Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/November 1886/Geology of the Atlantic Ocean I

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THE geological history of the Atlantic depression of the earth's crust, and its relation to the continental masses which limit it, may furnish a theme at once generally intelligible and connected with great questions as to the structure and history of the earth, which have excited the attention alike of physicists, geologists, biologists, geographers, and ethnologists. If we imagine an observer contemplating the earth from a convenient distance in space, and scrutinizing its features as it rolls before him, we may suppose him to be struck with the fact that eleven sixteenths of its surface are covered with water, and that the land is so unequally distributed that from one point of view he would see a hemisphere almost exclusively oceanic, while nearly the whole of the dry land is gathered in the opposite hemisphere. He might observe that the great oceanic area of the Pacific and Antarctic Oceans is dotted with islands—like a shallow pool with stones rising above its surface—as if its general depth were small in comparison with its area. He might also notice that a mass or belt of land surrounds each pole, and that the northern ring sends off to the southward three vast tongues of land and of mountain-chains, terminating respectively in South America, South Africa, and Australia, toward which feebler and insular processes are given off by the Antarctic continental mass. This, as some geographers have observed, gives a rudely three-ribbed aspect to the earth, though two of the three ribs are crowded together and form the Europ-Asian mass or double continent, while the third is isolated in the single Continent of America. He might also observe that the northern girdle is cut across, so that the Atlantic opens by a wide space into the Arctic Sea, while the Pacific is contracted toward the north, but confluent with the Antarctic Ocean. The Atlantic is also relatively deeper and less cumbered with islands than the Pacific, which has the higher ridges near its shores, constituting what some visitors to the Pacific coast of America have not inaptly called the "back of the world," while the wider slopes face the narrower ocean, into which for this reason the greater part of the drainage of the land is poured. The Pacific and Atlantic, though both depressions or flattenings of the earth, are, as we shall find, different in age, character, and conditions; and the Atlantic, though the smaller, is the older, and from the geological point of view, in some respects, the more important of the two. If our imaginary observer had the means of knowing anything of the rock formations of the continents, he would notice that those bounding the North Atlantic are in general of great age, some belonging to the Laurentian system. On the other hand, he would see that many of the mountain-ranges along the Pacific are comparatively new, and that modern igneous action occurs in connection with them. Thus he might be led to believe that the Atlantic, though comparatively narrow, is an older feature of the earth's surface, wliile the Pacific belongs to more modern times. But he would note in connection with this that the oldest rocks of the great continental masses are mostly toward their northern ends, and that the borders of the northern ring of land and certain ridges extending southward from it constitute the most ancient and permanent elevations of the earth's crust, though now greatly surpassed by mountains of more recent age nearer the equator.

Before leaving this general survey we may make one further remark. An observer looking at the earth from without would notice that the margins of the Atlantic and the main lines of direction of its mountain-chains are northeast and southwest, and northwest and south-east, as if some early causes had determined the occurrence of elevations along great circles of the earth's surface tangent to the polar circles. We are invited by the preceding general glance at the surface of the earth to ask certain questions respecting the Atlantic: 1. What has at first determined its position and form? 2. What changes has it experienced in the lapse of geological time? 3, What relations have these changes borne to the development of life on the land and in the water? 4. What is its probable future? Before attempting to answer these questions, which I shall not take up formally in succession, but rather in connection with each other, it is necessary to state as briefly as possible certain general conclusions respecting the interior of the earth. It is popularly supposed that we know nothing of this beyond a superficial crust perhaps averaging fifty thousand to one hundred thousand feet in thickness. It is true we have no means of exploration in the earth's interior, but the conjoined labors of physicists and geologists have now proceeded sufficiently far to throw much inferential light on the subject, and to enable us to make some general affirmations with certainty; and these it is the more necessary to state distinctly, since they are often treated as mere subjects of speculation and fruitless discussion:

1. Since the dawn of geological science, it has been evident that the crust on which we live must be supported on a plastic or partially liquid mass of heated rock, approximately uniform in quality under the whole of its area. This is a legitimate conclusion from the wide distribution of volcanic phenomena, and from the fact that the ejections of volcanoes, while locally of various kinds, are similar in every part of the world. It led to the old idea of a fluid interior of the earth, but this is now generally abandoned, and this interior heated and plastic layer is regarded as merely an under-crust.

