Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/December 1886/Geology of the Atlantic Ocean II

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972918Popular Science Monthly Volume 30 December 1886 — Geology of the Atlantic Ocean II1886John William Dawson





THUS far our discussion has been limited almost entirely to physical causes and effects. If we now turn to the life-history of the Atlantic, we are met at the threshold with the question of climate, not as a thing fixed and immutable, but as changing from age to age in harmony with geographical mutations, and producing long cosmic summers and winters of alternate warmth and refrigeration. We can scarcely doubt that the close connection of the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans is one factor in those remarkable vicissitudes of climate experienced by the former, and in which the Pacific area has also shared in connection with the Antarctic Sea. No geological facts are indeed at first sight more strange and inexplicable than the changes of climate in the Atlantic area, even in comparatively modern periods. We know that in the early Tertiary perpetual summer reigned as far north as the middle of Greenland, and that in the Pleistocene the Arctic cold advanced until an almost perennial winter prevailed half-way to the equator.

It is no wonder that nearly every cause available in the heavens and the earth has been invoked to account for these astounding facts. It will, I hope, meet with the approval of your veteran glaciologist, Dr. Crosskey, if, neglecting most of these theoretical views, I venture to invite your attention in connection with this question chiefly to the old Lyellian doctrine of the modification of climate by geographical changes. Let us, at least, consider how much these are able to account for. The ocean is a great equalizer of extremes of temperature. It does this by its great capacity for heat and by its cooling and heating power when passing from the solid into the liquid and gaseous states, and the reverse. It also acts by its mobility, its currents serving to convey heat to great distances or to cool the air by the movement of cold, icy waters. The land, on the other hand, cools or warms rapidly, and can transmit its influence to a distance only by the winds, and the influence so transmitted is rather in the nature of a disturbing than of an equalizing cause. It follows that any change in the distribution of land and water must affect climate, more especially if it changes the character or course of the ocean-currents.

At the present time the North Atlantic presents some very peculiar and, in some respects, exceptional features, which are most instructive with reference to its past history. The great internal plateau of the American Continent is now dry land; the passage across Central America between the Atlantic and Pacific is blocked; the Atlantic opens very widely to the north; the high mass of Greenland towers in its northern part. The effects are that the great equatorial current running across from Africa and embayed in the Gulf of Mexico is thrown northward and eastward in the Gulf Stream, acting as a hot-water apparatus to heat up to an exceptional degree the western coast of Europe. On the other hand, the cold Arctic current from the polar seas is thrown to the westward, and runs down from Greenland past the American shore. The pilot chart for June of this year shows vast fields of drift-ice on the western side of the Atlantic as far south as the latitude of 40°. So far, therefore, the glacial age in that part of the Atlantic still extends; this at a time when, on the eastern side of the ocean, the culture of cereals reaches in Norway beyond the Arctic Circle.

Let us inquire into some of the details of these phenomena. The warm water thrown into the North Atlantic not only increases the temperature of its whole waters, but gives an exceptionally mild climate to Western Europe. Still, the countervailing influence of the Arctic currents and the Greenland ice is sufficient to permit icebergs which creep down to the mouth of the Strait of Belle Isle, in the latitude of the south of England, to remain unmelted till the snows of a succeeding winter fall upon them.

Now let us suppose that a subsidence of land in tropical America were to allow the equatorial current to pass through into the Pacific. The effect would at once be to reduce the temperature of Norway and Britain to that of Greenland and Labrador at present, while the latter countries would themselves become colder. The northern ice, drifting down into the Atlantic, would not, as now, be melted rapidly by the warm water which it meets in the Gulf Stream. Much larger quantities of it would remain undissolved in summer, and thus an accumulation of permanent ice would take place, along the American coast at first, but probably at length even on the European side. This would still further chill the atmosphere, glaciers would be established on all the mountains of temperate Europe and America, the summer would be kept cold by melting ice and snow, and at length all Eastern America and Europe might become uninhabitable, except by Arctic animals and plants as far south as, perhaps, 40° of north latitude.

This would be simply a return of the glacial age. I have assumed only one geographical change; but other and more complete changes of subsidence and elevation might take place, with effects on climate still more decisive; more especially would this be the case if there were a considerable submergence of the land in temperate latitudes.

