Field of Science

The discovery of the ruins of ice

"It has already been said, that no small part of the present work refers to the nature and phenomena of glaciers. It may be well, therefore, before proceeding to details, to explain a little the state of our present knowledge respecting these great ice-masses, which are objects of a kind to interest even those who know them only from description, whilst those who have actually witnessed their wonderfully striking and grand characteristics can hardly need an inducement to enter into some inquiry respecting their nature and origin."
James, D. Forbes (1900): "Travels Trough the Alps." [page 17]

Fig.1. C. Wolf and M. Descourtis "La Grosse Pierre Sur Le Glacier de Vorderaar Canton de Berne Province d'Oberhasli", Amsterdam 1785.

Today worldwide glaciers were studied and monitored as climate proxies, and the recent measurements show that almost all of them are retreating fast. The story about glaciers, their influence on the landscape and their possible use to reconstruct and monitor climate is an intriguing one, with many triumphs, setbacks and changes of mind.

For centuries, if not even millennia, the high altitude belt of mountain ranges were a region visited and travelled by man, however also haunted and forbidding places.
The glaciers, masses of ice enclosing peaks and extending their tongues into valleys, were considered the residence of mountain spirits, then during the medieval times the prison of damned souls (the Italian poet Dante Alighieri 1265-1321 imagined the centre of hell as a frozen wasteland) and the playground of demons, who from time to time send avalanches and debris flows into the valley.
Despite these myths there was some early insights of what glaciers actually really are made, the Greek historian and geographer Strabo (63 - 23) describes a voyages trough the Alps during the reign of Augustus and mentions

"…there is no protection against the large quantities o
f snow falling, and that form the most superficial layers of a glacier…[]. It's a common knowledge that a glacier is composed by many different layers lying horizontally, as the snow when falling and accumulating becomes hard and crystallises...[]."

However the knowledge got lost, and was only rediscovered during the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci´s (1452-1519) is considered one of the greatest Renaissance-geniuses,
he studied anatomy, biology and geology, however regarding the glaciers of the Alps his ideas were somehow confused, the thought glaciers were formed by not melted hail accumulating through the summer. But soon the study of nature experiences an incredible raise, and glaciers find place in various descriptions of travelling scholars.

Between 1538 and 1548 glaciers were labelled (even if not depicted) with the term "Gletscher" on topographic maps of Switzerland. In his account on the Swiss land t
he Theologian Josias Simler in 1574 describes the Rhone-glacier.
The first historic depiction of a glacier is considered the watercolour-paint of
the Vernagtferner in the Ötztaler Alps from 1601. The Vernagtferner was a glacier that repeatedly dammed up the Rofen-lake (named after the Rofen-valley), which outbursts caused heavy damage and loss of property, particularly in the years 1600, 1678, 1680, 1773, 1845, 1847 and 1848.
In 1642 the Swiss editor Matthaeus Merian the Older in his "Topographie Helvetiae, Rhaetiae et Valesiae" published various copper engravings of glaciers, and in 1706 Johann Heinrich Hottinger is interested to explain the motion of "the mountains of ice" in his "Descriptio Montium Glacialium Helveticorum."
Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, visiting in the year 1705 the Rhône Glacier, published his observations of t
he "true nature of the springs of the river Rhône" in the opus "Itinera per Helvetiae alpinas regiones facta annis 1702-1711", and confirms the idea that glaciers are formed by the accumulation of snow and they move and flow.

Fig.2. The description of the Rhone glacier according to Scheuchzer´s "Itinera per Helvetiae alpinas regiones facta annis 1702-1711", the engraving shows the "false springs at the mountain Furca" (M, N, O - left and right of the picture) and the "true springs" (J, K, L) coming from the snout of the "great glacier" (A-F), surrounded by the "small glacier" (G, H).

The increasing interest to study glaciers in the Alps is also encouraged by enthusiastic travel reports; in his "Voyage pittoresque aux glaciers" the A.C. Bordier of 1773 describes the Bosson glacier as a "huge marble ruins of a devastated city".
The naturalist Horace Benedict de Saussure (1740-1799) is fascinated by the mountains of his homeland, he climbed mountains around Geneva since 1758, and after 1760 he travelled more than 14 times trough the Alps (considering the possibilities in this time an extraordinary achievement). Between 1767 to 1779 the first volume of his "Voyages dans les Alpes" is published, were he reassumes his observations and theories about the visited glaciers, he recognized moraines and large boulders as the debris accumulated by the glacier tongue and proposes to map them to interfere the former extent of glaciers. Despite this exact statement, de Saussure failed to connect large boulders found in the foreland of the mountains to the glaciers of the Alps. He assumed that these rocks were transported on their recent locations by an immense flood. That seemed to explain why most of the boulders found scattered around the plains of Germany came in first place from the regions of Scandinavia, where the same lithology where found in the crystalline continental basement, like Precambrian metamorphic rocks and Paleozoic sediments. The theory worked lesser to explain the foreland Alpine rocks - to transport boulders from the Alps the flood at least had to reach 1000 of meters.
The idea of a flood as the explanation for "glacial" deposits became largely accepted, it seemed to fit the description of the biblical flood; even Lyell and Darwin assumed that huge erratic boulders were transported by swimming ice drafts on top of a flood wave.

