Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Letters to the Editor on the
Causes of the Ice Age (1880-1881, 1896):
S325, S331, S335, S336, S520, and S521

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: The following six letters to the Editor (the first sent to Geological Magazine, the rest to Nature), discuss various objections raised to Wallace's ideas on the causes of the Ice Age. Original paginations indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with:

Dr. Croll's Excentricity Theory (S325: 1880)

    [[p. 284]] Sir,--In your last number Mr. Searles V. Wood advances what he considers to be "the conclusive objection" to Dr. Croll's theory of excentricity as a cause of the glacial epoch, viz. that North America was glaciated further south than Europe, in proportion to its present difference of winter climate, while Dr. Croll admits his theory "to be baseless unless there was a complete diversion of the warm ocean currents from the hemisphere glaciated."

    I do not myself remember that Dr. Croll ever made such an admission, and it is certainly not necessary for the application of his theory. But whether there was a partial or a complete diversion of the Gulf-stream from the coasts of Europe, the result anticipated by Mr. S. V. Wood--a complete similarity in the extension of ice over the two continents--was not to be expected, because they are subject to very different conditions, independently of the action of ocean currents.

    Europe is interpenetrated by seas having a southward opening, while the mass of land in Western Europe is trifling compared to that of North America. Transfer the Mediterranean to America and you have a sea entering south of Cape Hatteras, and extending quite across the continent to the Sierra Nevada of California, with northward branches reaching to Lake Huron! The influence of such a sea receiving the waters of one of the largest tropical rivers (the Nile), together with the broken form of the western coast of Europe and the narrowness of the land, must be alone sufficient to give Western Europe an insular climate as compared with Eastern America. But at the same time we have on the American side conditions tending in the very reverse direction. The enormous ice-bearing masses of Greenland and Grinnell's Land immediately to the north and north-east, and the Highlands of Labrador in the latitude of the Germanic plain, combined with the great cul-de-sac of Hudson's Bay, to receive icebergs from the north, and pile them up in its southern inlet, almost in the latitude of London, must have tended to lower the climate of North America during the Glacial epoch as much as the Mediterranean and the Bay of Biscay must have ameliorated that of Europe.

    These causes of difference of climate depend on broad geographical facts, which we have every reason to believe existed during the Glacial epoch as they do now, and they appear to me amply sufficient to account for the 10° or 12° further southward extension of the ice in America than in Europe, even if the Gulf-stream were "completely diverted." But I do not believe it was completely, but only partially diverted and also diminished in intensity, and it therefore still exerted some differential action on the climates of the opposite coasts of the Atlantic. I would also point out that the difference between the latitudes of points with the same winter isothermals in West Europe and East America averages about 20°, which is much greater than the difference of the [[p. 285]] limit of glaciation in the countries, and this would show that some equalizing effect was produced by the diminished and partial diverted Gulf-stream, as Dr. Croll's theory requires.

    Having recently been subjecting the whole of the evidence on the subject of "geological climates" to a careful examination, I may state, that I have arrived at an important modification of Dr. Croll's theory, which will, I believe, obviate the chief objections that have hitherto been made to it. The subject will be fully discussed in a volume I am now engaged in printing.

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Geological Climates (S331: 1880)

    [[p. 124]] It was with great surprise I read Prof. Haughton's unqualified statement in last week's Nature, that--"It is impossible to suggest any rearrangement of land and water which shall sensibly raise the temperature of the West of Europe,"--since I had, as I thought, in my recently-published volume--"Island Life"--not only "suggested" such a rearrangement, but also adduced much evidence to show that it had actually occurred throughout the periods when both the West of Europe and the Arctic regions enjoyed a much higher temperature than they do now. I will now briefly re-state my "suggestion," and will also make a few remarks on the general causes of difference of temperature, which may serve to render the subject more intelligible.

