Antiquity of Glaciers

The importance of glacier agency in the past as well as the present condition of the earth, is undoubtedly very great. One of our most accomplished and ingenious geologists has, indeed, carried back the existence of Glaciers to an epoch of dim antiquity, even in the reckoning of that science whose chronology is counted in millions of years. Professor Ramsay has shown ground for believing that in the fragments of rock that go to make up the conglomerates of the Permian strata, intermediate between the Old and the New Red Sandstone, there is still preserved a record of the action of ice, either in glaciers or floating icebergs, before those strata were consolidated.—Saturday Review, No. 142.

How Snow and Ice Form Glaciers and Icebergs

Glaciers (from the French glace, ice) are vast streams of ice which descend from the lower edge of the perpetual snows, like long icicles from a snow-covered roof. They follow the windings of the Alpine valleys, and terminate abruptly in a massive wall of ice, from beneath which the waters of the melting glacier escape, through a large icy vault.

Most Famous Glacier Region

The mountain systems in the middle latitudes, with abundant snows and alternate warm and cold seasons, are most favorable to the formation of glaciers. The best known, and probably the most remarkable glaciers are those of the high Alps, in the heart of which are Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, and the Bernese Alps. Late explorers have found large glaciers in the Caucasus and in the Himalayas, the last being of the grandest proportions. In the Scandinavia are many which descend, in the deep western fiords, nearly to the sea level.

In the New World glaciers are less frequent. On Mount Shasta and Mount Rainier fine examples are in evidence.

By far the most extensive glaciers however, are found on the snow-covered islands of the polar oceans.

Vast masses of ice, broken from the ends of these glaciers, form the enormous icebergs  (mountains of ice) which are so numerous in the polar seas, and are transported by the currents even to middle latitudes.

Phenomena of Glaciers Illustrated

Professor Tyndall, being desirous of investigating some of the phenomena presented by the large masses of mountain-ice,—those frozen rivers called Glaciers,—devised the plan of sending a destructive agent into the midst of a mass of ice, so as to break down its structure in the interior, in order to see if this method would reveal any thing of its internal constitution. Taking advantage of the bright weather of 1857, he concentrated a beam of sunlight by a condensing lens, so as to form the focus of the sun's rays in the midst of a mass of ice. A portion of the ice was melted, but the surrounding parts shone out as brilliant stars, produced by the reflection of the faces of the crystalline structure. On examining these brilliant portions with a lens, Professor Tyndall discovered that the structure of the ice had been broken down in symmetrical forms of great beauty, presenting minute stars, surrounded by six petals, forming a beautiful flower, the plane being always parallel to the plane of congelation of the ice. He then prepared a piece of ice, by making both its surfaces smooth and parallel to each other. He concentrated in the centre of the ice the rays of heat from the electric light; and then, placing the piece of ice in the electric microscope, the disc revealed these beautiful ice-flowers.

A mass of ice was crushed into fragments; the small fragments were then placed in a cup of wood; a hollow wooden die, somewhat smaller than the cup, was then pressed into the cup of ice-fragments by the pressure of a hydraulic press, and the ice-fragments were immediately united into a compact cup of nearly transparent ice. This pressure of fragments of ice into a solid mass explains the formation of the glaciers and their origin. They are composed of particles of ice or snow; as they descend the sides of the mountain, the pressure of the snow becomes sufficiently great to compress the mass into solid ice, until it becomes so great as to form the beautiful blue ice of the glaciers. This compression, however, will not form the solid mass unless the temperature of the ice be near that of freezing water. To prove this, the lecturer cooled a mass of ice, by wrapping it in a piece of tinfoil and exposing it for some time to a bath of the ethereal solution of solidified carbonic-acid gas, the coldest freezing mixture known. This cooled mass of ice was crushed to fragments, and submitted to the same pressure which the other fragments had been exposed to without cohering in the slightest degree.—Lecture at the Royal Institution, 1858.