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Home » Publications » Elements of Geology » Chapter 11

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Elements of Geology

 

The Student's Series


 

Written by Sir Charles Lyell, Bart., F.R.S., (1871)

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Chapter XI

POST-PLIOCENE PERIOD, continued—GLACIAL CONDITIONS.*


Geographical Distribution, Form, and Characters of Glacial Drift. — Fundamental Rocks, polished, grooved, and scratched. — Abrading and striating Action of Glaciers. — Moraines, Erratic Blocks, and “Roches Moutonnees.” Alpine Blocks on the Jura. — Continental Ice of Greenland. — Ancient Centres of the Dispersion of Erratics. — Transportation of Drift by floating Icebergs. — Bed of the Sea furrowed and polished by the running aground of floating Ice-islands.

Character and Distribution of Glacial Drift.—In speaking of the loose transported matter commonly found on the surface of the land in all parts of the globe, I alluded to the exceptional character of what has been called the boulder formation in the temperate and Arctic latitudes of the northern hemisphere. The peculiarity of its form in Europe north of the 50th, and in North America north of the 40th parallel of latitude, is now universally attributed to the action of ice, and the difference of opinion respecting it is now chiefly restricted to the question whether land-ice or floating icebergs have played the chief part in its distribution. It is wanting in the warmer and equatorial regions, and reappears when we examine the lands which lie south of the 40th and 50th parallels in the southern hemisphere, as, for example, in Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, and New Zealand. It consists of sand and clay, sometimes stratified, but often wholly devoid of stratification for a depth of 50, 100, or even a greater number of feet. To this unstratified form of the deposit the name of till has long been applied in Scotland. It generally contains a mixture of angular and rounded fragments of rock, some of large size, having occasionally one or more of their sides flattened and smoothed, or even highly polished. The smoothed surfaces usually exhibit many scratches parallel to each other, one set of which often crosses an older set. The till is almost everywhere wholly devoid of organic remains, except those washed into it from older formations, though in some places it contains marine shells, usually of northern or

* As to the former excess of cold, whether brought about by modifications in the height and distribution of the land or by altered astronomical conditions, see Principles, vol. i, (10th ed., 1867), chaps. xii and xiii, “Vicissitudes of Climate.”

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Arctic species, and frequently in a fragmentary state. The bulk of the till has usually been derived from the grinding down into mud of rocks in the immediate neighbourhood, so that it is red in a region of Red Sandstone, as in Strathmore in Forfarshire; grey or black in a district of coal and bituminous shale, as around Edinburgh; and white in a chalk country, as in parts of Norfolk and Denmark. The stony fragments dispersed irregularly through the till usually belong, especially in mountainous countries, to rocks found in some part of the same hydrographical basin; but there are regions where the whole of the boulder clay has come from a distance, and huge blocks, or “erratics,” as they have been called, many feet in diameter, have not unfrequently travelled hundreds of miles from their point of departure, or from the parent rocks from which they have evidently been detached. These are commonly angular, and have often one or more of their sides polished and furrowed.

The rock on which the boulder formation reposes, if it consists of granite, gneiss, marble, or other hard stone, capable of permanently retaining any superficial markings which may have been imprinted upon it, is usually smoothed or polished, like the erratics above described, and exhibits parallel striæ and furrows having a determinate direction. This direction, both in Europe and North America, agrees generally in a marked manner with the course taken by the erratic blocks in the same district. The boulder clay, when it was first studied, seemed in many of its characters so singular and anomalous, that geologists despaired of ever being able to interpret the phenomena by reference to causes now in action. In those exceptional cases where marine shells of the same date as the boulder clay were found, nearly all of them were recognised as living species—a fact conspiring with the superficial position of the drift to indicate a comparatively modern origin.