2. We have reason to believe, as the result of astronomical investigations, that, notwithstanding the plasticity or liquidity of the undercrust, the mass of the earth—its nucleus, as we may call it—is practically solid, and of great density and hardness. Thus we have the apparent paradox of a solid yet fluid earth; solid in its astronomical relations, liquid or plastic for the purposes of volcanic action and superficial movements.

3. The plastic sub-crust is not in a state of dry, igneous fusion, but in that condition of aqueo-igneous or hydro-thermic fusion which arises from the action of heat on moist substances, and which may either be regarded as a fusion or as a species of solution at a very high temperature. This we learn from the phenomena of volcanic action, and from the composition of the volcanic and plutonic rocks, as well as from such chemical experiments as those of Daubrée and of Tilden and Shenstone.

4. The interior sub-crust is not perfectly homogeneous, but may be roughly divided into two layers or magmas, as they have been called—an upper, highly siliceous or acidic, of low specific gravity and light-colored, and corresponding to such kinds of plutonic and volcanic rocks as granite and trachyte; and a lower, less siliceous or more basic, more dense, and more highly charged with iron, and corresponding to such igneous rocks as the dolerites, basalts, and kindred lavas. It is interesting here to note that this conclusion, elaborated by Durocher and Von Waltershausen, and usually connected with their names, appears to have been first announced by John Phillips in his "Geological Manual," and as a mere common-sense deduction from the observed phenomena of volcanic action and the probable results of the gradual cooling of the earth. It receives striking confirmation from the observed succession of acidic and basic volcanic rocks of all geological periods and in all localities. It would even seem, from recent spectroscopic investigations of Lockyer, that there is evidence of a similar succession of magmas in the heavenly bodies, and the discovery by Nordenskiöld of native iron in Greenland basalts affords a probability that the inner magma is in part metallic.

5. Where rents or fissures form in the upper crust, the material of the lower crust is forced upward by the pressure of the less supported portions of the former, giving rise to volcanic phenomena either of an explosive or quiet character, as may be determined by contact with water. The underlying material may also be carried to the surface by the agency of heated water, producing those quiet discharges which Hunt has named crenitic. It is to be observed here that explosive volcanic phenomena and the formation of cones are, as Prestwich has well remarked, characteristic of an old and thickened crust; quiet ejection from fissures and hydrothermal action may have been more common in earlier peiiods, and with a thinner over-crust.

6. The contraction of the earth's interior by cooling and by the emission of material from below the over-crust has caused this crust to press downward, and therefore laterally, and so to effect great bends, folds, and plications; and these, modified subsequently by surface denudation, constitute mountain-chains and continental plateaus. As Hall long ago pointed out, such lines of folding have been produced more especially where thick sediments had been laid down on the sea-bottom. Thus we have here another apparent paradox—namely, that the elevations of the earth's crust occur in the places where the greatest burden of détritus has been laid down upon it, and where, consequently, the crust has been softened and depressed. We must beware, in this connection, of exaggerated notions of the extent of contraction and of crumpling required to form mountains. Bonney has well shown, in lectures delivered at the London Institution, that an amount of contraction almost inappreciable in comparison with the diameter of the earth would be sufficient; and that, as the greatest mountain-chains are less than one six-hundredth of the earth's radius in height, they would, on an artificial globe a foot in diameter, be no more important than the slight inequalities that might result from the paper gores overlapping each other at the edges.

7. The crushing and sliding of the over-crust implied in these movements raise some serious questions of a physical character. One of these relates to the rapidity or slowness of such movements, and the consequent degree of intensity of the heat developed, as a possible cause of metamorphism of rocks. Another has reference to the possibility of changes in the equilibrium of the earth itself as resulting from local collapse and ridging. These questions in connection with the present dissociation of the axis of rotation from the magnetic poles, and with changes of climate, have attracted some attention, and probably deserve further consideration on tbe part of physicists.

