geology McAfee SECURE sites help keep you safe from identity theft, credit card fraud, spyware, spam, viruses and online scams

Home » Publications » Elements of Geology » Chapter 12

historical
 

Elements of Geology

 

The Student's Series


 

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

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36

[ 174 ]

Sponsors
Chapter XII

POST-PLIOCENE PERIOD, continued.—GLACIAL CONDITIONS, concluded.


Glaciation of Scandinavia and Russia. — Glaciation of Scotland. — Mammoth in Scotch Till. — Marine Shells in Scotch Glacial Drift. — Their Arctic Character. — Rarity of Organic Remains in Glacial Deposits. — Contorted Strata in Drift. — Glaciation of Wales, England, and Ireland. — Marine Shells of Moel Tryfaen. — Erratics near Chichester. — Glacial Formations of North America. — Many Species of Testacea and Quadrupeds survived the Glacial Cold. — Connection of the Predominance of Lakes with Glacial Action. — Action of Ice in preventing the silting up of Lake-basins. — Absence of Lakes in the Caucasus. — Equatorial Lakes of Africa.

Glaciation of Scandinavia and Russia.—In large tracts of Norway and Sweden, where there have been no glaciers in historical times, the signs of ice-action have been traced as high as 6000 feet above the level of the sea. These signs consist chiefly of polished and furrowed rock-surfaces, of moraines and erratic blocks. The direction of the erratics, like that of the furrows, has usually been conformable to the course of the principal valleys; but the lines of both sometimes radiate outward in all directions from the highest land, in a manner which is only explicable by the hypothesis above alluded to of a general envelope of continental ice, like that of Greenland (page 170). Some of the far-transported blocks have been carried from the central parts of Scandinavia towards the Polar regions; others southward to Denmark; some south-westward, to the coast of Norfolk in England; others south-eastward, to Germany, Poland, and Russia.

In the immediate neighbourhood of Upsala, in Sweden, I had observed, in 1834, a ridge of stratified sand and gravel, in the midst of which occurs a layer of marl, evidently formed originally at the bottom of the Baltic, by the slow growth of the mussel, cockle, and other marine shells of living species, intermixed with some proper to fresh water. The marine shells are all of dwarfish size, like those now inhabiting the brackish waters of the Baltic; and the marl, in which many of them are imbedded, is now raised more than 100 feet above the level of the Gulf of Bothnia. Upon the top of this ridge repose several huge erratics, consisting of gneiss for the most part unrounded, from nine to sixteen feet in diameter,

[ 175 ]

and which must have been brought into their present position since the time when the neighbouring gulf was already characterised by its peculiar fauna. Here, therefore, we have proof that the transport of erratics continued to take place, not merely when the sea was inhabited by the existing testacea, but when the north of Europe had already assumed that remarkable feature of its physical geography which separates the Baltic from the North Sea, and causes the Gulf of Bothnia to have only one-fourth of the saltness belonging to the ocean. In Denmark, also, recent shells have been found in stratified beds, closely associated with the boulder clay.

Glaciation of Scotland.—Mr. T. F. Jamieson, in 1858, adduced a great body of facts to prove that the Grampians once sent down glaciers from the central regions in all directions towards the sea. “The glacial grooves,” he observed, “radiate outward from the central heights towards all points of the compass, though they do not always strictly conform to the actual shape and contour of the minor valleys and ridges.”

These facts and other characteristics of the Scotch drift lead us to the inference that when the glacial cold first set in, Scotland stood higher above the sea than at present, and was covered for the most part with snow and ice, as Greenland is now. This sheet of land-ice sliding down to lower levels, ground down and polished the subjacent rocks, sweeping off nearly all superficial deposits of older date, and leaving only till and boulders in their place. To this continental state succeeded a period of depression and partial submergence. The sea advanced over the lower lands, and Scotland was converted into an archipelago, some marine sand with shells being spread over the bottom of the sea. On this sand a great mass of boulder clay usually quite devoid of fossils was accumulated. Lastly, the land re-emerged from the water, and, reaching a level somewhat above its present height, became connected with the continent of Europe, glaciers being formed once more in the higher regions, though the ice probably never regained its former extension.* After all these changes, there were some minor oscillations in the level of the land, on which, although they have had important geographical consequences, separating Ireland from England, for example, and England from the Continent, we need not here enlarge.