    It is now well known that places in the temperate zones owe their temperature at different seasons only partially to the amount of direct sun-heat they receive, but very largely to the amounts of heat brought to them by currents of air. Thus we explain, not only the mild winter climate of our islands as due to the prevalence of westerly and south-westerly winds which have become warmed by passing over the Atlantic, but also the wonderful inequality of temperature at different seasons of the year. When we have warm spring-like days in mid-winter, it is because these warm currents of air are passing steadily over our islands; while continued hard frosts are as clearly due to masses of cold air from the north or north-east which drift down to us, often with no perceptible wind. Again, when in April and May we have days as cold as those of December and January, they can always be traced to northerly or easterly currents of air, and are probably often connected with the southern drift of the icebergs at that season. It is clear then, that if south-westerly winds were to continue throughout the winter, the severity of that season would be entirely abolished; and the same effect would be produced if by any means the winds from the north and east lost their severity.

    Now the source of the constant warmth of our westerly winds is admitted to be the influx of warm water into the North Atlantic--chiefly by the Gulf Stream; and this warm northward flow of tropical water, being primarily due to the trade-winds, is not confined to the Atlantic, but is equally present in the other great oceans, and similar effects are produced in them, though nowhere to so great a degree as in our islands, owing to our insular position and the great extent to which Europe to the east of us is permeated by water as compared with North America or Asia. The North Pacific, with its great Japan current, is probably quite as warm as the North Atlantic; but Vancouver's Island, though further south than London, has not so mild a climate; and this can be clearly traced to the great mass of land to the east and north of it, the lofty snow-clad mountains, and the absence of those deep gulfs and inland seas which do so much to ameliorate the climate of Europe.

    Prof. Haughton states, in his "Lectures on Physical Geography," that the Kuro Siwo, or great Pacific current, is two and a half times as large as the Gulf Stream, while the Mozambique current, which forms the outflow of the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, is one and a half times as much, so that these two currents have together four times the bulk and heating power of the Gulf Stream. If therefore these two currents at any time obtained an entrance into the Arctic Ocean, it is difficult to over-estimate their effect on its climate. The Gulf Stream, of which probably not half passes northwards of our islands, gives to Iceland the same winter temperature as Philadelphia, and keeps the North Cape (far within the Arctic circle) permanently free from ice, and this, notwithstanding the powerful counteracting influences of the lofty Scandinavian mountains on the one side, and the huge ice-clad plateau of Greenland on the other. Suppose that only an equal proportion of the Kuro Siwo entered the Arctic Ocean, is it not probable that no sea-ice at all would form there? While, if Greenland were less elevated and thus ceased to be an accumulator of ice, the combined effect might be to render the whole Polar area free of icebergs. This would at once do away with the chief source of winter cold to all north temperate lands, and ameliorate the climate of America as much, proportionately, as that of Europe.

    But we have yet to consider a still more powerful agent in ameliorating the climate of Western Europe in Secondary and early Tertiary times. The heated waters of the Indian Ocean have now no northern outlet, and only penetrate the continent in the sub-tropical Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Now if we suppose the waters of the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea to have had northward outlets through the heart of the Euro-Asiatic continent, penetrating in two or more directions into the then much more extensive Arctic Ocean, we should have an agency at work which would render the presence of any permanent ice in the North Polar area as impossible as it is now in Scotland. The cooling agency of ice being once abolished, the comparatively small area of the Polar as compared with the Tropical seas (about one-tenth) would facilitate the raising of the temperature of the former to perhaps 15° or 20° F. above the freezing point, and this would not only give the Arctic lowlands a climate quite sufficient for the vegetation which we know they supported, but, by doing away with the only source of our winter cold, would give our islands a perfect immunity from frosts and render them capable of supporting the vegetation now characteristic of sub-tropical lands.

    That the modifications of land and sea here indicated did exist throughout a considerable portion of past geological ages, and that the existing consolidation of the great northern continents, to which the possibility of our present Arctic climates is mainly due, is a comparatively recent and abnormal phenomenon, I have endeavoured to prove in the work already referred to. At present I have only undertaken to show, that a "suggested" re-arrangement of land and water adequate to raise the temperature of Western Europe to a very sensible, or even to a very large extent, is "possible."

