The Fairy-Land Of Science Lecture 5 – Part 2

Lecture V. The Two Great Sculptors – Water And Ice.  Continued…

Shall you not feel a fresh interest in all the little valleys, ravines, and gorges you meet with in the country, if you can picture them being formed in this way year by year? There are many curious differences in them which you can study for yourselves. Some will be smooth, broad valleys and here the rocks have been soft and easily worn, and water trickling down the sides of the first valley has cut other channels so as to make smaller valleys running across it. In other places there will be narrow ravines, and here the rocks have been hard, so that they did not wear away gradually, but broke off and fell in blocks, leaving high cliffs on each side. In some places you will come to a beautiful waterfall, where the water has tumbled over a steep cliff, and then eaten its way back, just like a saw cutting through a piece of wood.

There are two things in particular to notice in a waterfall like this. First, how the water and spray dash against the bottom of the cliff down which it falls, and grind the small pebbles against the rock. In this way the bottom of the cliff is undermined, and so great pieces tumble down from time to time, and keep the fall upright instead of its being sloped away at the top, and becoming a mere steam. Secondly, you may often see curious cup-shaped holes, called “pot-holes,” in the rocks on the sides of a waterfall, and these also are concerned in its formation. In these holes you will generally find two or three small pebbles, and you have here a beautiful example of how water uses stones to grind away the face of the earth. These holes are made entirely by the falling water eddying round and round in a small hollow of the rock, and grinding the pebbles which it has brought down, against the bottom and sides of this hollow, just as you grind round a pestle in a mortar. By degrees the hole grows deeper and deeper and though the first pebbles are probably ground down to powder, others fall in, and so in time there is a great hole perforated right through, helping to make the rock break and fall away.

In this and other ways the water works its way back in a surprising manner. The Isle of Wight gives us some good instances of this; Alum Bay Chine and the celebrated Blackgang Chine have been entirely cut out by waterfalls. But the best know and most remarkable example is the Niagara Falls, in America. Here, the River Niagara first wanders through a flat country, and then reaches the great Lake Erie in a hollow of the plain. After that, it flows gently down for about fifteen miles, and then the slope becomes greater and it rushes on to the Falls of Niagara. These falls are not nearly so high as many people imagine, being only 165 feet, or about half the height of St. Paul’s Cathedral, but they are 2700 feet or nearly half-a-mile wide, and no less than 670,000 tons of water fall over them every minute, making magnificent clouds of spray.

p2 clouds of spray

Sir Charles Lyell, when he was at Niagara, came to the conclusion that, taking one year with another, these falls eat back the cliff at the rate of about one foot a year, as you can easily imagine they would do, when you think with what force the water must dash against the bottom of the falls. In this way a deep cleft has been cut right back from Queenstown for a distance of seven miles, to the place where the falls are now. This helps us a little to understand how very slowly and gradually water cuts its way; for if a foot a year is about the average of the waste of the rock, it will have taken more than thirty-five thousand years for that channel of seven miles to be made.

p2 understand how

But even this chasm cut by the falls of Niagara is nothing compared with the canyons of Colarado. Canyon is a Spanish word for a rocky gorge, and these gorges are indeed so grand, that if we had not seen in other places what water can do, we should never have been able to believe that it could have cut out these gigantic chasms. For more than three hundred miles the River Colorado, coming down from the Rocky Mountains, has eaten its way through a country made of granite and hard beds of limestone and sandstone, and it has cut down straight through these rocks, leaving walls from half-a-mile to a mile high, standing straight up from it. The cliffs of the Great Canyon, as it is called, stretch up for more than a mile above the river which flows in the gorge below! Fancy yourselves for a moment in a boat on this river, as shown in Figure 27, and looking up at these gigantic walls of rock towering above you. Even half-way up them, a man, if he could get there, would be so small you could not see him without a telescope; while the opening at the top between the two walls would seem so narrow at such an immense distance that the sky above would have the appearance of nothing more than a narrow streak of blue. Yet these huge chasms have not been made by any violent breaking apart of the rocks or convulsion of an earthquake. No, they have been gradually, silently, and steadily cut through by the river which now glides quietly in the wider chasms, or rushes rapidly through the narrow gorges at their feet.

“No description,” says Lieutenant Ives, one of the first explorers of this river, “can convey the idea of the varied and majestic grandeur of this peerless waterway. Wherever the river turns, the entire panorama changes. Stately facades, august cathedrals, amphitheatres, rotundas, castellated walls, and rows of time-stained ruins, surmounted by every form of tower, minaret, dome and spire, have been moulded from the cyclopean masses of rock that form the mighty defile.” Who will say, after this, that water is not the grandest of all sculptors, as it cuts through hundreds of miles of rock, forming such magnificent granite groups, not only unsurpassed but unequalled by any of the works of man?