Mammoth in Scotch Till.—Almost all remains of the terrestrial fauna of the Continent which preceded the period of

* Jamieson, Quart. Geol. Journ., 1860, vol. xvi, p. 370.

[ 176 ]

submergence have been lost; but a few patches of estuarine and fresh-water formations escaped denudation by submergence. To these belong the peaty clay from which several mammoths’ tusks and horns of reindeer were obtained at Kilmaurs, in Ayrshire as long ago as 1816. Mr. Bryce in 1865 ascertained that the fresh-water formation containing these fossils rests on carboniferous sandstone, and is covered, first by a bed of marine sand with arctic shells, and then with a great mass of till with glaciated boulders.* Still more recent explorations in the neighbourhood of Kilmaurs have shown that the fresh-water formation contains the seed of the pond-weed Potamogeton and the aquatic Ranunculus; and Mr. Young of the Glasgow Museum washed the mud adhering to the reindeer horns of Kilmaurs and that which filled the cracks of the associated elephants’ tusks, and detected in these fossils (which had been in the Glasgow Museum for half a century) abundance of the same seeds.

All doubts, therefore, as to the true position of the remains of the mammoth, a fossil so rare in Scotland, have been set at rest, and it serves to prove that part of the ancient continent sank beneath the sea at a period of great cold, as the shells of the overlying sand attest. The incumbent till or boulder clay is about 40 feet thick, but it often attains much greater thickness in the same part of Scotland.

Figs. 107-112: Northern shells common in the drift of the Clyde, in Scotland.

Marine Shells of Scotch Drift.—The greatest height to which marine shells have yet been traced in this boulder

* Bryce, Quart. Geol. Journ., vol. xxi, p. 217, 1865.

[ 177 ]

clay is at Airdie, in Lanarkshire, ten miles east of Glasgow, 524 feet above the level of the sea. At that spot they were found imbedded in stratified clays with till above and below them. There appears no doubt that the overlying deposit was true glacial till, as some boulders of granite were observed in it, which must have come from distances of sixty miles at the least.

The shells figured in Figs. 107 to 112 are only a few out of a large assemblage of living species, which, taken as a whole, bear testimony to conditions far more arctic than those now prevailing in the Scottish seas. But a group of marine shells, indicating a still greater excess of cold, has been brought to light since 1860 by the Reverend Thomas Brown, from glacial drift or clay on the borders of the estuaries of the Forth

Fig. 113: Leda truncata; Fig. 114: Tellina calcarea, Chem.
and Tay. This clay occurs at Elie, in Fife, and at Errol, in Perthshire; and has already afforded about 35 shells, all of living species, and now inhabitants of arctic regions, such as Leda truncata, Tellina proxima (see Figs. 113 and 114), Pecten Grœnlandicus, Crenella lævigata, Crenella nigra, and others, some of them first brought by Captain Sir E. Parry from the coast of Melville Island, latitude 76° N. These were all identified in 1863 by Dr. Torell, who had just returned from a survey of the seas around Spitzbergen, where he had collected no less than 150 species of mollusca, living chiefly on a bottom of fine mud derived from the moraines of melting glaciers which there protrude into the sea. He informed me that the fossil fauna of this Scotch glacial deposit exhibits not only the species but also the peculiar varieties of mollusca now characteristic of very high latitudes. Their large size implies that they formerly enjoyed a colder, or, what was to them a more genial climate, than that now prevailing in the latitude where the fossils occur. Marine shells have also been found in the glacial drift of Caithness and Aberdeenshire at heights of 250 feet, and in Banff of 350 feet, and stratified drift continuous with the above ascends to heights of 500 feet. Already 75 species are enumerated

[ 178 ]

from Caithness, and the same number from Aberdeenshire and Banff, and in both cases all but six are arctic species.

I formerly suggested that the absence of all signs of organic life in the Scotch drift might be connected with the severity of the cold, and also in some places with the depth of the sea during the period of extreme submergence; but my faith in such an hypothesis has been shaken by modern investigations, an exuberance of life having been observed both in arctic and antarctic seas of great depth, and where floating ice abounds. The difficulty, moreover, of accounting for the entire dearth of marine shells in till is removed when once we have adopted the theory of this boulder clay being the product of land-ice. For glaciers coming down from a continental ice-sheet like that which covers Greenland may fill friths many hundred feet below the sea-level, and even invade parts of a bay a thousand feet deep, before they find water enough to float off their terminal portions in the form of icebergs. In such a case till without marine shells may first accumulate, and then, if the climate becomes warmer and the ice melts, a marine deposit may be superimposed on the till without any change of level being required.