The term “diluvium” was for a time the most popular name of the boulder formation, because it was referred by many to the deluge of Noah, while others retained the name as expressive of their opinion that a series of diluvial waves raised by hurricanes and storms, or by earthquakes, or by the sudden upheaval of land from the bed of the sea, had swept over the continents, carrying with them vast masses of mud and heavy stones, and forcing these stones over rocky surfaces so as to polish and imprint upon them long furrows and striæ. But geologists were not long in seeing that the boulder formation was characteristic of high latitudes, and that on the whole the size and number of erratic blocks increases

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as we travel towards the Arctic regions. They could not fail to be struck with the contrast which the countries bordering the Baltic presented when compared with those surrounding the Mediterranean. The multitude of travelled blocks and striated rocks in the one region, and the absence of such appearances in the other, were too obvious to be overlooked. Even the great development of the boulder formation, with large erratics so far south as the Alps, offered an exception to the general rule favourable to the hypothesis that there was some intimate connection between it and accumulations of snow and ice.

Fig. 106: Limestone, polished, furrowed, and scratched by the glacier of Rosenlau in Switzerland.

Transporting and abrading Power of Glaciers.—I have described elsewhere (“Principles” vol. i, chap. xvi, 1867) the manner in which the snow of the Alpine heights is prevented from accumulating indefinitely in thickness by the constant descent of a large portion of it by gravitation. Becoming converted into ice it forms what are termed glaciers, which glide down the principal valleys. On their surface are seen mounds of rubbish or large heaps of sand and mud, with angular fragments of rock which fall from the steep slopes or precipices bounding the glaciers. When a glacier,

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thus laden, descends so far as to reach a region about 3500 feet above the level of the sea, the warmth of the air is such that it melts rapidly in summer, and all the mud, sand, and pieces of rock are slowly deposited at its lower end, forming a confused heap of unstratified rubbish called a moraine, and resembling the till before described (p. 166).

Besides the blocks thus carried down on the top of the glacier, many fall through fissures in the ice to the bottom, where some of them become firmly frozen into the mass, and are pushed along the base of the glacier, abrading, polishing, and grooving the rocky floor below, as a diamond cuts glass, or as emery-powder polishes steel. The striæ which are made, and the deep grooves which are scooped out by this action, are rectilinear and parallel to an extent never seen in those produced on loose stones or rocks, where shingle is hurried along by a torrent, or by the waves on a sea-beach. In addition to these polished, striated, and grooved surfaces of rock, another mark of the former action of a glacier is the “roche moutonnee.” Projecting eminences of rock so called have been smoothed and worn into the shape of flattened domes by the glacier as it passed over them. They have been traced in the Alps to great heights above the present glaciers, and to great horizontal distances beyond them.

Alpine Blocks on the Jura.—The moraines, erratics, polished surfaces, domes, and striæ, above described, are observed in the great valley of Switzerland, fifty miles broad; and almost everywhere on the Jura, a chain which lies to the north of this valley. The average height of the Jura is about one-third that of the Alps, and it is now entirely destitute of glaciers; yet it presents almost everywhere similar moraines, and the same polished and grooved surfaces. The erratics, moreover, which cover it, present a phenomenon which has astonished and perplexed the geologist for more than half a century. No conclusion can be more incontestable than that these angular blocks of granite, gneiss, and other crystalline formations came from the Alps, and that they have been brought for a distance of fifty miles and upward across one of the widest and deepest valleys in the world; so that they are now lodged on a chain composed of limestone and other formations, altogether distinct from those of the Alps. Their great size and angularity, after a journey of so many leagues, has justly excited wonder; for hundreds of them are as large as cottages; and one in particular, composed of gneiss, celebrated under the name of Pierre à Bot, rests on the side of a hill about 900 feet above the lake of Neufchâtel, and is no less than 40 feet in diameter.

