakes; in the Lake District, where the ice-sheet can be proved to have been much thicker and to have lasted longer, we have more numerous, larger, and deeper lakes; and in Scotland, still more severely glaciated, the lakes are yet more numerous, many of those in the west opening out to the sea and forming the lochs and sounds of the western Highlands. Coming to Switzerland, which, as we have seen, bears indications of glaciation on a most gigantic scale, we find a grand series of valley lakes both on the north and south, situated for the most part in the tracks of those enormous glaciers whose former existence and great development are clearly proved by the vast moraines of northern Italy and the traveled blocks of Switzerland and France. In Scandinavia, where the Ice age reigned longest and with greatest power, lakes abound in almost all the valleys of the eastern slope, while on the west the fiords or submerged lakes are equally characteristic.

In North America, to the south of the St. Lawrence River and of Lakes Ontario and Erie, there are numbers of true valley lakes, as there are also in Canada, besides innumerable others scattered over the open country, especially in the north, where the ice-sheet must have been thickest and have lingered longest. And in the southern hemisphere we have, in New Zealand, a reproduction of these phenomena—a grand mountain range with existing glaciers, indications that these glaciers were recently much more extensive, a series of fine valley lakes forming a true lake district, rivaling that of Switzerland in extent and beauty, with fiords on the southwest coast comparable with those of Norway.

Besides these valley lakes there are two other kinds of lakes always found in strongly glaciated regions. These are Alpine tarns—small lakes occurring at high elevations and very often at the heads of valleys under lofty precipices; and small or large plateau or low-level lakes which occur literally by thousands in northern Canada, in Sweden, Finland, Lapland, and northwestern Russia. The valley lakes and the Alpine tarns are admitted by all geologists to be mostly true rock basins, while the plateau and low-country lakes are many of them hollows in the drift with which much of the country is covered, though rock basins are also not infrequent.

Here, then, we see a remarkable association of lakes of various kinds with highly glaciated regions. The question is whether there is any relation of cause and effect in the association; and to determine this we must take a rapid survey of other mountain regions where indications of ice action are comparatively slight or altogether wanting, and see whether similar lakes occur there also. The comparison will, I think, prove very instructive.

Spain and Portugal are pre-eminently mountainous countries, there being a succession of distinct ranges and isolated mountain groups from east to west and from north to south; yet there is not a single valley lake in the whole peninsula, and but very few mountain tarns. Sardinia and Corsica are wholly mountainous, but they do not appear to possess a single valley lake. Nor does the whole range of the Apennines, though there are many large plateau lakes in southern Italy. Farther south we have the lofty Atlas Mountains, but giving rise to no subalpine valley lakes. The innumerable mountains and valleys of Asia Minor have no lakes but those of the plateaus; neither has the grand range of the Lebanon, a hundred miles long, and giving rise to an abundance of rivers. Turning to the peninsula of India, we have the ranges of the Ghauts, eight hundred miles long, the mountain mass of the Neilgherries and that of Ceylon, all without such lakes as we are seeking, though Ceylon has a few plateau lakes in the north. The same phenomenon meets us in South Africa and Madagascar—abundance of mountains and rivers, but no valley lakes. In Australia, again, the whole great range of mountains from the uplands of Victoria, through New South Wales and Queensland to the peninsula of Cape York, has not a single true valley lake. Turning now to the New World, we find no valley lakes in the southern Alleghanies, while the grand mountains of Mexico and Central America have a few plateau lakes, but none of the class we are seeking. The extremely mountainous islands of the West Indies—Cuba, Hayti, and Jamaica are equally deficient. In South America we have on the east the two great mountain systems of Guiana and Brazil, furrowed with valleys and rich in mountain streams, but none of these are adorned with lakes. And, lastly, the grand ranges of the equatorial Andes, for ten degrees on each side of the equator, produce only a few small lakes on the high plateaus, and a few in the great lowland river plains—probably the sites of old river channels—but no valley lakes in any way comparable with those of Switzerland or even of our own insignificant mountains.

