Posts Tagged ‘glacier’

This week I have been putting together material for a book chapter about glaciers in literature, film and music. I was looking for an example to start the chapter to show how glaciers are often used as metaphors in art. I went with this one.

Ned Selfe is a musician who grew up in the deep south of the USA and is now based in Hawaii. His main instrument is the Steel Guitar. In 1995, when he produced his first album, he chose the title “Glaciers Come, Glaciers Go”. It didn’t seem an obvious choice of title for a rock-jazz new age album by a Hawaii-Southerner with tracks called Castaway, Wavelength and Ocean Avenue, so I wrote to ask him why. He explained that he wanted an image that would allude to the transitory nature of human consciousness: we all tend to inflate our current problem or obsession into a giant megalith that seems forever unchanging and all consuming, when in fact it will soon melt and fade into the next thing that will occupy our thoughts.

Selfe told me that the idea of using the glacier for that metaphor came from  his reading of M. Scott Peck’s book “The Road Less Travelled”. Writing about how we choose a map for our life, Peck wrote: “… the biggest problem of map-making is not that we have to start from scratch, but that if our maps are to be accurate we have to continually revise them.  The world itself is constantly changing.  Glaciers come, glaciers go.  Cultures come, cultures go.  …the vantage point from which we view the world is constantly and quite rapidly changing… we must continually revise our maps.”

You can say a lot using glaciers as a metaphor. Even if you say it from Hawaii with a steel guitar.

In 2000 the film maker Ruth Meyer made a short dance film “Breath Crystal” in memory of her grandparents who died in Auschwitz. It was a choreographic interpretation of the Paul Celan poem “Weggebeist” from Celan’s volume of poetry Atemkristall (Breathcrystal) written in commemoration of the victims of the holocaust. The film’s message about our fragility and yet our ability to overcome is delivered through a dancer’s journey across the ice of the Turtmann Glacier, Switzerland, and the glass objects that he encounters while Celan’s voice intones the lines of the poem over the soundtrack.

People have used glaciers to say a lot of different things in a lot of different ways.


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You have to love science, much as you have to love a slightly naughty, slightly incompetent little child when it claims to have worked something out about the world for the first time ever.  The study of the history of science may seem a dull and distant cousin to the cutting edge of modern research, but history has many virtues, one of which is to help prevent us having to reinvent forgotten wheels. Researching the history of glaciology for my new book “Glacier”  I have encountered many cases where discoveries have been made, written up… and then forgotten, only for the same questions to be asked again a generation later.

In 2001 the Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association included a paper that the authors described as “the first comprehensive description and interpretation of Pleistocene glacigenic deposits exposed in a cliff section at Thurstaston on the Wirral Peninsula, NW England.” It was a splendid paper, and did indeed provide the most comprehensive description and analysis of that site to date. It even referred to previously published literature about the glaciation of the UK from as early as 1860 to set the historical context for the work. However, it didn’t refer to one particular publication from that era: a fairly obscure note published in “The Glacialists’ Magazine” in 1895 under the heading “Notes on the glacial deposits on the Cheshire shore of the Dee Estuary” by Arthur R. Dwerryhouse, which was itself a detailed description and analysis of those same sediments. The 1895 paper seems to have fallen into the great pit of forgotten knowledge.

The 2001 paper set out to address the ongoing debate about whether the sediments were deposited by a land-based glacier or laid down under water, and whether the different sediments in the sequence represented different events or different processes operating within the context of a single event.  Dwerryhouse in 1895 had used much the same evidence as the 2001 team, including clast lithological analysis, striations on individual boulders and on boulder pavements, and deformation structures and clast fabrics in the sediments to settle the same argument for a previous generation. He concluded that the sediments were glacial, with the “boulder clay” deposited directly by an ice sheet while the sand and gravel were deposited by streams flowing at the base of that ice sheet. The list below compares extracts from the 2001 publication with extracts from the note published a hundred years earlier:

2001: The sedimentary succession at Thurstaston is best explained by the advance and subsequent recession of a single terrestrially based ice sheet during the Late Devensian. Both the diamictons are interpreted as basal, deformation tills with the interbeds of the sand, gravel and mud lithofacies as indicators of subglacial meltwater flow and ponding.

1895: The boulder clays I attribute, then, to the direct action of an ice sheet, and the gravels and sands to subglacial drainage.


2001 There is no evidence at Thurstaston to suggest a glaciomarine origin for the Late Devensian deglaciation sediments on this margin of the Irish Sea basin.

1895: I cannot see any evidence in the deposits on this shore in favour of the view that the beds were deposited in deep water.


2001: The diamicton lithofacies can be divided into an upper, clast-poor sandy diamicton and multiple units of a lower, clast-rich sandy diamicton.

1895: …two distinct layers of boulder-clay are shown in the cliffs. The lower bed… is sandy and of a bright red colour. The upper bed is… extremely varied in composition, in some places being very gravelly.