Another curious phenomenon bearing on this subject was styled by the late Hugh Miller the “striated pavements” of the boulder clay. Where portions of the till have been removed by the sea on the shores of the Forth, or in the interior by railway cuttings, the boulders imbedded in what remains of the drift are seen to have been all subjected to a process of abrasion and striation, the striæ and furrows being parallel and persistent across them all, exactly as if a glacier or iceberg had passed over them and scored them in a manner similar to that so often undergone by the solid rocks below the glacial drift. It is possible, as Mr. Geikie conjectures, that this second striation of the boulders may be referable to floating ice.*

Contorted Strata in Drift.—In Scotland the till is often covered with stratified gravel, sand, and clay, the beds of which are sometimes horizontal and sometimes contorted for a thickness of several feet. Such contortions are not uncommon in Forfarshire, where I observed them, among other places, in a vertical cutting made in 1840 near the left bank of the South Esk, east of the bridge of Cortachie. The convolutions of the beds of fine and coarse sand, gravel, and loam, extend through a thickness of no less than 25 feet vertical, or from b to c, Fig. 115, the horizontal stratification being resumed very abruptly at a short distance, as to the right

* Geikie, Trans. Geol. Soc. Glasgow, vol. i, part ii, p. 68, 1863.

[ 179 ]

Fig. 15: Section of contorted drift overlying till, seen on left bank of South Esk, near Cortachie, in 1840.

of f, g. The overlying coarse gravel and sand, a, is in some places horizontal, in others it exhibits cross bedding, and does not partake of the disturbances which the strata b, c, have undergone. The underlying till is exposed for a depth of about 20 feet; and we may infer from sections in the neighbourhood that it is considerably thicker.

In some cases I have seen fragments of stratified clays and sands, bent in like manner, in the middle of a great mass of till. Mr. Trimmer has suggested, in explanation of such phenomena, the intercalation in the glacial period of large irregular masses of snow or ice between layers of sand and gravel. Some of the cliffs near Behring’s Straits, in which the remains of elephants occur, consist of ice mixed with mud and stones; and Middendorf describes the occurrence in Siberia of masses of ice, found at various depths from the surface after digging through drift. Whenever the intercalation of snow and ice with drift, whether stratified or unstratified, has taken place, the melting of the ice will cause such a failure of support as may give rise to flexures, and sometimes to the most complicated foldings. But in many cases the strata may have been bent and deranged by the mechanical pressure of an advancing glacier, or by the sideway thrust of huge islands of ice running aground against sandbanks; in which case, the position of the beds forming the foundation of the banks may not be at all disturbed by the shock.

There are indeed many signs in Scotland of the action of floating ice, as might have been expected where proofs of submergence in the Glacial Period are not wanting. Among these are the occurrence of large erratic blocks, frequently in clusters at or near the tops of hills or ridges, places which may have formed islets or shallows in the sea where floating ice would mostly ground and discharge its cargo on

[ 180 ]

melting. Glaciers or land-ice would, on the contrary, chiefly discharge their cargoes at the bottom of valleys. Traces of an earlier and independent glaciation have also been observed in some regions where the striation, apparently produced by ice proceeding from the north-west, is not explicable by the radiation of land-ice from a central mountainous region.*

Glaciation of Wales and England.—The mountains of North Wales were recognised, in 1842, by Dr. Buckland, as having been an independent centre of the dispersion of erratics—great glaciers, long since extinct, having radiated from the Snowdonian heights in Carnarvonshire, through seven principal valleys towards as many points of the compass, carrying with them large stony fragments, and grooving the subjacent rocks in as many directions.