We may suppose an opposite case. The high plateau of Greenland might subside or be reduced in height, and the openings of Baffin's Bay and the North Atlantic might be closed. At the same time the interior plain of America might be depressed, so that, as we know to have been the case in the Cretaceous period, the warm waters of the Mexican Gulf would circulate as far north as the basins of the present great American lakes. In these circumstances there would be an immense diminution of the sources of floating ice, and a correspondingly vast increase in the surface of warm water. The effects would be to enable a temperate flora to subsist in Greenland, and to bring all the present temperate regions of Europe and America into a condition of subtropical verdure.

It is only necessary to add that we know that vicissitudes not dissimilar from those above sketched have actually occurred in comparatively recent geological times, to enable us to perceive that we can dispense with all other causes of change of climate, though admitting that some of them may have occupied a secondary place. This will give us, in dealing with the distribution of life, the great advantage of not being tied up to definite astronomical cycles of glaciation, which may not always suit the geological facts, and of correlating elevation and subsidence of the land with changes of climate affecting living beings. It will, however, be necessary, as Wallace well insists, that we shall hold to that degree of fixity of the continents in their position, notwithstanding the submergences and emergences they have experienced, to which I have already adverted. We can now more precisely indicate this than was possible when Lyell produced his "Principles," and can reproduce the conditions of our continents in even the more ancient periods of their history. Some examples may be taken from the history of the American Continent, which is more simple in its arrangements than the double continent of Europ-Asia. We may select the early Devonian or Erian period, in which the magnificent flora of that age—the earliest certainly known to us—made its appearance.

Imagine the whole interior plain of North America submerged, so that the continent is reduced to two strips on the east and west, connected by a belt of Laurentian land on the north. In the great Mediterranean sea thus produced, the tepid water of the equatorial current circulated, and it swarmed with corals, of which we know no less than one hundred and fifty species, and with other forms of life appropriate to warm seas. On the islands and coasts of this sea was introduced the Erian flora, appearing first in the north, and with that vitality and colonizing power of which, as Hooker has well shown, the Scandinavian flora is the best modern type, spreading itself to the south. A very similar distribution of land and water in the Cretaceous age gave a warm and equable climate in those portions of North America not submerged, and coincided with the appearance of the multitude of broad-leaved trees of modern types introduced in the early and middle Cretaceous, and which prepared the way for the mammalian life of the Eocene.

We may take a still later instance from the second continental period of the later Pleistocene or early modern, when there would seem to have been a partial or entire closure of the North Atlantic against the Arctic ice, and wide extensions seaward of the European and American land, with possibly considerable tracts of land in the vicinity of the equator, while the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Mexico were deep inland lakes. The effect of such conditions on the climates of the northern hemisphere must have been prodigious, and their investigation is rendered all the more interesting because it would seem that this continental period of the post-glacial age was that in which man made his first acquaintance with the coasts of the Atlantic, and possibly made his way across its waters. We have in America ancient periods of cold, as well as of warmth.

I have elsewhere referred to the bowlder conglomerates of the Huronian, of the Cambrian and Ordovician, of the millstone-grit period of the Carboniferous and of the early Permian; but would not venture to affirm that either of these periods was comparable in its cold with the later glacial age, still less with that imaginary age of continental glaciation assumed by certain of the more extreme theorists. These ancient conglomerates were probably produced by floating ice, and this at periods when in areas not very remote temperate floras and faunas could flourish.

The glacial periods of our old continent occurred in times when the surface of the submerged land was opened up to the northern currents, drifting over it mud and sand and stones, and rendering nugatory, in so far at least as the bottom of the sea was concerned, the effects of the superficial warm streams. Some of these beds are also peculiar to the eastern margin of the continent, and indicate ice-drifts along the Atlantic coast in the same manner as at present, while conditions of greater warmth existed in the interior. Even in the more recent glacial age, while the mountains were covered with snow, and the lowlands submerged under a sea laden with ice, there were interior tracts in somewhat high latitudes of America in which hardy forest-trees and herbaceous plants flourished abundantly; and these were by no means exceptional "interglacial" periods. Thus we can show that, while from the remote Huronian period to the Tertiary the American land occupied the same position as at present, and while its changes were merely changes of relative level as compared with the sea, these have so influenced the ocean-currents as to cause great vicissitudes of climate.