Having thus roughly surveyed the chief mountain regions of the whole world, we find that true subalpine valley lakes—that is, lakes in the lower parts of the valleys descending from mountain ranges or groups, filling up those valleys for a considerable distance, usually very deep, and situated in true rock basins—that such lakes as these are absolutely unknown anywhere but in those mountain regions which independent evidence shows to have been subject to enormous and long-continued glaciation. No writer that I am acquainted with has laid sufficient stress on this really marvelous fact of lake distribution. Prof. Bonney passes it by with the remark that there is a perfect gradation pf lakes from the smallest tarns to those of North America and Central Africa; and Mr. Douglas Freshfield says that wherever on the surface of our globe there are heights there must be hollows; and other writers think that lakes are general results of the process of mountain-making. But none of these writers have apparently even noticed the fact that glacier valley lakes have a distinctive character which separates them broadly from the lakes of all non-glaciated countries, and that they are totally absent from such countries.

But besides the mountains which possess true valley lakes, there are a number of ranges which have been glaciated yet do not possess them, and this absence of lakes has been used as an argument against the connection of valley lakes with glaciation. A little examination, however, shows us that these cases greatly strengthen our argument. Comparatively large and deep valley lakes are the result of excessive glaciation, which has occurred only when conditions of latitude, altitude, and moisture combined to produce it. In regions where glaciation was of diminished intensity, from whatever causes, valley lakes diminish in size and number, till at last only tarns are found in moderately glaciated districts. Thus, the Pyrenees were far less severely glaciated than the Alps; they consequently possess no large valley lakes, but numerous small high lakes and tarns. As we go eastward in the Alps, the diminished rain and snowfall led to less severe glaciation, and we find the valley lakes diminish in size and numbers till far east we have only tarns. The Carpathians have no valley lakes, but many tarns. The Caucasus has no lakes and very few tarns, and this may be partly due to the steepness of the valleys, a feature which is, as we shall see, unfavorable to lake formation. In the South Island of New Zealand the lakes are small in the north, but increase in size and number as we go south where the glaciation was more intense. These numerous facts, derived from a survey of the chief mountains of the world, are amply sufficient to show that there must be some causal connection between glaciation and these special types of lakes. What the connection is we shall inquire later on.

The Conditions that favor the Production of Lakes by Ice Erosion.—Those who oppose the production of lake basins by ice erosion often argue as if the size of the glacier was the only factor and urge that, because there are no lake basins in one valley where large glaciers have been at work, those which exist in another valley where the glaciers were no larger, could not have been produced by them. But this by no means follows, because the production of a lake basin depends on a combination of favorable conditions. In the first place it is evident that ice erosion to some extent must have taken place along the whole length of the glacier's course, and that in many cases the result might be simply to deepen the valley all along, not quite equally, perhaps, but with no such extreme differences as to produce a lake basin. This would especially be the case if a valley had a considerable downward slope, and was not very unequal in width or in the nature of the rocks forming its floor. The first essential to lake erosion is, therefore, a differential action, caused locally either by increased thickness of the ice, a more open and level valley floor, or a more easily eroded rock, or by any combination of these.

If we look at the valley lakes of our own country and of Switzerland, the first thing that strikes us is their great length and their situation, usually at the lower end of the valley where it emerges from the higher mountains into comparatively low country. Windermere is over ten miles long, Ullswater nearly eight miles, and the larger lakes of Switzerland and North Italy are very much longer. The first essential condition, therefore, was a valley the lower part of which was already nearly level for several miles, and with a considerable width to the base of the mountain slopes. In the non-glaciated districts of our own country, the Dart and the Tamar are examples of rivers which have cut their valleys down nearly to sea-level while still among the hills; and in South Wales the Wye, the Usk, and the Severn have a similar character.