Besides this evidence of land-glaciers, Mr. Trimmer had previously, in 1831, detected the signs of a great submergence in Wales in the Post-pliocene period. He had observed stratified drift, from which he obtained about a dozen species of marine shells, near the summit of Moel Tryfaen, a hill 1400 feet high, on the south side of the Menai Straits. I had an opportunity of examining in the summer of 1863, together with the Reverend W. S. Symonds, a long and deep cutting made through this drift by the Alexandra Mining Company in search of slates. At the top of the hill above-mentioned we saw a stratified mass of incoherent sand and gravel 35 feet thick, from which no less than 54 species of mollusca, besides three characteristic arctic varieties—in all 57 forms—have been obtained by Mr. Darbishire. They belong without exception to species still living in British or more northern seas; eleven of them being exclusively arctic, four common to the arctic and British seas, and a large proportion of the remainder having a northward range, or, if found at all in the southern seas of Britain, being comparatively less abundant. In the lowest beds of the drift were large heavy boulders of far-transported rocks, glacially polished and scratched on more than one side. Underneath the whole we saw the edges of vertical slates exposed to view, which here, like the rocks in other parts of Wales, both at greater and less elevations, exhibit beneath the drift unequivocal marks of prolonged glaciation. The whole deposit has much the appearance of an accumulation in shallow water or on a beach, and it probably acquired its thickness during the gradual subsidence of the coast—an hypothesis which would require us to ascribe to it a high antiquity,

* Milne Home, Trans. Royal Soc. Edinburgh, vol. xxv, 1868-9.

[ 181 ]

since we must allow time, first for its sinking, and then for its re-elevation.

The height reached by these fossil shells on Moel Tryfaen is no less than 1300 feet—a most important fact when we consider how very few instances we have on record beyond the limits of Wales, whether in Europe or North America, of marine shells having been found in glacial drift at half the height above indicated. A marine molluscous fauna, however, agreeing in character with that of Moel Tryfaen, and comprising as many species, has been found in drift at Macclesfield and other places in central England, sometimes reaching an elevation of 1200 feet.

Professor Ramsay* estimated the probable amount of submergence during some part of the glacial period at about 2300 feet; for he was unable to distinguish the superficial sands and gravel which reached that high elevation from the drift which, at Moel Tryfaen and at lower points, contains shells of living species. The evidence of the marine origin of the highest drift is no doubt inconclusive in the absence of shells, so great is the resemblance of the gravel and sand of a sea beach and of a river’s bed, when organic remains are wanting; but, on the other hand, when we consider the general rarity of shells in drift which we know to be of marine origin, we can not suppose that, in the shelly sands of Moel Tryfaen, we have hit upon the exact uppermost limit of marine deposition, or, in other words, a precise measure of the submergence of the land beneath the sea since the glacial period.

We are gradually obtaining proofs of the larger part of England, north of a line drawn from the mouth of the Thames to the Bristol Channel, having been under the sea and traversed by floating ice since the commencement of the glacial epoch. Among recent observations illustrative of this point, I may allude to the discovery, by Mr. J. F. Bateman, near Blackpool, in Lancashire, fifty miles from the sea, and at the height of 568 feet above its level, of till containing rounded and angular stones and marine shells, such as Turritella communis, Purpura lapillus, Cardium edule, and others, among which Trophon clathratum (=Fusus Bamffius), though still surviving in North British seas, indicates a cold climate.

Erratics near Chichester.—The most southern memorials of ice-action and of a Post-pliocene fauna in Great Britain is on the coast of the county of Sussex, about 25 miles west of Brighton, and 15 south of Chichester. A marine deposit exposed between high and low tide occurs on both sides of the

* Quart. Geol. Journ., 1852, vol. viii, p. 372.

[ 182 ]

promontory called Selsea Bill, in which Mr. Godwin-Austen found thirty-eight species of shells, and the number has since been raised to seventy.

This assemblage is interesting because on the whole, while all the species are recent, they have a somewhat more southern aspect than those of the present British Channel. It is true that about forty of them range from British to high northern latitudes; but several of them, as, for example, Lutraria rugosa and Pecten polymorphous, which are abundant, are not known at present to range farther north than the coast of Portugal, and seem to indicate a warmer temperature than now prevails on the coast where we find them fossil. What renders this curious is the fact that the sandy loam in which they occur is overlaid by yellow clayey gravel with large erratic blocks which must have been drifted into their present position by ice when the climate had become much colder. These transported fragments of granite, syenite, and greenstone, as well as of Devonian and Silurian rocks, may have come from the coast of Normandy and Brittany, and are many of them of such large size that we must suppose them to have been drifted into their present site by coast-ice. I measured one of granite, at Pagham, 21 feet in circumference. In the gravel of this drift with erratics are a few littoral shells of living species, indicating an ancient coast-line.