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Geological Climates (S335: 1881)

    [[p. 217]] I should not say more on this subject, but that the last paragraph of Mr. Starkie Gardner's letter seems to imply that I have adopted some of his views without acknowledgment. Now I certainly read his article in Nature of December 12, 1878, with much interest and profit; but, as regards the special question of the cause of the mild climates of Eocene and Miocene times, I entirely disagreed with his views, as is sufficiently shown by my recent letter in Nature. I quite admit that the closing up of the North Atlantic between Europe and North America might have considerably raised the temperature of Britain, but it would just as certainly have rendered the Arctic regions even colder than they are now, by shutting out the Gulf Stream, whereas all the evidence points to continuous mild Arctic climates through Cretaceous, Eocene, and Miocene times. Again, though I admit that there has probably, on more than one occasion during the Tertiary period, been a land connection between North-West Europe and North-East America, yet the peculiar distribution of the Tertiary mammalia of Europe and North America indicates that such connection was exceptional, and only endured for very short periods, the rule being a separation like that which now exists. I could therefore only have quoted Mr. Gardner's view to disagree with it; and I did not think it advisable to encumber the exposition of my own theory with more references of this kind than were absolutely necessary. I may add, that the extension of the Miocene Arctic flora to Grinnell Land since Mr. Gardner's article appeared, renders his views still more untenable. Of course I here refer to my chapter on "Mild Arctic Climates" in "Island Life." In my letter to Nature I confined myself strictly to the point raised by Prof. Haughton, which I did not consider had been adequately met by Mr. Gardner's hypothesis.

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Geological Climates (S336: 1881)

    [[p. 266]] The letter of Prof. Haughton in last week's Nature so bristles with figures and calculations that some of your readers may feel a little puzzled and may be unable to detect the fallacies that lurk among them. The question is far too large a one to be fully discussed in your columns. I shall therefore confine myself to pointing out the erroneous assumptions and false inferences which vitiate all the learned Professor's calculations, having done which my own theory will remain, so far, intact.

    The whole argument against me is based upon an "ideal ice-cap," extending from the Pole to lat. 60°. A considerable but unknown thickness is given to this imaginary field of ice, and it is then calculated that the three great ocean streams, even if admitted to the Arctic area in the manner I suggest, would not get rid of this mass of ice. There are however several important misconceptions and illogical deductions underlying the whole argument, and when these are exposed the results, however accurately worked out, become completely valueless.

    We first have it stated that if heat and cold were uniformly distributed over the Polar regions the whole would be permanently frozen over, and an ice-cap be formed of great but varying thickness, diminishing from the Pole to about lat. 60°. But even this preliminary statement is open to serious doubt; for ice cannot be formed without an adequate supply of water, and over a large part of the Polar area no more snow falls than is annually melted by the sun and by warm southerly winds blowing over the heated land-surfaces of Asia and America. Admitting however that any such ice-cap could be formed, it would certainly not form in one year but by the accumulations of a long series of years; and any estimate of the total heat required to melt it has no bearing whatever on the annual amount that would be sufficient, since this depends solely on the average thickness of the ice annually formed, of which Prof. Haughton says nothing whatever.

    The amount of rainfall in the Arctic regions (mostly in the form of snow) is certainly very small. It is estimated by Dr. Rink to be only twelve inches in Greenland, and this is probably far above the average. All that falls on the inland plains of Asia, Europe, and America is however melted or evaporated by the action of the sun and air far from the influence of the Gulf Stream. The thickness of ice formed annually over the whole area of the Arctic Ocean I have no means of estimating. In open water in very high latitudes it may be considerable, but perennial ice-fields can only increase very slowly. I should therefore very much doubt if the thickness of ice now formed annually over the whole Arctic area averages nearly so much as five feet; and Prof. Haughton himself calculates that our own Gulf Stream is now capable of melting this quantity.

    The first assumption, therefore--that the amount of heat required to be introduced into the Arctic regions in order to raise their mean temperature above the freezing-point is "accurately measured" by the amount required to melt an "ice-cap" covering the whole area to a thickness of several hundred feet--is grossly erroneous; and it is so because it takes the hypothetical accumulated effects of many years Arctic cold under altogether impossible conditions, and then estimates the amount of heat required to melt this whole accumulation in one year!