That glaciers could propagate far out of their valleys was however not an unusual idea for local inhabitants, who observed and experienced the growth and recess of glaciers. In academic circle this approach was a little more difficult.
A contest thought to demonstrate the former extension of Swiss glaciers initiated by the Swiss pastor Jakob Samuel Wyttenbach in 1781 (maybe inspired be the advance of the Alpine glacier in 1770) didn't arise any interest.

"Could it be proven to ourselves on the available documentation that both by the progress of our ice mountains as by our misbehaviour once for pasture most suitable land is currently covered by ice…[]"

There were only careful speculations considering a former expansion of glacier: the geologists James Hutton (1726-1797) and his friend John Playfair (1748-1819) speculated about glaciations of the northern hemisphere. In 1826 a publication by the Danish mineralogist and mountain climber Jens Esmark (1763-1839) was translated into English, in this paper Jesmark discussed the possibilities that glaciers where much greater in the past then today. J.D. Forbes and Robert Jameson (who were the geology professors of Charles Darwin at Edinburgh University, Darwin in his autobiography of 1876 remembers "The sole effect they produced on me was the determination never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology or in any way to study the science.") discussed glacial theories during their lectures. And even Buckland, who still in 1831 argued "northern region of the earth seems to have undergone successive changes from heat to cold", in 1837 was converted to Lyell's uniformatism and considered that sudden changes, like an ice age and glacier expansion, simply don't happen in geology.

In 1815 Jean Pierre Perraudin, a chamois hunter in the Val de Bagnes, told to the engineer Ignatz Venetz his theory that the glaciers once covered the entire valley, and Venetz mapped features that made him even recognize that once the entire Swiss was covered by ice. Vernetz´s lecture on the assembly of the Swiss association for natural history in 1829 found little interest, only Jean de Charpentier, director of the salt mine in the city of Bex (Western Swiss), who 14 years earlier had meet and discussed with Perraudin, this time accepted and got interested in this theory.
He begun a detailed mapping project, and in 1834 Charpentier present
ed again before the Swiss association the results of his investigations, but the flood theory had still much supporter. One of the critics in the public was a former student of Charpentier, named Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz, respected palaeontologist by the establishment. Charpentier invited Agassiz to visit the city of Bex and surrounding mountains, and to observe glaciers.
In the following year (1837) Agassiz held an enthusiastic lecture about glaciers, ice ages and ice shields, and in 1840 published a detailed study of modern glaciers, their deposits and their spurs in his "Etudes sur les glaciers."
Agassiz experienced the same scepticism as many other ice-age proponents before.

"I think that you should concentrate your moral and also your pecuniary strength upon this beautiful work on fossil fishes .... In accepting considerable sums from England, you have, so to speak, contracted obligations to be met only by completing a work which will be at once a monument to your own glory and a landmark in the history of science ...[ ]...No more ice, not much of echinoderms, plenty of fish..."
Alexander von Humboldt in a letter to Agassiz on 2. December 1837

However Agassiz had good connections to the most important geologist of his time. Soon he could persuade William Buckland
and later Charles Lyell. After that the most respected geologist gets convinced, the rest, as always, is history:

"advice - never try & persuade ye world of a new theory - persuade 2 or 3 of ye tip top men - & ye rest will go with ye stream, as Dr B. did with Sir H. Davy and Dr. Wollaston in case of Kirkdale Cave"
Edward Jackson, about an advice given by his professor Buckland in 1832

Fig.3. Reconstruction of the glacier that filled the valley of St. Amarin (southern Vosges, France), probably the first tentative reconstruction of an ice age glacier - from COLLOMB (1847): "Preuves de l´existence d´anciens glaciers dans les vallées des Vosges."

Agassiz research on the Unteraar-glacier established the foundations of glaciology; he recorded the dimension of the glacier, his velocity and even ventured inside the glacier by passing trough a glacial mill. Soon after 1850 the measurements methods introduced by Agassiz were carried out on various glaciers of the Alps and repeated nearly every year.

Fig.4. The Hintereis-glacier (in the centre of the picture), Hochjoch-glacier (left) and the Kesselwand- glacier, drawing by Schmetzer 1891, the Hintereis-glacier is one of the glacier with the longest active monitoring program, values about his length change reach back to 1848, since then the glacier lost 3km of his tongue.
"Aus den tiroler Alpen: Der Abschluß des Oetzthales mit dem Hochjochgletscher (links), dem Hintereisferner (in der Mitte) und dem Kesselwandferner (rechts oben). Nach der Natur gezeichnet von K. Schmetzer (1891)."

These records showed various fluctuations, but from 1850 onward a general trend of recession of glaciers in the Alps is observable. This trend has experienced a strong increase in the last 50 years, causing concern for the fast change in the landscape, the destabilisation of the rock walls once supported by the melting glaciers and the alteration of the discharge and hydrology of mountain ranges.

Fig.5. Temperature rise in the Alps and length loss of the glaciers of the Ötztaler Alps (western Austria) in the period 1900-2010. The valley glaciers with their tongues extending in the valleys showed the strongest retreat and degradation of the studied Austrian glaciers.

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