Glacial Formations of North America.—In the western hemisphere, both in Canada and as far south as the 40th and even 38th parallel of latitude in the United States, we meet with a repetition of all the peculiarities which distinguish the European boulder formation. Fragments of rock have travelled for great distances, especially from north to south: the surface of the subjacent rock is smoothed, striated, and fluted; unstratified mud or till containing boulders is associated with strata of loam, sand, and clay, usually devoid of fossils. Where shells are present, they are of species still living in northern seas, and not a few of them identical with those belonging to European drift, including most of those already given in Figs. 107 to 112, p. 176. The fauna also of the glacial epoch in North America is less rich in species than that now inhabiting the adjacent sea, whether in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, or off the shores of Maine, or in the Bay of Massachusetts.

The extension on the American continent of the range of erratics during the Post-pliocene period to lower latitudes than they reached in Europe, agrees well with the present southward deflection of the isothermal lines, or rather the

[ 183 ]

lines of equal winter temperature. It seems that formerly, as now, a more extreme climate and a more abundant supply of ice prevailed on the western side of the Atlantic. Another resemblance between the distribution of the drift fossils in Europe and North America has yet to be pointed out. In Canada and the United States, as in Europe, the marine shells are generally confined to very moderate elevations above the sea (between 100 and 700 feet), while the erratic blocks and the grooved and polished surfaces of rock extend to elevations of several thousand feet.

I have already mentioned that in Europe several quadrupeds of living, as well as extinct, species were common to pre-glacial and post-glacial times. In like manner there is reason to suppose that in North America much of the ancient mammalian fauna, together with nearly all the invertebrata, lived through the ages of intense cold. That in the United States the Mastodon giganteus was very abundant after the drift period, is evident from the fact that entire skeletons of this animal are met with in bogs and lacustrine deposits occupying hollows in the glacial drift. They sometimes occur in the bottom even of small ponds recently drained by the agriculturist for the sake of the shell-marl. In 1845 no less than six skeletons of the same species of Mastodon were found in Warren county, New Jersey, six feet below the surface, by a farmer who was digging out the rich mud from a small pond which he had drained. Five of these skeletons were lying together, and a large part of the bones crumbled to pieces as soon as they were exposed to the air.

It would be rash, however, to infer from such data that these quadrupeds were mired in modern times, unless we use that term strictly in a geological sense. I have shown that there is a fluviatile deposit in the valley of the Niagara, containing shells of the genera Melania, Lymnea, Planorbis, Velvata, Cyclaz, Unio, Helix, etc., all of recent species, from which the bones of the great Mastodon have been taken in a very perfect state. Yet the whole excavation of the ravine, for many miles below the Falls, has been slowly effected since that fluviatile deposit was thrown down. Other extinct animals accompany the Mastodon giganteus in the post-glacial deposits of the United States, and this, taken with the fact that so few of the mollusca, even of the commencement of the cold period, differ from species now living is important, as refuting the hypothesis, for which some have contended, that the intensity of the glacial cold annihilated all the species in temperate and arctic latitudes.

[ 184 ]

Connection of the Predominance of Lakes with Glacial Action.—It was first pointed out by Professor Ramsay in 1862, that lakes are exceedingly numerous in those countries where erratics, striated blocks, and other signs of ice-action abound; and that they are comparatively rare in tropical and sub-tropical regions. Generally in countries where the winter cold is intense, such as Canada, Scandinavia, and Finland, even the plains and lowlands are thickly strewn with innumerable ponds and small lakes, together with some others of a larger size; while in more temperate regions, such as Great Britain, Central and Southern Europe, the United States, and New Zealand, lake districts occur in all such mountainous tracts as can be proved to have been glaciated in times comparatively modern or since the geographical configuration of the surface bore a considerable resemblance to that now prevailing. In the same countries, beyond the glaciated regions, lakes abruptly cease, and in warmer and tropical countries are either entirely absent, or consist, as in equatorial Africa, of large sheets of water unaccompanied so far as we yet know by numerous smaller ponds and tarns.