Without entering on any detailed discussion of that last and greatest glacial period which is best known to us, and is more immediately connected with the early history of man and the modern animals, it may be proper to make a few general statements bearing on the relative importance of sea-borne and land ice in producing those remarkable phenomena attributable to ice-action in this period. In considering this question it must be borne in mind that the greater masses of floating ice are produced at the seaward extremities of land glaciers, and that the heavy field-ice of the Arctic regions is not so much a result of the direct freezing of the surface of the sea as of the accumulation of snow precipitated on the frozen surface.

In reasoning on the extent of ice-action, and especially of glaciers in the Pleistocene age, it is necessary to keep this fully in view. Now, in the formation of glaciers at present—and it would seem also in any conceivable former state of the earth—it is necessary that extensive evaporation should conspire with great condensation of water in the solid form. Such conditions exist in mountainous regions sufficiently near to the sea, as in Greenland, Norway, the Alps, and the Himalayas; but they do not exist in low Arctic lands like Siberia or Grinnell-land, nor in inland mountains. It follows that land glaciation has narrow limits, and that we can not assume the possibility of great confluent or continental glaciers covering the interior of wide tracts of land. No imaginable increase of cold could render this possible, inasmuch as there could not be a sufficient influx of vapor to produce the necessary condensation; and the greater the cold, the less would be the evaporation. On the other hand, any increase of heat would be felt more rapidly in the thawing and evaporation of land ice and snow than on the surface of the sea.

Applying these very simple geographical truths to the North Atlantic continents, it is easy to perceive that no amount of refrigeration could produce a continental glacier, because there could not be sufficient evaporation and precipitation to afford the necessary snow in the interior. The case of Greenland is often referred to, but this is the case of a high mass of cold land with sea, mostly open, on both sides of it, giving, therefore, the conditions most favorable to precipitation of snow. If Greenland were less elevated, or if there were dry plains around it, the case would be quite different, as Nares has well shown by his observations on the summer verdure of Grinnell-land, which, in the immediate vicinity of North Greenland, presents very different conditions as to glaciation and climate. If the plains were submerged and the Arctic currents allowed free access to the interior of the Continent of America, it is conceivable that the mountainous regions remaining out of water would be covered with snow and ice, and there is the best evidence that this actually occurred in the glacial period; but with the plains out of water this would be impossible. We see evidence of this at the present day in the fact that in unusually-cold winters the great precipitation of snow takes place south of Canada, leaving the north comparatively bare, while as the temperature becomes milder the area of snow deposit moves farther to the north. Thus, a greater extension of the Atlantic, and especially of its cold, ice-laden Arctic currents, becomes the most potent cause of a glacial age.

I have long maintained these conclusions on general geographical grounds, as well as on the evidence afforded by the Pleistocene deposits of Canada; and, in an address the theme of which is the ocean, I may be excused for continuing to regard the supposed terminal moraines of great continental glaciers as nothing but the southern limit of the ice-drift of a period of submergence. In such a period the southern margin of an ice-laden sea where its floe-ice and bergs grounded, or where its ice was rapidly melted by warmer water, and where, consequently, its burden of bowlders and other débris was deposited, would necessarily present the aspect of a moraine, which, by the long continuance of such conditions, might assume gigantic dimensions. Let it be observed, however, that I fully admit the evidence of the great extension of local glaciers in the Pleistocene age, and especially in the times of partial submergence of the land.

I am old enough to remember the sensation caused by the delightful revelations of Edward Forbes respecting the zones of animal life in the sea, and the vast insight which they gave into the significance of the work on minute organisms previously done by Ehrenberg, Lonsdale, and Williamson, and into the meaning of fossil remains. A little later the soundings for the Atlantic cable revealed the chalky foraminiferal ooze of the abyssal ocean; still more recently the wealth of facts disclosed by the Challenger voyage, which naturalists have not yet had time to digest, have opened up for us new worlds of deepsea life. The bed of the deep Atlantic is covered for the most part by a mud or ooze largely made up of the débris of foraminifera and other minute organisms mixed with fine clay. In the North Atlantic the Norwegian naturalists call this the Biloculina mud.