In so far as geological evidence is concerned, it would seem that the general association of crumbling with metamorphism indicates a certain rapidity in the process of mountain-making, and consequent development of heat, and the arrangement of the older rocks around the Arctic basin forbids us from assuming any extensive movement of the axis of rotation, though it does not exclude changes to a limited extent. I hope that Professor Darwin will discuss these points in his address to the Physical Section. I wish to formulate these principles as distinctly as possible, and as the result of all the long series of observations, calculations, and discussions since the time of Werner and Hutton, and in which a vast number of able physicists and naturalists have borne a part, because they may be considered as certain deductions from our actual knowledge, and because they lie at the founda- tion of a rational physical geology.

Keeping in view these general conclusions, let us now turn to their bearing on the origin and history of the North Atlantic. Though the Atlantic is a deep ocean, its basin does not constitute so much a depression of the crust of the earth as a flattening of it; and this, as recent soundings have shown, with a slight ridge or elevation along its middle, and banks or terraces fringing the edges, so that its form is not so much that of a basin as that of a shallow plate with its middle a little raised. Its true, permanent margins are composed of portions of the over-crust folded, ridged up, and crushed as if by-lateral pressure emanating from the sea itself. We can not, for example, look at a geological map of America without perceiving that the Appalachian ridges, which intervene between the Atlantic and the St.Lawrence Valley, have been driven bodily back by a force acting from the east, and that they have resisted this pressure only where, as in the Gulf of St.Lawrence and the Catskill region of New York, they have been protected by outlying masses of very old rocks, as, for example, by that of the Island of Newfoundland, and that of the Adirondack Mountains. The admirable work begun by my friend and fellow-student Professor James Nicol, followed up by Hicks, Lapworth, and others, and now, after long controversy, fully confirmed by the recent observations of the geological survey of Scotland, has shown the most intense action of the same kind on the east side of the ocean in the Scottish Highlands; and the more widely distributed Eozoic rocks of Scandinavia may be appealed to in further evidence of this.

If we now inquire as to the cause of the Atlantic depression, we must go back to a time when the areas occupied by the Atlantic and its bounding coasts were parts of a shoreless sea in which the earliest gneisses or stratified granites of the Laurentian age were being laid down in vastly extended beds. These ancient crystalline rocks have been the subject of much discussion and controversy, and, as they constitute the lowest and probably the firmest part of the Atlantic sea-bed, it is necessary to inquire as to their origin and history. Dr.Bonney, the late President of the Geological Society, in his anniversary address, and Dr.Sterry Hunt, in an elaborate paper communicated to the Royal Society of Canada, have ably summed up the hypotheses as to the origin of the oldest Laurentian beds. At the basis of these hypotheses lies the admission that the immensely thick beds of orthoclase gneiss, which are the oldest stratified rocks known to us, are substantially the same in composition with the upper or siliceous magma or layer of the under-crust. They are, in short, its materials either in their primitive condition or merely rearranged. One theory considers them as original products of cooling, owing their lamination merely to the successive stages of the process. Another view refers them to the waste and rearrangement of the materials of a previously massive granite. Still another holds that all our granites really arise from the fusion of old gneisses of originally aqueous origin; while a fourth refers the gneisses themselves to molecular changes effected in granite by pressure.

It will be observed, in regard to these theories, that none of them suppose that the oldgneiss is an ordinary sediment, but that all regard it as formed in exceptional circumstances, these circumstances being the absence of land and of sub-aërial decay of rock, and the presence wholly or principally of the material of the upper surface of the recently hardened crust. This being granted, the question arises, Ought we not to combine these several theories and to believe that the cooling crust has hardened in successive layers from without inward; that at the same time fissures were locally discharging igneous matter to the surface; that matter held in suspension in the ocean, and matter held in solution by heated waters rising from beneath the outer crust, were mingling their materials in the deposits of the primitive ocean? It would seem that the combination of all these agencies may safely be invoked as causes of the pre-Atlantic deposits. This is the eclectic position which I endeavored to maintain in my address before the Minneapolis meeting of the American Association in 1883, and which I still hold to be in every way probable. That these old gneisses were deposited not only in what is now the bed of the Atlantic, but also on the great continental areas of America and Europe, any one who considers the wide extent of these rocks represented on the map recently published by Professor Hull can readily understand.