It must always be remembered that glacial erosion is produced by the tremendous vertical pressure of the ice, by its lower strata being thickly loaded with hard rocks frozen into its mass, and by its slow but continuous motion. In the lower part of its course a glacier would be most charged with rocky débris in its under strata, since not only would it have been continually breaking off and absorbing, as it were, fresh material during every mile of its onward course, but more and more of its superficial moraines would be ingulfed by crevasses or moulins, and be added to the grinding material below. That this was so is proved by the great quantity of stones and grit in the "till," which is thought by Prof. James Geikie to consist, on the average, of as much stony matter as clay, sometimes one material preponderating, sometimes the other. The same thing is indicated by the enormous amount of débris often found on the lower parts of large glaciers. The end of the great Tasman Glacier in New Zealand is thus completely hidden for five miles and most of the other glaciers descending from Mount Cook have their extremities similarly buried in débris. Dr. Diener found the Milam Glacier in the central Himalayas completely covered with moraine rubbish; and Mr. W. M. Conway states that the lowest twenty miles of the Hispar Glacier (forty miles long) are "entirely covered with a mantle of moraine." If these glaciers extended to over a hundred miles long, as did the Rhone Glacier when it reached the Lake of Geneva, much of this débris would probably have found its way to the bottom, and thus supply the necessary grinding material and the abundant stones of the "till" found everywhere in the tracks of the old glaciers.

Again, although ice is viscous and can slowly change its shape to almost any extent, yet it takes a considerable time to adapt itself to continually changing outlines of the valley bottom. Hence, where great inequalities occur portions of the rocky floor might be bridged over for a considerable space, and where a valley had a narrow V-shaped bottom the subglacial stream might eat away so much of the ice that the glacier might rest wholly on the lateral slopes, and hardly touch the bottom at all. On a tolerably wide and level valley bottom, however, the ice would press with its fullest intensity, and its armature of densely packed stones and rock fragments would groove and grind the rocky floor over every foot of its surface, and with a rate of motion perhaps greater than that of the existing Greenland and Alaskan glaciers, owing to the more southern latitude and therefore higher mean temperature of the soil and the ice. At the same time subglacial streams, forced onward under great hydrostatic pressure, would insinuate themselves into every vacant groove and furrow as each graving tool successively passed on and the one behind it took a slightly different position; and thus the glacial mud, the product of the erosion, would be continually washed away, finally escaping at the lower extremity of the glacier, or in some cases getting embayed in rocky hollows where it might remain permanently as masses of clayey "till," packed with stones and compressed by the weight of the ice to the hardness of rock itself. The continual lubrication of the whole valley floor by water forced onward under pressure, together with the ever-changing form of the under surface of the glacier as it slowly molded itself to the varying contours of the rocks beneath, would greatly facilitate the onward motion. Owing to these changes of form and the great upward pressure of the water in all the hollows to which it gained access, it seems probable that at any one time not more than half the entire bottom surface of the glacier would be in actual contact with the rock, thus greatly reducing the friction; while, as the process of erosion went on, the rock surfaces would become continually smoother and the inequalities less pronounced, so that even when a rock basin had been ground out to a considerable depth the onward motion might be almost as great as at the beginning of the process.

If, now, we consider that the erosion I have attempted to describe was going on during a large part of the Glacial period, under a weight of ice varying from one to three or four thousand feet in thickness; that the huge grinding tool was at work day and night, winter and summer, century after century, for whatever number of thousands of years we give to the Glacial period; that, as innumerable other facts prove, the ice moved irresistibly over hill and dale, and up slopes far steeper than any formed by the upward slopes of the bottom of our deepest lakes, what is there of impossible, or even of improbable, in the belief that lake basins were produced by such differential erosion? To the ordinary observer it seems impossible that a mountain valley, half a mile wide and bounded by rocky slopes and precipices two or three thousand feet high, can have been formed without any "convulsion of Nature," but merely by the natural agencies he sees still in action—rain and frost, sun and wind—and that the small, rock-encumbered stream now flowing along its bottom can have carried away the whole of the cubic miles of solid rock that once filled up the valley. But the geologist knows that these apparently insignificant forces have done the work, through their continuous action always in one direction for thousands or even for millions of years; and, therefore, having before him so many proofs of the eroding power of ice, in planed and rounded rocks, and in the grooves and furrows which are the latest marks left by the ice tool, and bearing in mind the long duration and possibly recurrent phases of the Ice age—to be measured certainly by tens, perhaps by hundreds of thousands of years—he can have little difficulty in accepting the erosion of lake basins as the most satisfactory explanation of their origin.