Farther south the Challenger naturalists speak of it as Globigerina ooze. In point of fact it contains different species of foraminiferal shells, Globigerina and Orbulina being in some localities dominant, and in others other species, and these changes are more apparent in the shallower portions of the ocean. It is also to be observed that there are means for disseminating coarse material over the ocean-bed. There are in the line of the Arctic current on the American coast great sand-banks, and off the coast of Norway, and constitute a considerable part of the bottom material. Soundings and dredgings off Great Britain, and also off the American coast, have shown that fragments of stone referable to Arctic lands are abundantly strewed over the bottom along certain lines, and the Antarctic Continent, otherwise almost unknown, makes its presence felt to the dredge by the abundant masses of crystalline rock, drifted far from it to the north.

These are not altogether new discoveries. I had inferred many years ago, from stones taken up by the hooks of fishermen on the banks of Newfoundland, that rocky material from the north is dropped on these banks by the heavy ice which drifts over them every spring, that these stones are glaciated, and that after they fall to the bottom sand is drifted over them with sufficient velocity to polish the stones and to erode the shelly coverings of Arctic animals attached to them. If, then, the Atlantic basin were upheaved into land, we should see beds of sand, gravel, and bowlders with clay flats and layers of marl and limestone. According to the Challenger reports, in the Antarctic seas south of 64°, there is blue mud with fragments of rock in depths of twelve hundred to two thousand fathoms. The stones, some of them glaciated, were granite, diorite, amphibolite, mica-schist, gneiss, and quartzite. This deposit ceases and gives place to Globigerina ooze and red clay at 46° and 47° south; but even farther north there is sometimes as much as forty-nine per cent of crystalline sand. In the Labrador current a block of syenite weighing four hundred and ninety pounds was taken up from thirteen hundred and forty fathoms, and in the Arctic current, one hundred miles from land, was a stony deposit, some stones being glaciated. Among these were smoky quartz, quartzite, limestone, dolomite, mica-schist, and serpentine; also particles of monoclinic and triclinic feldspar, hornblende, augite, magnetite, mica, and glauconite—the latter, no doubt, formed in the sea-bottom, the others drifted from Eozoic and Palæozoic formations to the north,

A remarkable fact in this connection is that the great depths of the sea are as impassable to the majority of marine animals as the land itself. According to Murray, while twelve of the Challenger's dredgings taken in depths greater than two thousand fathoms gave ninety-two species, mostly new to science, a similar number of dredgings in shallower water near the land gave no less than one thousand species. Hence arises another apparent paradox relating to the distribution of organic beings. While at first sight it might seem that the chances of wide distribution are exceptionally great for marine species, this is not so. Except in the case of those which enjoy a period of free locomotion when young, or are floating and pelagic, the deep ocean sets bounds to their migrations. On the other hand, the spores of cryptogamic plants may be carried for vast distances by the wind, and the growth of volcanic islands may effect connections which, though only temporary, may afford opportunity for land animals and plants to pass over.

With reference to the transmission of living beings across the Atlantic, we have before us the remarkable fact that from the Cambrian age onward there were on the two sides of the ocean many species of invertebrate animals, which were either identical, or so closely allied as to be possibly varietal forms. In like manner the early plants of the Upper Silurian, Devonian, and Carboniferous present many identical species; but this identity becomes less marked in the vegetation of the more modern times.