It is true that Hull supposes that the basin of the Atlantic itself may have been land at this time, but there is no evidence of this, more especially as the material of the gneiss could not have been détritus derived from sub-aërial decay of rock. Let us suppose, then, the floor of Old Ocean covered with a flat pavement of gneiss, or of that material which is now gneiss, the next question is, How and when did this original bed become converted into sea and land? Here we have some things certain, others most debatable. That the cooling mass, especially if it were sending out volumes of softened rocky material, either in the exo-plutonic or in the crenitic way, and piling this on the surface, must soon become too small for its shell, is apparent; but when and where would the collapse, crushing, and wrinkling inevitable from this cause begin? Where they did begin is indicated by the lines of mountain-chains which traverse the Laurentian districts; but the reason why is less apparent. The more or less unequal cooling, hardening, and conductive power of the outer crust we may readily assume. The driftage unequally of water-borne détritus to the southwest by the bottom-currents of the sea is another cause, and, as we shall soon see, most effective. Still another is the greater cooling and hardening of the crust in the polar regions, and the tendency to collapse of the equatorial protuberance from the slackening of the earth's rotation. Besides these, the internal tides of the earth's substance at the times of solstice would exert an oblique pulling force on the crust, which might tend to crack it along diagonal lines.

From whichever of these causes, or the combination of the whole, we know that within the Laurentian time folded portions of the earth's crust began to rise above the general surface in broad belts running from northeast to southwest, and from northwest to southeast, where the older mountains of Eastern America and Western Europe now stand, and that the subsidence of the oceanic areas allowed by this crumbling of the crust pei'raitted other areas on both sides of what is now the Atlantic to form limited table-lands. This was the beginning of a process repeated again and again in subsequent times, and which began in the Middle Laurentian, when for the first time we find beds of quartzite, limestone, and iron-ore, and graphitic beds, indicating that there were already land and water, and that the sea, and perhaps the land, swarmed with animal and plant life, of forms unknown to us, for the most part, now.

Independently of the questions as to the animal nature of Eozoön, I hold that we know, as certainly as we can know anything inferentially, the existence of these primitive forms of life. If I were to conjecture what were the early forms of plant and animal life, I would suppose that just as in the Palæozoic the acrogens culminated in gigantic and complex forest-trees, so in the Laurentian the algæ, the lichens, and the mosses grew to dimensions and assumed complexity of structure unexampled in later times, and that in the sea the humbler forms of Protozoa and Hydrozoa were the dominant types, but in gigantic and complex forms. The land of this period was probably limited, for the most part, to high latitudes, and its aspect, though more rugged and abrupt, and of greater elevation, must have been of that character which we still see in the Laurentian hills. The distribution of this ancient land is indicated by the long lines of old Laurentian rock extending from the Labrador coast and the north shore of the St. Lawrence, and along the eastern slopes of the Appalachians in America, and the like rocks of the Hebrides, the Western Highlands, and the Scandinavian mountains. A small but interesting remnant is that in the Malvern Hills, so well described by Holl.