2001: (There is a) lack of clearly defined changes in clast lithology through the various lithofacies… Particularly distinctive rocks include the Borrowdale Volcanic Group tuffs, the Ennerdale granophyre and Eskdale granite. …

1895: Both beds contain shell fragments and their boulder contents appear to be similar. The latter consists of Eskdale granite, Buttermere granophyres, Scotch granites, Lake District volcanic rocks…

In a way it is reassuring to know that science can repeat its results in an independent re-study of the same question after a gap of a hundred years. Somehow it is comforting, also, to know that the till at Thurstaston hasn’t changed in that time. And it is astonishing to see how Victorian scientists over a century ago could reach the same conclusions as scientists in the 21st century, and then have their work lost and forgotten. It makes you wonder what else has been lost, and what will happen, over the course of time, to the things we are finding out today.

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This week I am putting together a new introductory lecture on Glacial Geomorphology for my re-organised Glaciers module. What might one say right at the start of a series of lectures on glacial geomorphology? I thought I might say something like this:

For many of us one big reason for getting interested in Physical Geography has been an interest in the physical environment around us. Our most immediate and direct contact with the rest of the universe is through the small part of it that we can see and touch and walk around.  We can experience and witness the wonders of the universe, at least in a small way, through the wonders of our own planet.

The world is an amazing place, and many of us became geographers because we wanted to experience, know about, and work in the world’s great landscapes: mountains, deserts, volcanoes, glaciers… There are many elements to a landscape, from the underlying rocks to the plants that grow on them and the structures that people build, but if we strip away everything that is superficial the underlying framework of a landscape is its topography, its shape, its morphology. That is one reason why many people put geomorphology at the heart of Physical Geography.

One of the reasons that some of us have been drawn especially to the geomorphology of harsh wilderness environments such as deserts, high mountains and glacial areas is that in these environments the superficial elements are swept away. Vegetation is limited. Human structures are few. The basics of the landscape, its bones, are clearly exposed. The underlying framework becomes prominent in these environments.


Glacial landscape in West Greenland

The most valuable experience in my professional life has been to spend extended periods of time in these remote places. It has been worthwhile not only for their intrinsic interest but also because having seen landscapes with the superficial elements removed now allows me to recognise the same basic structural elements when I see them in other environments where they are largely obscured by superficial clutter. It’s easy to be amazed and say “wow” at a huge meltwater channel cutting through the frozen tundra, but very difficult even to recognise that spectacular channel when it is covered in woodland and urban development where it cuts through Stoke-on-Trent.

So the first great joy of glacial geomorphology is the opportunity to see geomorphology with a special clarity in modern glacial environments where processes and landforms are very prominent in the landscape. The second great joy of glacial geomorphology is being able to transfer the clarity of vision gained in  modern glacial environments to the study of ancient glacial environments such as those in the UK where the evidence is often less prominent.

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My colleagues on the social / cultural side of Geography frequently use the word “turn” to describe changes in attitude or emphasis within the discipline. They talk about the “cultural turn” or the “feminist turn” or the “mobility turn” to refer to points in the history of the subject where attention turned towards those themes or issues. I take their use of “turn” to be similar to what I have always referred to in science as a “paradigm shift”: a change in the basic outlook of a discipline based on a fundamental shift in core knowledge or philosophy. That term comes from the work of the philosopher Thomas Kuhn, who wrote a book called “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” in 1962 in which he differentiated between periods of “normal science” when most people are working within a particular paradigm, and periods of revolution or “paradigm shifts” when either gradual progress or a new development within a subject makes traditional approaches untenable and causes people to start working under a new set of assumptions. The history of science is full of these points.

I am currently doing research for a new book that I am writing about glaciers, and just now I’m in a section focusing on the history of the science of glaciers. My book is aimed at a wide audience, but I also want it to be relevant academically within the discipline of Geography, since that discipline has been at the centre of all my professional writing. The early history of glacier science provides an outstanding example of a paradigm shift, and I have been exploring the idea that this particular paradigm shift could be referred to as a “glacial turn” that affected broad areas of science and of wider culture in the middle of the 19th century. I am thinking that it might be interesting to include some discussion of that notion in my book.

In the early part of the nineteenth century it was not widely recognised that glaciers had ever been much more extensive than they are now. It was widely believed that Noah’s flood from the Bible was the last major event to affect our landscape. People did not imagine there had ever been an “ice age”. Then around 1840 a man called Louis Agassiz brought together ideas from a small number of earlier observers and unleashed upon the geological world the astonishing idea that huge areas of the planet had at one time been buried beneath enormous ice sheets, and that the landscapes that we see around us now in places like the UK and North America were created by ice in that glacial age. The “Glacial Theory” was a huge idea, and gave a completely new perspective to our view of how the world works and how landscapes are created. Looking back at that period now, one remarkable thing is how quickly and how deeply this new idea penetrated not only geology but science, and popular culture, more generally. The sudden realisation that glaciers came and went over the face of the planet through time and that the landscapes of the “civilised world” had been created by glaciers of which the scars were still clearly visible, changed our view of many things. When Charles Darwin published his ideas about evolution (another paradigm shift!)  in “The Origin of Species” in 1859, he cited Agassiz’s recent work and used the idea of the “Glacial Period”, and the climate change that it implied, in his own argument.