In so far as plants are concerned, it is to be observed that the early forests were largely composed of cryptogamous plants, and the spores of these in modern times have proved capable of transmission for great distances. In considering this, we can not fail to conclude that the union of simple cryptogamous fructification with arboreal stems of high complexity, so well illustrated by Dr.Williamson, had a direct relation to the necessity for rapid and wide distribution of these ancient trees. It seems also certain that some spores, as, for example, those of the Rhizocarps, a type of vegetation abundant in the Palæozoic, and certain kinds of seeds, as those named Ætheotesta and Pachytheca, were fitted for flotation. Further, the periods of Arctic warmth permitted the passage round the northern belt of many temperate species of plants, just as now happens with the Arctic flora; and when these were dispersed by colder periods they marched southward along both sides of the sea on the mountain-chains. The same remark applies to northern forms of marine invertebrates, which are much more widely distributed in longitude than those farther south. The late Mr. Gwyn Jeffreys, in one of his latest communications to this Association, stated that fifty-four per cent of the shallow-water mollusks of New England and Canada are also European, and of the deep-sea forms thirty out of thirty-five; these last, of course, enjoying greater facilities for migration than those which have to travel slowly along the shallows of the coasts in order to cross the ocean and settle themselves on both sides. Many of these animals, like the common muscle and sand-clam, are old settlers which came over in the Pleistocene period, or even earlier. Others, like the common periwinkle, seem to have been slowly extending themselves in modern times, perhaps even by the agency of man. The older immigrants may possibly have taken advantage of lines of coast now submerged, or of warm periods, when they could creep around by the Arctic shores.

Mr.Herbert Carpenter and other naturalists employed on the Challenger collections have made similar statements respecting other marine invertebrates, as, for instance, the Echinoderms, of which the deep-sea crinoids present many common species, and my own collections prove that many of the shallow-water forms are common. Dall and Whiteaves have shown that some mollusks and Echinoderms are common even to the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of North America; a remarkable fact, testifying at once to the fixity of these species, and to the manner in which they have been able to take advantage of geographical changes. Some of the species of whelks common to the Gulf of St.Lawrence and the Pacific are animals which have no special locomotive powers even when young, but they are northern forms not proceeding far south, so that they may have passed through the Arctic seas.

In this connection it is well to remark that many species of animals have powers of locomotion in youth, which they lose when adult, and that others may have special means of transit. I once found at Gaspé a specimen of the Pacific species of Coronula, or whale-barnacle, the C.reginœ of Darwin, attached to a whale taken in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and which had probably succeeded in making that passage round the north of America which so many navigators have essayed in vain. It is to be remarked here that while many plants and marine invertebrates are common to the two sides of the Atlantic, it is different with land-animals, and especially vertebrates.

I do not know that any fossil insects or land-snails or millipedes of Europe and America are specifically identical, and of the numerous species of batrachians of the Carboniferous and reptiles of the Mesozoic all seem to be distinct on the two sides. The same appears to be the case with the Tertiary mammals, until in the later stages of that great period we find such genera as the horse, the camel, and the elephant appearing on the two sides of the Atlantic; but even then the species seem different, except in the case of a few northern forms. Some of the longer-lived mollusks of the Atlantic furnish suggestions which remarkably illustrate the biological aspect of these questions. Our familiar friend the oyster is one of these. The first-known oysters appear in the Carboniferous in Belgium and in the United States of America. In the Carboniferous and Permian they are few and small, and they do not culminate till the Cretaceous, in which there are no less than ninety-one so-called species in America alone; but some of the largest known species are found in the Eocene. The oyster, though an inhabitant of shallow water, and very limitedly locomotive when young, has survived all the changes since the Carboniferous age, and has spread itself over the whole northern hemisphere. I have collected fossil oysters in the Cretaceous clays of the coulées of Western Canada, in the Lias shales of England, in the Eocene and Cretaceous beds of the Alps, of Egypt, of the Red Sea coast, of Judea, and the heights of Lebanon. Everywhere and in all formations they present forms which are so variable and yet so similar that one might suppose all the so-called species to be mere varieties. Did the oyster origiate separately on the two sides of the Atlantic, or did it cross over so promptly that its appearance seems to be identical on the two sides? Are all the oysters of a common ancestry, or did the causes, whatever they were, which introduced the oyster in the Carboniferous, act over again in later periods? "Who can tell?