It will be well to note here and to fix on our minds that these ancient ridges of Eastern America and Western Europe have been greatly denuded and wasted since Laurentian times, and that it is along their eastern sides that the greatest sedimentary accumulations have been deposited. Prom this time dates the introduction of that dominance of existing causes which forms the basis of uniformitarianism in geology, and which had to go on with various and great modifications of detail through the successive stages of the geological history till the land and water of the northern hemisphere attained to their present complex structure. So soon as we have a circumpolar belt or patches of Eozoic land and ridges running southward from it, we enter on new and more complicated methods of growth of the continents and seas. Here we are indebted to Le Conte for clearly pointing out that our original Eozoic tracts of continent were in the earliest times areas of deposition, and that the first elevations of land out of the primeval ocean must have differed in important points from all that have succeeded them; but they were equally amenable to the ordinary laws of denudation. Portions of these oldest crystalline rocks, raised out of the protecting water, were now eroded by atmospheric agents, and especially by the carbonic acid then existing in the atmosphere, perhaps more abundantly than at present, under whose influence the hardest of the gneissic rocks gradually decay. The Arctic lands were subjected, in addition, to the powerful mechanical force of frost and thaw. Thus every shower of rain and every swollen stream would carry into the sea the products of the waste of land, sorting them into fine clays and coarser sands; and the cold currents which cling to the ocean-bottom, now determined in their courses, not merely by the earth's rotation, but also by the lines of folding on both sides of the Atlantic, would carry southwestward, and pile up in marginal banks of great thickness, the débris produced from the rapid waste of the land already existing in the Arctic regions. The Atlantic, opening widely to the north, and having large rivers pouring into it, was especially the ocean characterized, as time advanced, by the prevalence of these phenomena.

Thus throughout the geological history it has happened that, while the middle of the Atlantic has received merely organic deposits of shells of Foraminifera and similar organisms, and this probably only to a small amount, its margins have had piled upon them beds of détritus of immense thickness. Professor Hall, of Albany, was the first geologist who pointed out the vast cosmic importance of these deposits, and that the mountains of both sides of the Atlantic owe their origin to these great lines of deposition; along with the fact, afterward more fully insisted upon by Rogers, that the portions of the crust which received these masses of débris became thereby weighted down and softened, and were more liable than other parts to lateral crushing. Thus in the later Eozoic and early Palæozoic times, which succeeded the first foldings of the oldest Laurentian, great ridges were thrown up, along the edges of which were beds of limestone, and on their summits and sides thick masses of ejected igneous rocks. In the bed of the central Atlantic there are no such accumulations. It must have been a flat, or slightly ridged, plate of the ancient gneiss, hard and resisting, though perhaps with a few cracks, through which igneous matter welled up, as in Iceland and the Azores in more modern times. In this condition of things we have causes tending to perpetuate and extend the distinctions of ocean and continent, mountain and plain, already begun; and of these we may more especially note the continued subsidence of the areas of greatest marine deposition. This has long attracted attention, and affords very convincing evidence of the connection of sedimentary deposit as a cause with the subsidence of the crust.

We are indebted to a French physicist, M.Faye, for an important suggestion on this subject. It is that the sediment accumulated along the shores of the ocean presented an obstacle to radiation, and consequently to cooling of the crust, while the ocean-floor, unprotected and unweighted, and constantly bathed with currents of cold water, having great power of convection of heat, would be more rapidly cooled, and so would become thicker and stronger. This suggestion is complementary to the theory of Professor Hall, that the areas of greatest deposit on the margins of the ocean are necessarily those of greatest folding and consequent elevation. "We have thus a hard, thick, resisting ocean-bottom which, as it settles down toward the interior, under the influence of gravity, squeezes upward and folds and plicates all the soft sediments deposited on its edges. The Atlantic area is almost an unbroken cake of this kind. The Pacific area has cracked in many places, allowing the interior fluid matter to ooze out in volcanic ejections. It may be said that all this supposes a permanent continuance of the ocean-basins, whereas many geologists postulate a mid- Atlantic continent to give the thick masses of détritus found in the older formations both in Eastern America and Western Europe, and which thin off in proceeding into the interior of both continents. I prefer, with Hall, to consider these belts of sediments as in the main the deposits of northern currents, and derived from Arctic land, and that, like the great banks of the American coast at the present day, which are being built up by the present Arctic current, they had little to do with any direct drainage from the adjacent shore. We need not deny, however, that such ridges of land as existed along the Atlantic margins were contributing their quota of river-borne material, just as on a still greater scale the Amazon and Mississippi are doing now, and this especially on the sides toward the present continental plateaus, though the greater part must have been derived from the wide tracts of Laurentian land within the Arctic Circle or near to it.