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In the year 1821, M. Venetz first announced his opinion that the Alpine glaciers must formerly have extended far beyond their present limits, and the proofs appealed to by him in confirmation of this doctrine were acknowledged by all subsequent observers, and greatly strengthened by new observations and arguments. M. Charpentier supposed that when the glaciers extended continuously from the Alps to the Jura, the former mountains were 2000 or 3000 feet higher than at present. Other writers, on the contrary, conjectured that the whole country had been submerged, and the moraines and erratic blocks transported on floating icebergs; but a careful study of the distribution of the travelled masses, and the total absence of marine shells from the old glacial drift of Switzerland, have entirely disproved this last hypothesis. In addition to the many evidences of the action of ice in the northern parts of Europe which we have already mentioned, there occur here and there in some of these countries, what are wanting in Switzerland, deposits of marine fossil shells, which exhibit so arctic a character that they must have led the geologist to infer the former prevalence of a much colder climate, even had he not encountered so many accompanying signs of ice-action. The same marine shells demonstrate the submergence of large areas in Scandinavia and the British Isles, during the glacial cold.

A characteristic feature of the deposits under consideration in all these countries is the occurrence of large erratic blocks, and sometimes of moraine matter, in situations remote from lofty mountains, and separated from the nearest points where the parent rocks appear at the surface by great intervening valleys, or arms of the sea. We also often observe striæ and furrows, as in Norway, Sweden, and Scotland, which deviate from the direction which they ought to follow if they had been connected with the present line of drainage, and they, therefore, imply the prevalence of a very distinct condition of things at the time when the cold was most intense. The actual state of North Greenland seems to afford the best explanation of such abnormal glacial markings.

Greenland Continental Ice.—Greenland is a vast unexplored continent, buried under one continuous and colossal mass of ice that is always moving seaward, a very small part of it in an easterly direction, and all the rest westward, or towards Baffin’s Bay. All the minor ridges and valleys are levelled and concealed under a general covering of snow, but here and there some steep mountains protrude abruptly

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from the icy slope, and a few superficial lines of stones or moraines are visible at certain seasons, when no snow has fallen for many months, and when evaporation, promoted by the wind and sun, has caused much of the upper snow to disappear. The height of this continent is unknown, but it must be very great, as the most elevated lands of the outskirts, which are described as comparatively low, attain altitudes of 4000 to 6000 feet. The icy slope gradually lowers itself towards the outskirts, and then terminates abruptly in a mass about 2000 feet in thickness, the great discharge of ice taking place through certain large friths, which, at their upper ends, are usually about four miles across. Down these friths the ice is protruded in huge masses, several miles wide, which continue their course—grating along the rocky bottom like ordinary glaciers long after they have reached the salt water. When at last they arrive at parts of Baffin’s Bay deep enough to buoy up icebergs from 1000 to 1500 feet in vertical thickness, broken masses of them float off, carrying with them on their surface not only fine mud and sand but large stones. These fragments of rock are often polished and scored on one or more sides, and as the ice melts, they drop down to the bottom of the sea, where large quantities of mud are deposited, and this muddy bottom is inhabited by many mollusca.

Although the direction of the ice-streams in Greenland may coincide in the main with that which separate glaciers would take if there were no more ice than there is now in the Swiss Alps, yet the striation of the surface of the rocks on an ice-clad continent would, on the whole, vary considerably in its minor details from that which would be imprinted on rocks constituting a region of separate glaciers. For where there is a universal covering of ice there will be a general outward movement from the higher and more central regions towards the circumference and lower country, and this movement will be, to a certain extent, independent of the minor inequalities of hill and valley, when these are all reduced to one level by the snow. The moving ice may sometimes cross even at right angles deep narrow ravines, or the crests of buried ridges, on which last it may afterwards seem strange to detect glacial striæ and polishing after the liquefaction of the snow and ice has taken place.