This is one of the cases where causation and development—the two scientific factors which constitute the bases of what is vaguely called evolution—can not easily be isolated. I would recommend to those biologists who discuss these questions to addict themselves to the oyster. This familiar mollusk has successfully pursued its course and has overcome all its enemies, from the flat-toothed selachians of the Carboniferous to the oyster-dredgers of the present day, has varied almost indefinitely, and yet has continued to be an oyster, unless indeed it may at certain portions of its career have temporarily assumed the disguise of a Gryphæa or an Exogyra. The history of such an animal deserves to be traced with care, and much curious information respecting it will be found in the report which I have cited. But in these respects the oyster is merely an example of many forms. Similar considerations apply to all those Pliocene and Pleistocene mollusks which are found in the raised sea-bottoms of Norway and Scotland, on the top of Moel Tryfaen in Wales, and at similar great heights on the hills of America, many of which can be traced back to early Tertiary times, and can be found to have extended themselves over all the seas of the northern hemisphere. They apply in like manner to the ferns, the conifers, and the angiosperms, many of which we can now follow without even specific change to the Eocene and Cretaceous. They all show that the forms of living things are more stable than the lands and seas in which they live.

If we were to adopt some of the modern ideas of evolution, we might cut the Gordian knot by supposing that, as like causes can produce like effects, these types of life have originated more than once in geological time, and need not be genetically connected with each other. But while evolutionists repudiate such an application of their doctrine, however natural and rational, it would seem that Nature still more strongly repudiates it, and will not allow us to assume more than one origin for one species.

Thus the great question of geographical distribution remains in all its force, and, by still another of our geological paradoxes, mountains become ephemeral things in comparison with the delicate herbage which covers them, and seas are in their present extent but of yesterday when compared with the minute and feeble organisms that creep on their sands or swim in their waters. The question remains. Has the Atlantic achieved its destiny and finished its course, or are there other changes in store for it in the future? The earth's crust is now thicker and stronger than ever before, and its great ribs of crushed and folded rock are more firm and rigid than in any previous period. The stupendous volcanic phenomena manifested in Mesozoic and early Tertiary times along the borders of the Atlantic have apparently died out. These facts are in so far guarantees of permanence. On the other hand, it is known that movements of elevation along with local depression are in progress in the Arctic regions, and a great weight of new sediment is being deposited along the borders of the Atlantic, especially on its western side, and this is not improbably connected with the earthquake-shocks and slight movements of depression which have occurred in North America. It is possible that these slow and secular movements may go on uninterruptedly until considerable changes are produced; but it is quite as likely that they may be retarded or reversed. It is possible, on the other hand, that after the long period of quiescence which has elapsed there may be a new settlement of the ocean-bed, accompanied with foldings of the crust, especially on the western side of the Atlantic, and possibly with renewed volcanic activity on its eastern margin. In either case a long time relatively to our limited human chronology may intervene before the occurrence of any marked change.

On the whole, the experience of the past would lead us to expect movements and eruptive discharges in the Pacific rather than in the Atlantic area. It is therefore not unlikely that the Atlantic may remain undisturbed, unless secondarily and indirectly, until after the Pacific area shall have attained to a greater degree of quiescence than at present. But this subject is one too much involved in uncertainty to warrant us in following it further. In the mean time the Atlantic is to us a practically permanent ocean, varying only in its tides, its currents, and its winds, which science has already reduced to definite laws, so that we can use if we can not regulate them. It is ours to take advantage of this precious time of quietude, and to extend the blessings of science and of our Christian civilization from shore to shore until there shall be no more sea, not in the sense of that final drying-up of Old Ocean to which some physicists look forward, but in the higher sense of its ceasing to be the emblem of unrest and disturbance and the cause of isolation.

I must now close this address with a short statement of the general objects which I have had in view in directing your attention to the geological development of the Atlantic. We can not, I think, consider the topics to which I have referred without perceiving that the history of ocean and continent is an example of progressive design, quite as much as that of living beings. Nor can we fail to see that, while in some important directions we have penetrated the great secret of Nature in reference to the general plan and structure of the earth and its waters and the changes through which they have passed, we have still very much to learn, and perhaps quite as much to unlearn, and that the future holds out to us and to our successors higher, grander, and clearer conceptions than those to which we have yet attained. The vastness and the might of Ocean, and the manner in which it cherishes the feeblest and most fragile beings, alike speak to us of Him who holds it in the hollow of his hand, and gave to it of old its boundaries and its laws; but its teaching ascends to a higher tone when we consider its origin and history, and the manner in which it has been made to build up continents and mountain-chains, and at the same time to nourish and sustain the teeming life of sea and land.

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