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Structures Of Glaciers

( Originally Published 1897 )



IF a transparent colourless solid be reduced to powder, the powder is white. Thus rock crystal, rock salt, and glass in powder are all white. A glass jar, partially filled with a solution of carbonate of soda, with a little gum added to give it tenacity, presents, on the addition of a little tartaric acid, the appearance of a tall white column of foam. In all these cases, the whiteness and the opacity are due to the intimate and irregular admixture of a solid or a liquid with air ; in like manner the whiteness of snow is due to the mixture of air and transparent particles of ice.

The snow falls upon mountain eminences, and, above the snow-line, each year leaves a residue ; the substance thus collects in layers, forming masses of great depth. The lower portions are squeezed by the pressure of those above them, and a gradual approach to ice is the consequence. The air being gradually expelled, the transparency of the substance augments in proportion.

But even after the snow has been squeezed to hard ice in the upper glacier region, it always contains a large amount of the air originally entrapped in the snow. The air is distributed through the solid in the form of bubbles, which give the ice a milky appearance. At the lower extremity of a glacier the ice, as everybody knows, is blue and transparent. The transition from one state to the other is not, in all cases, a gradual change which takes place uniformly throughout the entire mass. The white ice, on the contrary, of the middle glacier region is usually striped by veins of a more transparent character, the air which gives to the ice its whiteness having been, by some means or other, wholly or partially ejected from the veins. These veins sometimes give the ice of many glaciers a beautiful laminated appearance ; vast portions, indeed, of various glaciers consist of this laminated ice.

The theory of the veins which perhaps first presents itself to the mind, and which is still entertained by many. intelligent Alpine explorers, is that the veining of the middle glaciers is simply a continuation of the bedding of the névé ; that not only do the annual snow-falls produce beds of great thickness, but every successive fall tends to produce a layer of less thickness, which layers, or the surfaces separating them, ultimately appear as the blue veins.

This theory demands respectful consideration on the exposed sections of the névé the lines of stratification are very manifest, exhibiting in many cases appearances strongly resembling that of the veined structure. Indeed, it was with a view to examine this subject more closely that I withheld my observations on the structure of the Mer de Glace in 1857, and betook myself once more to the mountains during the summer of 1858. My desire at that time was to settle once for all the rival claims of the only two theories which then deserved serious attention—namely, those of pressure and of stratification.

In pursuance of this idea, I first visited the Lower glacier of Grindelwald, one of the most accessible, and at the same time most instructive, in the entire range of the Alps. Ascending the branch of this glacier which descends from the Schreckhorn, the Strahleck, and the Finsteraarhorn, I came to the base of an ice-fall which forbade further advance. Quitting the glacier here, I ascended the side of the flanking mountain, so as to reach a point from which the fall, and the glacier below it, are distinctly visible ; and from this position I observed the gradual development and perfecting of the structure at the base of the fall. On the middle of the fall itself no trace of the structure was manifest ; but where the glacier changed its inclination at the bottom, being bent upwards so as throw its surface into a state of intense longitudinal compression, the blue veins first made their appearance. The base of the fall was a true structure mill, where the transverse veins were manufactured, being after-wards sent forward, giving a character to portions of the glacier which had no share in their formation.

I afterwards examined the fall from the opposite side of the valley, and corroborated the observations. It is difficult, in words, to convey the force of the evidence which this glacier presents to the observer who sees it ; it seems in fact like a grand laboratory experiment made by Nature herself with especial reference to the point in question. The squeezing of the mass, its yielding to the force brought to bear upon it, its wrinkling and scaling off, and the appearance of the veins at the exact point where the pressure begins to manifest itself, leave no doubt on the mind that pressure and structure stand to each other in the relation of cause and effect, and that the stratification could have nothing to do with the phenomenon.

I subsequently crossed the Strahleck, descended the glaciers of the Aar, crossed the Grimsel, and examined the glacier of the Rhone. This glacier has also its grand ice-fall. In company with Prof. Ramsay, I climbed in 1858 the precipices flanking the fall at the Grimsel side. What has been stated regarding the Grindelwald ice-fall is true of that of the Rhone ; the base of the cascade is the manufactory of the structure; and, as all the ice has to pass through this mill, the entire mass of the glacier from the base of the fall downwards is beautifully laminated.

Descending the valley of the Rhone to Viesch, I went thence to the AEggischhorn, and remained for eight days in the vicinity of the Great Aletsch glacier — the noblest ice-stream of the Alps. A highly intelligent explorer had adduced certain phenomena of this glacier as an evidence against the pressure theory of the veined structure ; and I did not think myself justified in quitting the place until I had perfectly satisfied myself that the Aletsch not only presented no phenomena at variance with the pressure theory, but exhibited some which seemed fatal to the theory of the stratification.

