Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World by Gillen D'Arcy Wood

Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World by Gillen D'Arcy Wood

Author:Gillen D'Arcy Wood
Language: eng
Format: mobi, epub
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Published: 2014-04-27T00:00:00+00:00


Now largely forgotten outside Switzerland, the 1818 Val de Bagnes disaster was nevertheless widely reported in the European press and became a major talking point in scientific circles. For those whose information came only from reading reports of the deluge, the event appeared to support the conventional catastrophist theories of geological formation, which, influenced by the biblical account, emphasized the shaping power of a great flood or floods that had once submerged the continent and carved out its valleys and mountains. This catastrophic diluvian scenario purported to explain the transport of erratic boulders far from their original location, as well as the thread of moraines at sometimes great distances from the current location of Alpine glaciers.

From a distance, the bursting of the River Dranse dam offered a very useful simulation of large-scale flooding, a kind of test case for catastrophism. Moreover, a selective sketch of the results proved highly reassuring to catastrophists. High above the valley floor, the Dranse flood had left new lines of debris that corresponded well with the character of ancient moraines. In addition, its tidal power had detached large boulders from the mountainsides and dumped them at great distances along the valley. One such block was measured at forty cubic meters, which, while still only one-tenth the size of the massive Pierre à Bot, the most celebrated of the Alpine erratics, seemed to confirm the transportive power of a massive torrent of water and mud, and to eliminate the need for any alternative geological explanation.21

Such, at least, was the general consensus surrounding the Val de Bagnes debacle. But the closest expert witness to the event, Ignace Venetz, was not convinced. His experience of the catastrophic flood of 1818 brought him, instead, to the diametrically opposite conclusion: only glaciers had the power to form the Alps. Two years earlier, he had delivered a paper that conformed to a traditional theory of erratic boulders transported by rolling on top of glaciers. By 1821, he had developed the outlines of modern glacial theory and periodic Ice Ages. In between, he met Jean-Pierre Perraudin and witnessed firsthand the catastrophic flood of the Val de Bagnes.

Venetz was a brilliantly intuitive geologist but, unfortunately, not a prolific or confident writer. His 1821 prize-winning paper to the Swiss Society is a rambling amateur affair, immersed in details, but its bullet-point conclusions sketch out, in bold terms, the basic principles of modern climate science. Glaciers were nature’s own antique ruins, the “relics of former climates.”22 “The moraines found at a significant distance from the glaciers,” Venetz writes, “date from a period lost in the mists of time.” Therefore, by a simple but crucial step of logic, he must infer that “temperature rises and falls periodically, though in an irregular cycle.”23 Climate change, Venetz concludes, has driven an historical cycle of glaciation, which in turn has left its indelible mark on the geological formation of the Alps and by implication the European continent. Amazingly, Venetz’s historic 1821 paper was not published


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