Rink mentions that in North Greenland powerful springs of clayey water escape in winter from under the ice, where it descends to “the outskirts,” and where, as already stated, it is often 2000 feet thick—a fact showing how much grinding action is going on upon the surface of the subjacent

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rocks. I also learn from Dr. Torell that there are large areas in the outskirts, now no longer covered with permanent snow or glaciers, which exhibit on their surface unmistakable signs of ancient ice-action, so that, vast as is the power now exerted by ice in Greenland, it must once have operated on a still grander scale. The land, though now very elevated, may perhaps have been formerly much higher. It is well-known that the south coast of Greenland, from latitude 60° to about 70° N., has for the last four centuries been sinking at the rate of several feet in a century. By this means a surface of rock, well scored and polished by ice, is now slowly subsiding beneath the sea, and is becoming strewed over, as the icebergs melt, with impalpable mud and smoothed and scratched stones. It is not precisely known how far north this downward movement extends.

Drift carried by Icebergs.—An account was given so long ago as the year 1822, by Scoresby, of icebergs seen by him in the Arctic seas drifting along in latitudes 69° and 70° N., which rose above the surface from 100 to 200 feet, and some of which measured a mile in circumference. Many of them were loaded with beds of earth and rock, of such thickness that the weight was conjectured to be from 50,000 to 100,000 tons. A similar transportation of rocks is known to be in progress in the southern hemisphere, where boulders included in ice are far more frequent than in the north. One of these icebergs was encountered in 1839, in mid-ocean, in the antarctic regions, many hundred miles from any known land, sailing northward, with a large erratic block firmly frozen into it. Many of them, carefully measured by the officers of the French exploring expedition of the Astrolabe, were between 100 and 225 feet high above water, and from two to five miles in length. Captain d’Urville ascertained one of them which he saw floating in the Southern Ocean to be 13 miles long and 100 feet high, with walls perfectly vertical. The submerged portions of such islands must, according to the weight of ice relatively to sea-water, be from six to eight times more considerable than the part which is visible, so that when they are once fairly set in motion, the mechanical force which they might exert against any obstacle standing in their way would be prodigious.

We learn, therefore, from a study both of the arctic and antarctic regions, that a great extent of land may be entirely covered throughout the whole year by snow and ice, from the summits of the loftiest mountains to the sea-coast, and may yet send down angular erratics to the ocean. We may also conclude that such land will become in the course of

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ages almost everywhere scored and polished like the rocks which underlie a glacier. The discharge of ice into the surrounding sea will take place principally through the main valleys, although these are hidden from our sight. Erratic blocks and moraine matter will be dispersed somewhat irregularly after reaching the sea, for not only will prevailing winds and marine currents govern the distribution of the drift, but the shape of the submerged area will have its influence; inasmuch as floating ice, laden with stones, will pass freely through deep water, while it will run a ground where there are reefs and shallows. Some icebergs in Baffin’s Bay have been seen stranded on a bottom 1000 or even 1500 feet deep. In the course of ages such a sea-bed may become densely covered with transported matter, from which some of the adjoining greater depths may be free. If, as in West Greenland, the land is slowly sinking, a large extent of the bottom of the ocean will consist of rock polished and striated by land-ice, and then overspread by mud and boulders detached from melting bergs.

The mud, sand, and boulders thus let fall in still water must be exactly like the moraines of terrestrial glaciers, devoid of stratification and organic remains. But occasionally, on the outer side of such packs of stranded bergs, the waves and currents may cause the detached earthy and stony materials to be sorted according to size and weight before they reach the bottom, and to acquire a stratified arrangement.

I have already alluded (p. 172) to the large quantity of ice, containing great blocks of stone, which is sometimes seen floating far from land, in the southern or Antarctic seas. After the emergence, therefore, of such a submarine area, the superficial detritus will have no necessary relation to the hills, valleys, and river-plains over which it will be scattered. Many a water-shed may intervene between the starting-point of each erratic or pebble and its final resting-place, and the only means of discovering the country from which it took its departure will consist in a careful comparison of its mineral or fossil contents with those of the parent rocks.

historical
 

Elements of Geology

 

The Student's Series


 

Written by Sir Charles Lyell, Bart., F.R.S., (1871)

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