Objections of Modern Writers considered.—Prof. Bonney and many other writers ask, why lakes are so few though all the chief valleys of the Alps were filled with ice; and why, for instance, there is no great lake in the Dora Baltea Valley, whose glacier produced the great moraines of Ivrea opposite its outlet into the plains of Italy, and which form a chain of hills fifteen miles long and fifteen hundred feet high. The answer, in the case of the Dora Baltea, is not difficult, since it almost certainly has had a series of lake basins at Aosta, Verrex, and other places where the broad, level valley is now filled with alluvial gravel. But the more important point is the extreme narrowness of the lower part of the valley above Donnas and again near its entrance into the valley of the Po. The effect of this would be that the great glacier, probably two thousand feet thick or more, would move rapidly in its upper layers, carrying out its load of stones and debris to form the terminal moraine, while the lower strata, choked in the defiles, would move very slowly. And once out in the open valley of the Po, then a great inlet of the warm Mediterranean Sea, the ice would rapidly melt away in the water and in the warm, moist atmosphere, and therefore have no tendency to erode a lake basin.

The Lake of Lugano, with its curious radiating arms, is said to be another difficulty. But each of these arms is the outlet of a valley or series of valleys, which were no doubt reduced to nearly level plains by subaërial denudation before the ice began its work. The basin of these valleys comprises about two hundred square miles and the watershed to the north is moderately high; but there can be no doubt that a large overflow from the Como Glacier poured into it; and the difficulty seems to me to be purely imaginary if we simply recognize the fact that an essential preliminary to lake erosion is a pre-existing nearly level valley bottom.

Another difficulty is said to be the frequent presence of islands in the lakes; but here again the answer is easy. The islands, always ground down to roches moutonnées, were craggy hills in the pre-existing valleys, and such hills existed because they had for ages resisted the subaërial denudation which had hollowed out the valleys. The same characters of density or toughness that enabled them to resist ordinary denudation, enabled them also, to some extent, to resist destruction by ice erosion; just as the character of the rocks which enabled ordinary denudation to bring them down to a nearly level surface in the valley bottom, also facilitated the ice erosion which converted the level valley floor into a rock basin and, after the ice left it, into a lake.

Every writer brings forward the well-known fact that the ends of glaciers pass over beds of gravel or moraine matter, without destroying or even disturbing it. But there is no reason why they should do more than compress such beds of loose material and roughly level their surfaces. It is the old delusion of a glacier acting like a scoop or plow that leads to the idea that if it can erode rock slowly it must altogether demolish gravel or bowlder clay. But if we turn to the description I have given of how a glacier erodes a rock basin and apply this to its passage over a bed of gravel or bowlder clay, we shall see that in the latter case the erosion would be much more difficult, because each ice-imbedded stone or rock would press into the yielding material, which would close up instantly behind it under pressure of the ice and thus leave no result. Where the subglacial water accumulated, channels would be cut in the gravel or clay, but elsewhere there would probably be no erosion at all. Some writers maintain that the lakes were all filled up with alluvium previous to the Glacial epoch, and that the ice cleared out this incoherent matter; but it is almost certain that no such clearance would have taken place, because the glacier would pass over such a surface, the stones temporarily furrowing it, while the subglacial water would cut for itself one or more deep channels, and there would thus be no water under pressure acting over the whole surface of the basin, which must be so great an aid to erosion in solid rock.