It is further obvious that the ordinary reasoning respecting the necessity of continental areas in the present ocean-basins would actually oblige us to suppose that the whole of the oceans and continents had repeatedly changed places. This consideration opposes enormous physical difficulties to any theory of alternations of the oceanic and continental areas, except locally at their margins. I would, however, refer you for a more full discussion of these points to the address to be delivered to-morrow by the President of the Geological Section, But the permanence of the Atlantic depression does not exclude the idea of successive submergences of the continental plateaus and marginal slopes, alternating with periods of elevation, when the ocean retreated from the continents and contracted its limits. In this respect the Atlantic of to-day is much smaller than it was in those times when it spread widely over the continental plains and slopes, and much larger than it has been in times of continental elevation. This leads us to the further consideration that, while the ocean-beds have been sinking, other areas have been better supported, and constitute the continental plateaus; and that it has been at or near the junctions of these sinking and rising areas that the thickest deposits of détritus, the most extensive foldings, and the greatest ejections of volcanic matter have occurred.

There has thus been a permanence of the position of the continents and oceans throughout geological time, but with many oscillations of these areas, producing submergences and emergences of the land. In this way we can reconcile the vast vicissitudes of the continental areas in different geological periods with that continuity of development from north to south and from the interiors to the margins, which is so marked a feature. We have for this reason to formulate another apparent geological paradox—namely, that while in one sense the continental and oceanic areas are permanent, in another they have been in continual movement. Nor does this view exclude extension of the continental borders or of chains of islands beyond their present limits at certain periods; and, indeed, the general principle already stated, that subsidence of the ocean-bed has produced elevation of the land, implies in earlier periods a shallower ocean and many possibilities as to volcanic islands and low continental margins creeping out into the sea; while it is also to be noted that there are, as already stated, bordering shelves, constituting shallows in the ocean, which at certain periods have emerged as land.

We are thus compelled to believe in the contemporaneous existence in all geological periods, except perhaps the earliest of them, of three distinct conditions of areas on the surface of the earth:

1. Oceanic areas of deep sea, which always continued to occupy in whole or in part the bed of the present ocean.

2. Continental plateaus and marginal shelves, existing as low flats or higher table-lands, liable to periodical submergence and emergence.

3. Lines of plication and folding, more especially along the borders of the oceans, forming elevated portions of land, rarely altogether submerged, and constantly affording the material of sedimentary accumulations, while they were also the seats of powerful volcanic ejections.

In the successive geological periods the continental plateaus when submerged, owing to their vast extent of warm and shallow sea, have been the great theatres of the development of marine life and of the deposition of organic limestones, and when elevated they have furnished the abodes of the noblest land faunas and floras. The mountain-belts, especially in the north, have been the refuge and stronghold of land life in periods of submergence, and the deep ocean-basins have been the perennial abodes of pelagic and abyssal creatures, and the refuge of multitudes of other marine animals and plants in times of continental elevation.

These general facts are full of importance with reference to the question of the succession of formations and of life in the geological history of the earth. So much time has been occupied with these general views that it would be impossible to trace the history of the Atlantic in detail through the ages of the Palæozoic, Mesozoic, and Tertiary. We may, however, shortly glance at the changes of the three kinds of surface already referred to.

The bed of the ocean seems to have remained, on the whole, abyssal, but there were probably periods when those shallow reaches of the Atlantic, which stretch across its most northern portion and partly separate it from the Arctic basin, presented connecting coasts or continuous chains of islands sufficient to permit animals and plants to pass over. At certain periods also there were not unlikely groups of volcanic islands, like the Azores, in the temperate or tropical Atlantic. More especially might this be the case in that early time when it was more like the present Pacific; and the line of the great volcanic belt of the Mediterranean, the mid-Atlantic banks, the Azores, and the West India islands point to the possibility of such partial connections. These were stepping-stones, so to speak, over which land organisms might cross, and some of these may be connected with the fabulous or prehistoric Atlantis.

[To be continued.]

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  1. From the inaugural address of the President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, delivered at Birmingham, England, September 1, 1886.