The Place of Glaciers in Natural and Cultural Landscapes
Ben Orlove, Ellen Wiegandt and Brian Luckman, eds. Darkening Peaks: Glacial Retreat, Science and Society. Berkeley: University of California Press. Pp. 3-19
Posted: 29 Mar 2013
Date Written: 2004
In the first half of the nineteenth century, glaciers taught us a great lesson about the earth. In the 1820s and 1830s, Swiss naturalists established the existence of the Ice Age. Their key insight was the fact that the small glaciers found at high elevations in mountainous regions were remnants of vast sheets of ice that once had covered large portions of the earth’s surface. They combined many sources — Alpine villagers’ intimate knowledge of mountain landscapes, earlier research by other geologists, and their own extensive explorations — to document the remote periods of the past, when areas that now are towns, fields, and forests had lain under miles of ice. Once they understood that this now-vanished ice had transformed the earth’s surface, they were able to explain features such as the parallel scratches found on rock faces that were engraved by glaciers and the long walls of rocks, stretching across valleys, that were carried by glaciers. Later researchers traced multiple Ice Ages and linked them to the cyclical fluctuations in the earth’s orbit. This first lesson, then, was of the dynamic quality of the earth. Geologists found common elements in the study of the ice sheets and other discoveries that were made around the same time, such as the formation of rocks from sediments deposited on the floor of the sea. They came to understand that the earth was immensely old and always changing. This first lesson faced many challenges, particularly from those who held to a literal interpretation of the Bible, but finally received broad acceptance.
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