These considerations apply to the equally common objection, that the great masses of bowlder clay left behind by the ice sheet, and over which it must have passed, prove that it could have had little eroding power. The product of the erosion of irregular rock surf aces, in an undulating tract of country, where not carried away by water, would necessarily, by the pressure of the ice, be forced into the more or less sheltered or landlocked hollows, thus tending to equalize the surface contours and facilitate the onward motion of the ice. In such hollows it would be pressed and compacted by the weight of the ice, but would be neither eroded nor forced away until, by the continued process of rock erosion, it became exposed to unequal lateral pressure, when it would be gradually removed to some other sheltered hollow, perhaps to again undergo the same process of removal at a later period, and finally rest in the positions in which we find it. During the later stages of the Ice age when, notwithstanding the onward motion of the middle portions of the glacier, the lower portion was melting away both above and below, and the terminal ice cliff was permanently retreating, almost the whole of the eroded matter, except what was carried away by the subglacial torrents, would remain behind; and it is this final product of glacial erosion that forms the huge deposits of bowlder clay which encumber the surface of the lowlands in most highly glaciated countries. When, however, the moving ice changed its direction, as it often did, during the varying phases of the Ice age, it sometimes acted most energetically in crushing, dragging, and contorting both the bowlder clay and other superficial beds, often causing the wildest confusion in the deposits and sometimes imbedding huge sheets of Tertiary strata or chalk in the midst of the bowlder clay. But this is a very different mode of action from that by which hard rocks are ground down or lake basins eroded.

In reply to the continual assertions of Prof. Bonney, and of most of the Alpine explorers, that the action of glaciers is entirely superficial, and that they actually preserve the surfaces they cover from denudation, a few facts may be here given. From a large number of gaugings by Dollfus-Ausset, Dr. Penck has calculated that the solid matter in the torrent which issues from the Aar Glacier annually amounts to six hundred and thirty-eight cubic metres for each square kilometre of the surface of the glacier, a quantity sufficient to lower the bed of the glacier one metre in sixteen hundred and sixty-six years, or one foot in five hundred and five years; and the same writers calculate that the same amount of erosion in a valley by water alone would require two and a half times as long.[1] Other writers have made estimates less favorable to ice as an agent of erosion; but even if the amount annually be but small, the cumulative effect was undoubtedly very great in the case of the enormous glaciers of the Ice age. The very wide areas covered with bowlder clay and drift in North America, and its great average depth, have already been referred to in my previous article (Popular Science Monthly, April, 1894, p. 782); but a still more striking estimate has been made of the amount of rock débris in northern Europe which can be traced to Scandinavia. Dr. Amund Helland states that about eight hundred thousand square miles are covered with such drift to an average depth of one hundred and fifty feet, of which about one hundred feet are of Scandinavian origin, the remainder being local. The area of Scandinavia and Finland, from which this débris has been derived, is very much less than the area over which it is distributed, so that to produce it an amount equal to an average thickness of two hundred and fifty-five feet must have been removed from those countries. To this must be added the amount which has gone into the Baltic and North Seas, and also that which has been carried away by rain and rivers since the Ice age passed away, and yet further, the enormous amount that still remains on the lowlands of Scandinavia, and we shall then arrive at an amount probably twice as great as the above estimate, that is, something like five hundred feet as the average amount of ice erosion of Scandinavia during the Glacial period.[2] Now, unless this estimate is wildly and extravagantly erroneous—and Prof. Geikie adopts it as prima facie not extravagant—we have an amount of ice erosion so enormous as to put completely out of court all the allegations of those who attempt to minimize it as a mere smoothing off of sharp angles and rugged surfaces. I am not aware that Prof. Bonney denies the Scandinavian origin of the greater part of the northern drift, and unless he can show that its quantity is something like a fiftieth part only of the estimate of Dr. Helland, I can not understand how he can still maintain that the glaciers and ice-sheets of the Ice age were agents of abrasion, not of erosion, and that they were therefore impotent to grind away the comparatively small amount of rock removed, under the most favorable conditions, from the basins of the valley lakes whose origin we are discussing.—Fortnightly Review.

[To be continued.]

  1. Falsan, La Période Glaciaire, p. 90.
  2. Fragments of Earth Lore, by James Geikie, F. R. S., 1893, p. 167.