The southern limits of the lake districts of the Northern Hemisphere are found at about 40° N. latitude on the American continent, and about 50° in Europe, or where the Alps intervene four degrees farther south. A large proportion of the smaller lakes are dammed up by barriers of unstratified drift, having the exact character of the moraines of glaciers, and are termed by geologists “morainic,” but some of them are true rock-basins, and would hold water even if all the loose drift now resting on their margins were removed.

In a paper read before the Geological Society of London in 1862, Professor Ramsay maintained that the first formation of most existing lakes took place during the glacial epoch, and was due, not to elevation or subsidence, but to actual erosion of their basins by glaciers. M. Mortillet in the same year advanced the theory that after the Alpine lake-basins had been filled up with loose fluviatile deposits, they were re-excavated by the great glaciers which passed down the valleys at the time of the greatest cold, a doctrine which would attribute to moving ice almost as great a capacity of erosion as that which assumed that the original basins were scooped out of solid rock by glaciers. It is impossible to deny that the mere geographical distribution of lakes points to the intimate connection of their origin with the abundance of ice during a former excess of cold, but how far the erosive action of moving ice has been the sole or even the

[ 185 ]

principal cause of lake-basins, is a question still open to discussion.

The lakes of Switzerland and the north of Italy are some of them twenty and thirty miles in length, and so deep that their bottoms are in some cases from 1000 to 2000 feet beneath the level of the sea. It is admitted on all hands that they were once filled with ice, and as the existing glaciers polish and grind down, as before stated, the surface of the rocks, we are prepared to find that every lake-basin in countries once covered by ice should bear the marks of superficial glaciation, and also that the ice during its advance and retreat should have left behind it much transported matter as well as some evidence of its having enlarged the pre-existing cavity. But much more than this is demanded by the advocates of glacial erosion. They suggest that as the old extinct glaciers were several thousand feet thick, they were able in some places gradually to scoop out of the solid rock cavities twenty or thirty miles in length, and as in the case of Lago Maggiore from a thousand to two thousand six hundred feet below the previous level of the river-channel, and also that the ice had the power to remove from the cavity formed by its grinding action all the materials of the missing rocks. A constant supply, it is argued, of fine mud issues from the termination of every glacier in the stream which is produced by the melting of the ice, and this result of friction is exhibited both during winter and summer, affording evidence of the continual deepening and widening of the valleys through which glaciers pass. As the fine mud is carried away by a river from the deep pool which is formed from the base of every cataract, so it seems to be imagined that lake-basins may be gradually emptied of the mud formed by abrasion during the glacial period.

I am by no means disposed to object to this theory on the ground of the insufficiency of the time during which the extreme cold endured, but we must carefully consider whether that same time is not so vast as to make it probable that other forces, besides the motion of glaciers, must have cooperated in converting some parts of the ancient valley courses into lake-basins. They who have formed the most exalted conceptions of the erosive energy of moving ice do not deny that during the period termed “Glacial” there have been movements of the earth’s crust sufficient to produce oscillations of level in Europe amounting to 1000 feet or more in both directions. M. Charpentier, indeed, attributed some of the principal changes of climate in Switzerland, during the glacial period, to a depression of the central Alps to the

[ 186 ]

extent of 3000 feet, and Swiss geologists have long been accustomed to attribute their lake basins, in part, to those convulsions by which the shape and course of the valleys may have been modified. Our experience, in the lifetime of the present generation, of the changes of level witnessed in New Zealand during great earthquakes is entirely opposed to the notion that the movements, whether upward or downward, are uniform in amount or direction throughout areas of indefinite extent. On the contrary, the land has been permanently raised in one region several feet or yards, and the rise has been found gradually to die out, so as to be imperceptible at a distance of twenty miles, and in some areas is even exchanged for a simultaneous downward movement of several feet.

But, it is asked, if such inequality of movement can have contributed towards the production of lake basins, does it not leave unexplained the comparative rarity of lakes in tropical and subtropical countries. In reply to this question it may be observed that in our endeavour to estimate the effects of subterranean movements in modifying the superficial geography of a country we must remember that each convulsion effects a very slight change. If it interferes with the drainage, whether by raising the lower or sinking the higher portion of a hydrographical basin, the upheaval or depression will only amount to a few feet at a time, and there may be an interval of years or centuries before any further movement takes place in the same region. In the mean time an incipient lake if produced may be filled up with sediment, and the recently-formed barrier will then be cut through by the river, whereas in a country where glacial conditions prevail no such obliteration of the temporary lake-basin would take place; for however deep it became by repeated sinking of the upper or rising of the lower extremity, being always filled with ice it might remain, throughout the greater part of its extent, free from sediment or drift until the ice melted at the close of the glacial period.