But we must not look upon water only as a cutting instrument, for it does more than merely carve out land in one place, it also carries it away and lays it down elsewhere; and in this it is more like a modeller in clay, who smooths off the material from one part of his figure to put it upon another.

Running water is not only always carrying away mud, but at the same time laying it down here and there wherever it flows. When a torrent brings down stones and gravel from the mountains, it will depend on the size and weight of the pieces how long they will be in falling through the water. If you take a handful of gravel and throw it into a glass full of water, you will notice that the stones in it will fall to the bottom at once, the grit and coarse sand will take longer in sinking, and lastly, the fine sand will be an hour or two in settling down, so that the water becomes clear. Now, suppose that this gravel were sinking in the water of a river. The stones would be buoyed up as long as the river was very full and flowed very quickly, but they would drop through sooner than the coarse sand. The coarse sand in its turn would begin to sink as the river flowed more slowly, and would reach the bottom while the fine sand was still borne on. Lastly, the fine sand would sink through very, very slowly, and only settle in comparatively still water.

From this it will happen that stones will generally lie near to the bottom of torrents at the foot of the banks from which they fall, while the gravel will be carried on by the stream after it leaves the mountains. This too, however, will be laid down when the river comes into a more level country and runs more slowly. Or it may be left together with the finer mud in a lake, as in the lake of Geneva, into which the Rhone flows laden with mud and comes out at the other end clear and pure. But if no lake lies in the way the finer earth will still travel on, and the river will take up more and more as it flows, till at last it will leave this too on the plains across which it moves sluggishly along, or will deposit it at its mouth when it joins the sea.

You all know the history of the Nile; how, when the rains fall very heavily in March and April in the mountains of Abyssinia, the river comes rushing down and brings with it a load of mud which it spreads out over the Nile valley in Egypt. This annual layer of mud is so thin that it takes a thousand years for it to become 2 or 3 feet thick; but besides that which falls in the valley a great deal is taken to the mouth of the river and there forms new land, making what is called the “Delta” of the Nile. Alexandria, Rosetta, and Damietta, are towns which are all built on land made of Nile mud which was carried down ages and ages ago, and which has now become firm and hard like the rest of the country. You will easily remember other deltas mentioned in books, and all these are made of the mud carried down from the land to the sea. The delta of the Ganges and Brahmapootra in India, is actually as large as the whole of England and Wales, (58,311 square miles.) and the River Mississippi in America drains such a large tract of country that its delta grows, Mr. Geikie tells us, at the rate of 86 yards in year.

All this new land laid down in Egypt, in India, in America, and in other places, is the work of water. Even on the Thames you may see mud-banks, as at Gravesend, which are made of earth brought from the interior of England. But at the mouth of the Thames the sea washes up very strongly every tide, and so it carries most of the mud away and prevents a delta growing up there. If you will look about when you are at the seaside, and notice wherever a stream flows down into the sea, you may even see little miniature deltas being formed there, though the sea generally washes them away again in a few hours, unless the place is well sheltered.

This, then, is what becomes of the earth carried down by rivers. Either on plains, or in lakes, or in the sea, it falls down to form new land. But what becomes of the dissolved chalk and other substances? We have seen that a great deal of it is used by river and sea animals to build their shells and skeletons, and some of it is left on the surface of the ground by springs when the water evaporates. It is this carbonate of lime which forms a hard crust over anything upon which it may happen to be deposited, and then these things are called “petrified.”

But it is in the caves and hollows of the earth that this dissolved matter is built up into the most beautiful forms. If you have ever been to Buxton in Derbyshire, you will probably have visited a cavern called Poole’s Cavern, not far from there, which when you enter it looks as if it were built up entirely of rods of beautiful transparent white glass, hanging from the ceiling, from the walls, or rising up from the floor. In this cavern, and many others like it,*(See the picture at the head of the lecture.) water comes dripping through the roof, and as it falls carbonate of lime forms itself into a thin, white film on the roof, often making a complete circle, and then, as the water drips from it day by day, it goes on growing and growing till it forms a long needle-shaped or tube-shaped rod, hanging like an icicle. These rods are called stalactites, and they are so beautiful, as their minute crystals glisten when a light is taken into the cavern, that one of them near Tenby is called the “Fairy Chamber.” Meanwhile, the water which drips on to the floor also leaves some carbonate of lime where it falls, and this forms a pillar, growing up towards the roof, and often the hanging stalactites and the rising pillars (called stalagmites) meet in the middle and form one column. And thus we see that underground, as well as aboveground, water moulds beautiful forms in the crust of the earth. At Adelsberg, near Trieste, there is a magnificent stalactite grotto made of a number of chambers one following another, with a river flowing through them; and the famous Mammoth Cave of Kentucky, more than ten miles long, is another example of these wonderful limestone caverns.

Go to Lecture 5-Part 3 here.