    But we find a second and equally important error, in the assumption (involved in all Prof. Haughton's arguments and figures) that all the ice of the alleged "ideal ice-cap" must be melted by that portion of the Gulf Stream which actually enters the Polar area, where its temperature is taken to be 35° F. or only 3° above the melting point of ice. A large quantity of the Arctic ice, however, even now floats southward to beyond lat. 50° in both the Atlantic and Pacific, and is melted by the warmer water and atmosphere and the hotter sun of these lower latitudes. Now, as it is an essential part of my theory that much of Northern Asia and North America were under water at those early periods when warm climates prevailed in the Arctic regions, it is clear that whatever Arctic ice was then formed would have a freer passage southwards, and as the south-flowing return currents would then have been more powerful and more extensive than at present, a much larger proportion of the ice would have been melted by the heat of temperate instead of by that of Arctic seas.

    Prof. Haughton admits that the Kuro Siwo and the Mozambique currents together, if they entered the Polar seas, would be equal to the melting of a layer of ice more than thirteen feet thick over the whole area down to lat. 70°. But if our own Gulf Stream is sufficient to get rid of the whole of the ice that now forms annually--as Prof. Haughton's figures show that it would probably be, and as it would be still more certainly were Greenland depressed, thus ceasing to be the great Arctic refrigerator and ice-accumulator--then the heat of the other two currents would be employed in raising the temperature of the Arctic seas above [[p. 267]] the freezing-point; and if we take the area of the water as about equal to that of the land, we shall have heat enough to raise the whole Arctic ocean to a depth of full 180 feet more than 20° F., or to a mean temperature of 52° F., and as this would imply a still higher surface temperature it is considerably more than I require.

    Unless therefore Prof. Haughton can prove that the amount of ice now forming annually in the Polar regions is very much more than an average of five feet thick over the whole area, his own figures demonstrate my case for me, since they prove that the rearrangement of land and sea which I have suggested would produce a permanent mild climate within the Arctic circle and proportionally raise the mean temperature of all north-temperate lands.

    Briefly to summarise my present argument:--Prof. Haughton's fundamental error consists in assuming that the true way of estimating the amount of heat required in order to raise the temperature of the Polar area a certain number of degrees is,--first, to suppose an accumulation of ice indefinitely greater than actually exists, and then to demand heat enough to melt this accumulation annually. The utmost possible accumulations of ice in the Arctic area, during an indefinite number of years, and under the most adverse physical conditions imaginable, are to be all melted in one year; and the heat required to do this is said to be the "accurate measure" of that required to raise the temperature of the same area about 20°, at a time when there were no such great accumulations of ice and when all the physical conditions adverse to its accumulation and favourable to its dispersal were immensely more powerful than at present!

    When this fundamental error is corrected, it will be seen that Prof. Haughton's calculations are not only quite compatible with my views, but actually lend them a strong support.

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The Cause of an Ice Age (S520: 1896)

    [[p. 220]] The letter of Prof. G. H. Darwin in your last issue states very clearly the argument on which Mr. Culverwell and himself rely as affording a demonstration of the inadequacy of the astronomical theory. It now seems opportune, therefore, to lay before your readers the general considerations which lead me to the conclusion that the whole argument they rest upon is unsound; and, further, that Sir Robert Ball's ratio of 63 to 37, representing the ratios of sun-heat received by each hemisphere in summer and winter respectively, is (contrary to Prof. Darwin's view) an important factor in any adequate discussion of the problem.

    Accepting Prof. Darwin's estimate that the difference in the amount of sun-heat received in our latitudes during high and low eccentricity, would only give to Yorkshire the amount received by London or vice versa, I entirely demur to his statement that this would be also a measure of the amount of change in the climates of these places. To do so is to assume that the climate of a place, as regards the amount and distribution [[p. 221]] of its temperature, is determined by one factor only--the amount of sun-heat it receives.