One of the most serious objections to the exclusive origin by ice-erosion of wide and deep lake-basins arises from their capricious distribution, as for example in Piedmont, both to the eastward and westward of Turin, where great lakes are wanting,* although some of the largest extinct glaciers descending from Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa came down from the Alps, leaving their gigantic moraines in the low country. Here, therefore, we might have expected to find lakes of the first magnitude rivalling the contiguous Lago Maggiore in importance.

* Antiquity of Man, p. 313.

[ 187 ]

A still more striking illustration of the same absence of lakes where large glaciers abound is afforded by the Caucasus, a chain more than 300 miles long, and the loftiest peaks of which attain heights from 16,000 to 18,000 feet. This greatest altitude is reached by Elbruz, a mountain in lat. 43° N. three degrees south of Mont Blanc, but on the other hand 3000 feet higher. The present Caucasian glaciers are equal or superior in dimensions to those of Switzerland, and like them give rise occasionally to temporary lakes by obstructing the course of rivers, and causing great floods when the icy barriers give way. Mr. Freshfield, a careful observer, writing in 1869, says:* “A total absence of lakes on both sides of the chains is the most marked feature. Not only are there no great subalpine sheets of water, like Como or Geneva, but mountain tarns, such as the Dauben See on the Gemmi, or the Klonthal See near Glarus, are equally wanting.” The same author states on the authority of the eminent Swiss geologist, Mons. E. Favre, who also explored the Caucasus in 1868, that moraines of great height and huge erratics of granite and other rocks “justify the assertion that the present glaciers of the Caucasus, like those of the Alps, are only the shadows of their former selves.”

It seems safe to assume that the chain of lakes, of which the Albert Nyanza forms one in equatorial Africa, was due to causes other than glacial. Yet if we could imagine a glacial period to visit that region filling the lakes with ice and scoring the rocks which form their sides and bottoms, we should be unable to decide how much the capacity of the basins had been enlarged and the surface modified by glacial erosion. The same may be true of the Lago Maggiore and Lake Superior, although the present basins of both of them afford abundant superficial markings due to ice-action.

But to whatever combination of causes we attribute the great Alpine lakes one thing is clear, namely, that they are, geologically speaking, of modern origin. Every one must admit that the upper valley of the Rhone has been chiefly caused by fluviatile denudation, and it is obvious that the quantity of matter removed from that valley previous to the glacial period would have been amply sufficient to fill up with sediment the basin of the Lake of Geneva, supposing it to have been in existence, even if its capacity had been many times greater than it is now.†

On the whole, it appears to me, in accordance with the views of Professor Ramsay, M. Mortillet, Mr. Geikie, and others,

* Travels in Central Caucasus, 1869, p. 452.
† See Principles, vol. i, p. 420, 10th ed., 1867.

[ 188 ]

that the abrading action of ice has formed some mountain tarns and many morainic lakes; but when it is a question of the origin of larger and deeper lakes, like those of Switzerland or the north of Italy, or inland fresh-water seas, like those of Canada, it will probably be found that ice has played a subordinate part in comparison with those movements by which changes of level in the earth’s crust are gradually brought about.

historical
 

Elements of Geology

 

The Student's Series


 

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

1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36

Teacher resources for earth science classroom activities and lesson plans Class Activities and Lessons
Volcanoes and Volcanic Eruptions Volcanoes and Eruptions
Quartz Diorite Rocks and Minerals
Sliding Rocks of Racetrack Playa Sliding Rocks of Racetrack Playa
Geology and Earth Science News Geology and Earth Science News
Google Map of the San Andreas Fault San Andreas Fault Google Map
Learn all about meteorites in our meteorwritings section Learn About Meteorites
Meteor Impact Map Meteor Impact Crater Map
© 2005-2014 Geology.com. All Rights Reserved.
Images, code and content of this website are property of Geology.com. Use without permission is prohibited. Pages on this site are protected by Copyscape.