Our understanding of the physical world changed abruptly at that point when Louis Agassiz demonstrated that glaciers had once been much bigger and had changed the landscape in an enormous, ancient ice age.  Our perspective on our own position in the world also changed. Our recognition of the very fact of glaciers and ice ages, what I refer to as our “noticing” of glaciers, has a massive impact on our view of the world both in a physical, practical sense and in an almost metaphysical sense of grounding our perception of our place in the world. It gives us a new context. A world with glaciers in it gives us a particular way of recognising both scale and fragility in the environment, and that recognition is reflected strongly in our image of ourselves within that environment.  On the one hand glaciers and ice sheets make us feel very small. On the other hand, our impact upon them shows us to be very big in our ability to affect the planet. This evolving view has been reflected in the increasing sophistication of the way glaciers have featured in art and, recently, in international environmental politics. We live, therefore, not only in a physical ice age (an age when there are glaciers present on earth) but also, and only for the last century or so, in a cultural ice age, in other words a period when humanity notices, recognises, and ascribes physical and cultural importance to glaciers. We live in an age where glaciers affect our view of the world, and of ourselves.

Whether from a purely scientific perspective, or from a perspective that includes cultural, psychological or even metaphysical points of view, the paradigm shift represented by Agassiz’s promotion of the Glacial Theory from about 1840 can therefore be considered as what some of my colleagues would call a “turn”. I have recently been reading work by Adriana Craciun that refers to the “Oceanic Turn” in the 18th century. I think in my book I may find myself referring to the “Glacial Turn” of the 19th Century.

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I started a major new project this week: a new book called “Glacier” that has been commissioned by Reaktion Books. “Started” might not be quite the right word, as I put together the proposal last summer and signed the contracts over six months ago, but I like to start every big project with a period of doing nothing: just letting the task sit quietly at the back of my mind for a while. Settling in.

Looking at the proposal yesterday after a six-month cooling-off period it had become sufficiently distant and unfamiliar that I could see it as a new reader would see it. It was interesting how, after six months, new ideas and new connections jumped up at me crying out to be included in the plan. That’s what happens in the six months of doing nothing: everything that you do on other work gets subconsciously filtered, analysed and stored up ready to be released when the project is reawakened.

Some of the new ideas come from new things that I have discovered and explored in the intervening time. For example the proposal includes a short list of different ways of looking at glaciers: as part of a physical system; as an inspiration for artists and scientists; as a victim of human environmental impact; etc. Looking at that list today it seems obvious to me that I should have put it in the context of the “Beholding Eye” work of geographer D.W.Meinig, because over the last six months I have been learning about Meinig’s work, and each new thing we learn shuffles itself into a position in our grand view of everything. “Ah!” I say, “that needs to go in the book”. (If you don’t know who I’m talking about, I have an entry about Meinig and “The Beholding Eye” here in my “Deep Geography” pages).

Other links and connections come not from things I’ve discovered, but from ideas I’ve been developing in parallel projects. I’m not sure if it shows clear-minded focus or narrow-minded shallowness on my part that as I brushed the dust off the Glacier proposal I realised that it fitted nicely into the framework of a “new” project that I’ve been starting to work on over the last couple of months. I had actually forgotten completely that I had included a whole chapter in the Glacier proposal called “Beyond Physical Geography”, which expands upon the idea that Physical Geography connects us to something beyond ourselves: “a way of seeing more, beyond the obvious, through the boundary between vision and imagination”. Although I had forgotten that section, and was mightily impressed yesterday with what I’d written about glaciers and unicorns (yes, really… you’ll need to read the book!), it illustrated again how leaving the project to rest for half a year allows ideas to come together. For the last few months I’ve been working on an idea that I call “Total Geography” about which  I’ll say more in a following post. I realised for the first time yesterday that my Total Geography project and my Beyond Physical Geography chapter were aspects of the same big idea.

And so clearly the time for doing nothing has run its natural course. Ideas have started to converge. I’ve cleared the decks of all distraction (for the first time ever, I think, I don’t have a single e-mail awaiting attention in my inbox right now).  It’s time to begin. Ironic, then, that instead of getting started I’m writing a blog post about getting started, and I have an appointment this week to meet with my co-author on another project to sign another book contract. Appropriately, that book is to be called “Big Ideas in Physical Geography”, and the meeting is to sign the contract, eat cake, and celebrate the start of doing nothing for a year on “Big Ideas” while I get started on “Glacier”. Here we go!

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