    How very erroneous is this assumption, may be shown by the contrasted climates of places on the east and west sides of the Atlantic, due to the influence of both ocean-currents and prevalent winds; but even more strikingly by a comparison (which I made in my "Tropical Nature") between certain tropical and temperate climates. In Java, about 8° south of the equator, the altitude of the noonday sun in June is about 58 1/2°, while at London during the same month it is 62°, the length of the day at the same time being 5 1/2 hours greater with us. The sun-heat received in London must therefore be considerably greater than that received in Java, and, according to the rule that the amount of sun-heat determines temperature, London should then have the warmest climate. The fact, however, is that our mean temperature in June is more than 20° lower than that of Java and our mean highest temperature about 18° lower, a result due, as I have shown, to a variety of causes, of which the temperature of the atmosphere in all surrounding areas, the action of aqueous vapour in reducing the loss by radiation, and the accumulation of heat in the soil, are probably the most important. These facts prove, I think, that the amount of heat received by the whole hemisphere, through its influence on both oceanic and aerial currents, must be taken account of in estimating temperatures under different phases of eccentricity; and that any determination of the amounts of sun-heat received at particular latitudes, considered by themselves, are necessarily misleading and must usually indicate a difference of climate far below the truth.

    But there is another consideration of even more importance which entirely invalidates the arguments of those who, like Mr. Culverwell and Prof. Darwin, treat the problem as one to be determined by a simple mathematical calculation of amounts of sun-heat received on the same area at different times. This is, the remarkable difference in the behaviour of air and liquid water on the one hand and snow and ice on the other, as regards climate; the former from their great mobility tending to the diffusion of heat, the latter by its comparative immobility to the accumulation and perpetuation of cold. Without this power of accumulation perpetual snow on tropical and temperate mountains, and glaciers in hot sub-alpine valleys and at only 705 feet above the sea-level in latitude 43° 35' south in New Zealand, would be impossible. In either of these cases, if an elevation of about a thousand feet should double the area of the snow fields, which might easily be the case, the outflowing glaciers would be greatly increased in magnitude and might either descend to much lower levels or spread out over large areas of the lowlands--and all this without any change whatever in the total amount of sun-heat received by the countries in which they occur.1

    For some years past there has been a persistent attack by astronomers and physicists on the explanation of the glacial epoch put forth by Croll and adopted with some modifications by many students of glacial phenomena. But as these writers have all treated the problem as a question of the direct effect of the amount of sun-heat received at different epochs in corresponding latitudes, completely ignoring the great distributing and accumulating agencies which are always and everywhere in action, their theoretical conclusions appear to us to be entirely beside the question. We have to deal with a highly complicated problem in physical meteorology, which cannot be solved by an appeal to the well-known facts of the amounts of sun-heat received, any more than can the June climates of London and Batavia or the general climates of Ireland and Manitoba or Terra-del-Fuego (in about the same latitude) be explained from similar data. The great merit of Croll was, that he fully realised the complexity of the problem; that he took account of the various relations and reactions of the oceanic and aerial currents, and the physical characteristics of air and water, snow and ice; and that he showed how these causes reacted on each other so that the winds and ocean currents of one hemisphere might have an influence on the accumulation of snow and ice in the other. Whatever errors he may have made in matters of detail, his method was undoubtedly a sound one, and it is because so many recent writers on the subject have wholly ignored his method without even attempting to prove that it is erroneous, that their views appear to us to be both retrograde and scientifically unsound.

1. This remarkable property and its effects are explained in some detail in my "Island Life," p. 131 (second edition), under the heading "Properties of Air and Water, Snow and Ice, in Relation to Climate," and in the four following sections. [[on p. 221]]

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The Astronomical Theory of a Glacial Period (S521: 1896)

    [[p. 317]] Mr. Culverwell has pointed out to me that I am in error when I include him among those writers who think that the problem of glacial periods is to be solved by considering only the varying amounts of sun-heat at different epochs. On referring to his paper, which I had not at hand when I wrote, I find that this is the case, and that he is careful to limit his calculations as giving only the variations of temperature due to direct sun-heat. He also discusses, though very briefly and inadequately, the effects due to transference of heat from one area to another. Although willingly making this correction at his request, I am still, after another perusal of his paper, quite unable to see that it finally disposes of Croll's theory, much less of that modification of it which I have myself set forth.

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