American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The American Alpine Club as Auxiliary in Glacial Research

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  • Publication Year: 1949

The American Alpine Club as an Auxiliary in Glacial Research

Richard Foster Flint

[It is a pleasure to reprint the address which Professor Flint, Professor of Geology at Yale and Vice-Chairman of the Arctic Institute of North America, delivered at a meeting last January.—Ed.]

MEMBERS of the American Alpine Club have the ability to perform a very useful service in research in glacial geology, and at the same time to add to the interest and significance of their climbing expeditions.

Most people have an exaggerated idea of the extent of knowledge of the glacial geology of the world’s mountains—even the mountains of North America. Actually there are big blank spaces in our knowledge of these things. The more remote the mountains, the bigger the blank. Many would be surprised to learn that even in so readily accessible a highland as the Adirondack Mountains we are in need of certain specific information that any intelligent person, properly briefed, could gather.

Alpine Club members get to the more remote mountain areas, the high places difficult of access, more often than do geologists. Glacial geologists, especially, are few in number—there are hardly more than 50 in the United States—and the regional scope of their research activities is therefore limited. Most of them (myself included, for the time being) are spending their efforts in plains country, which is no doubt the very last field in which the American Alpine Club would be interested. As a result, most mountain areas are untouched or rarely visited by professionals.

This situation offers an open door to climbers who have an interest in science as well as in climbing. Although not trained as geologists, members of the Club have all the other qualities it takes to bring in valuable information. They are people of superior education and superior intellect, accustomed to outdoor life, trained in observation, and handy with simple instruments. With this combination of qualities, they can make a lasting contribution to the science of glacial geology, if only they are briefed on what to look for.

The synthesis for which observational data are needed is this: Glacial geologists are trying to reconstruct a picture of the extent and character of the great glaciers of the former ice ages. These glaciers, when at their greatest extent, covered more than 30% of the land area of the world. Nearly all the glaciers originated in mountains. We are trying to identify their mountain sources and the directions in which they flowed.

This requires the compilation of a vast amount of very detailed information. A first approximation to such a compilation is the Glacial Map of North America, put together by a committee of geologists appointed by the National Research Council. The compilation represents contributions from hundreds of individuals, by no means all of whom were geologists. Five hundred individual contributions have much more than 500 times the value of a single contribution, because each makes all the others more significant.

The Glacial Map of North America was published in 1945 and is distributed by the Geological Society of America, 419 West 117th Street, New York 27, N. Y. A second, revised edition is contemplated, and more information is needed in order to make it as nearly complete as possible.

Specifically, we want at least six kinds of information:

The directions of flow of the former glaciers, determined by

Stoss-and-lee topography in hillocks or bosses of bedrock,

Striations and grooves.

The azimuth direction of flow should be determined as accurately as possible, with a compass. It should be noted whether the direction is measured from magnetic north or from true north.

The lower or outer limit of glaciation.

This is determined at the place where glacial features (U-valleys, hanging tributaries, polished bedrock surfaces) end, and where normal valleys and tributaries, and weathered bedrock surfaces, begin.

The vertical upper limit of glaciation in a valley.

This makes it possible to determine the approximate thickness of the former ice.

4. Fluctuations in former glaciers caused by climatic changes, determined by

End moraines, lateral moraines,

Sections of deposits exposed in stream banks and other places,

5. The altitude of former regional snowline.

This has valuable climatic implications, and is determined by obtaining the altitudes of floors of cirques (where no good topographic maps exist, from which altitudes can be measured directly).

Any unusual occurrence, such as pieces of trees above present timberline, imbedded in glacier ice or in glacial drift.

Such evidence shows that timberline was formerly at a higher altitude, probably during an interglacial warm climate.

To get all this information you need only four things: (1) a sharp eye, (2) a base map, (3) a compass, (4) an aneroid barometer or an altimeter.

By way of general advice, I should make these suggestions:

Plot all locations on a map, as accurately as possible, and estimate and note down the probable degree of accuracy.

Write descriptive notes on the spot, to supplement the map.

Wherever possible, take photographs of the glacial features observed, noting the exact location and direction of view of each. In photographs of small features, include some familiar object that will serve as a scale.

Take samples wherever samples may be helpful, providing they can be carried without inconvenience.

The foregoing six observations and four pieces of general advice constitute the basic briefing for observations that can have very real value. In any specific project, of course, further briefing will be necessary. A general reference work is Richard Foster Flint, Glacial Geology and the Pleistocene Epoch (New York: Wiley, 1947). This book is in the library of the American Alpine Club and will be found also in most large or well-equipped libraries.

To anyone who is planning an expedition and will let me know where it will go, I shall be glad to reply as to what we already know about glaciation and what new facts to look for. If the results are sent to me when the expedition returns, I shall see that they are included on the Glacial Map of North America. Each contributor to this map will be acknowledged on the face of the map itself.

If members of the American Alpine Club would be willing to act as a geologic auxiliary, they could bring appreciably nearer the time when our present problems will be solved and when we shall understand fully the remarkable events that transpired during the glacial ages many thousands of years ago.

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