I subsequently proceeded to Zermatt, and spent ten days on the Riffelberg, exploring the entire system of glaciers between Monte Rosa and the Mont Cervin. These glaciers exhibit, perhaps in a more striking manner than any others in the Alps, the yielding of glacier ice when subjected to intense pressure. The great western glacier of Monte Rosa, the Schwartze glacier, the Trifti glacier, and the glaciers of St. Theodule, are first spread out as wide and extensive névés over the breasts of the mountains.

They move down, and are finally forced into the valley containing the trunk, or Gorner glacier. Here they are squeezed to narrow strips, which gradually dwindle in width until they form driblets not more than a few yards across. From the Gôrner Grat, or from the summit of the Riffelhorn, these parallel strips of glacier, each separated from its neighbour by a medial moraine, present a most striking and instructive appearance.

The structure of these glaciers was carefully examined, and in all cases as I travelled from regions where the pressure was feeble to others where it was intense, the ice changed from a state almost, if not entirely, structureless, to one in which the veining was exhibited in great perfection. Each glacier, for example, where it met the opposing mass in the trunk valley, and was pressed against the latter by the thrust from behind, exhibited a beautifully developed structure.

Proofs have been already adduced that the Glacier du Géant is in a state of longitudinal compression ; it has also been shown that the seams of white ice which intersect this glacier are due to the filling up of the channels of glacier streams by snow, and the subsequent compression of the substance. Here, then, we have a vast ice-press which furnishes us with a test of the pressure theory. Both in 1857 and 1858 I found many of these seams of white ice intersected by blue veins of the finest and most distinct character, their general direction being at right angles to the direction of pressure.

But the notions of M. Agassiz as to the turning up of the strata so as to expose their edges at the surface, and the acute remarks and arguments of Mr. John Ball on the same subject, might still cast a doubt upon the pressure theory, by suggesting a possible, though extremely improbable, explanation of the structure in accordance with the theory of stratification.

Hence my strong desire to discover some crucial phenomenon which should set this question for ever at rest, and leave no room for doubt, even on the minds of those who never saw a glacier. On Wednesday, August 18, I was fortunate enough to make this discovery upon the Furgge glacier.

This ice-field spreads out as an almost level plain at the base of Mont Cervin. The strata pile them-selves one above the other without disturbance, and hence with great regularity. The ice at length reaches a brow, over which it is precipitated, forming in its descent four great terraces, and shutting up the lower valley as a cul de sac. When I reached this place huge blocks of ice stood, like rocking stones, upon the topmost ledge, and numbers, which had fallen, had been caught by the other ledges, and occupied very threatening positions : the base of the fall was cumbered with crushed ice, and large boulders of the substance had been cast a consider-able way down the glacier.

On the faces of the terraces horizontal lines of stratification were shown in the most perfect manner. Here and there the exertion of a powerful lateral squeeze was manifest, causing the beds to crumple. and producing numerous faults. Examining the fall from a distance through an opera-glass, I thought I could discover lines of veining running through the strata, at a high angle, exactly as the planes of cleavage often run at a high angle to the bedding of slate rocks. The surface of the ice was, however, weathered ; and I was unwilling to accept an observation upon such a cardinal point with a shade of doubt attached to it. Leaving my field-glass with my guide, who was to give me warning should the blocks overhead give way, I advanced to the wall of ice, and at several places cut away with my axe the weathered superficial portions. Underneath I found the true veined structure, running nearly at right angles to the planes of stratification.

I afterwards climbed the glacier to the right, and, as I ascended, still better illustrations of the co-existence of the structure and the strata than those observed upon the terraces exhibited themselves. The ice was greatly dislocated, and on the faces the crevasses the beds were distinctly shown, with the veins crossing them. The idea that the veins could be due to the turning up of the strata is plainly irreconcileable with these observations.

The same year I visited the Mer de Glace and its tributaries, and found the pressure key applicable to their phenomena also. The transverse structure of the Glacier du Géant is formed at the base of the séracs ; that of the Talèfre branch of the Mer de Glace at the base of the Talèfre ice-fall, where the change of inclination and the thrust from behind produce the requisite longitudinal compression. I have already had occasion to remark upon the peculiar dipping of the structure, and the scaling-off of the protuberances, which are effects of the same cause. These phenomena are exhibited at the base of all the ice-cascades.

The principal kinds of structure may be divided into three ; as follows :

1st, Marginal structure, developed by pressure due to the swifter motion of the centre of the glacier.

2nd, Longitudinal structure, due to mutual pressure of two tributary glaciers ; the structure here is parallel to the medial moraine which divides the tributaries.

3rd, Transverse structure, produced by pressure due to the change of inclination, and to the longitudinal thrust endured by the glacier at the base of an ice-fall.

The lamination of a glacier is a peculiarly interesting case of cleavage. It is produced in the same manner as the lamination of slate rock, which is known, through the distortion of its fossils, to have suffered great pressure at right angles to the planes of cleavage.



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