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Ages Geological     Ages Astronomical

Lyell's "The Student's Elements of Geology"


Denudation defined. — Its Amount more than equal to the entire Mass of Stratified Deposits in the Earth’s Crust. — Subaërial Denudation. — Action of the Wind. — Action of Running Water. — Alluvium defined. — Different Ages of Alluvium. — Denuding Power of Rivers affected by Rise or Fall of Land. — Littoral Denudation. — Inland Sea-Cliffs. — Escarpments. — Submarine Denudation. — Dogger-bank. — Newfoundland Bank. — Denuding Power of the Ocean during Emergence of Land.

Denudation, which has been occasionally spoken of in the preceding chapters, is the removal of solid matter by water in motion, whether of rivers or of the waves and currents of the sea, and the consequent laying bare of some inferior rock. This operation has exerted an influence on the structure of the earth’s crust as universal and important as sedimentary deposition itself; for denudation is the necessary antecedent of the production of all new strata of mechanical origin. The formation of every new deposit by the transport of sediment and pebbles necessarily implies that there has been, somewhere else, a grinding down of rock into rounded fragments, sand, or mud, equal in quantity to the new strata. All deposition, therefore, except in the case of a shower of volcanic ashes, and the outflow of lava, and the growth of certain organic formations, is the sign of superficial waste going on contemporaneously, and to an equal amount, elsewhere. The gain at one point is no more than sufficient to balance the loss at some other. Here a lake has grown shallower, there a ravine has been deepened. Here the depth of the sea has been augmented by the removal of a sandbank during a storm, there its bottom has been raised and shallowed by the accumulation in its bed of the same sand transported from the bank.

When we see a stone building, we know that somewhere, far or near, a quarry has been opened. The courses of stone in the building may be compared to successive strata, the quarry to a ravine or valley which has suffered denudation. As the strata, like the courses of hewn stone, have been laid one upon another gradually, so the excavation both of the valley and quarry have been gradual. To pursue the comparison still farther, the superficial heaps of mud, sand, and gravel, usually called alluvium, may be likened to the rubbish of a quarry which has been rejected as useless by the workmen, or has fallen upon the road between the quarry and the building, so as to lie scattered at random over the ground.

But we occasionally find in a conglomerate large rounded pebbles of an older conglomerate, which had previously been derived from a variety of different rocks. In such cases we are reminded that, the same materials having been used over and over again, it is not enough to affirm that the entire mass of stratified deposits in the earth’s crust affords a monument and measure of the denudation which has taken place, for in truth the quantity of matter now extant in the form of stratified rock represents but a fraction of the material removed by water and redeposited in past ages.

Subaërial Denudation.—Denudation may be divided into subaërial, or the action of wind, rain, and rivers; and submarine, or that effected by the waves of the sea, and its tides and currents. With the operation of the first of these we are best acquainted, and it may be well to give it our first attention.

Action of the Wind.—In desert regions where no rain falls, or where, as in parts of the Sahara, the soil is so salt as to be without any covering of vegetation, clouds of dust and sand attest the power of the wind to cause the shifting of the unconsolidated or disintegrated rock.

In examining volcanic countries I have been much struck with the great superficial changes brought about by this power in the course of centuries. The highest peak of Madeira is about 6050 feet above the sea, and consists of the skeleton of a volcanic cone now 250 feet high, the beds of which once dipped from a centre in all directions at an angle of more than 30°. The summit is formed of a dike of basalt with much olivine, fifteen feet wide, apparently the remains of a column of lava which once rose to the crater. Nearly all the scorić of the upper part of the cone have been swept away, those portions only remaining which were hardened by the contact or proximity of the dike. While I was myself on this peak on January 25, 1854, I saw the wind, though it was not stormy weather, removing sand and dust derived from the decomposing scorić. There had been frost in the night, and some ice was still seen in the crevices of the rock.

On the highest platform of the Grand Canary, at an elevation of 6000 feet, there is a cylindrical column of hard lava, from which the softer matter has been carried away; and other similar remnants of the dikes of cones of eruption attest the denuding power of the wind at points where running water could never have exerted any influence. The waste effected by wind aided by frost and snow, may not be trifling, even in a single winter, and when multiplied by centuries may become indefinitely great.

Figure 80 - Alluvium; ie. Drift

Action of Running Water.—There are different classes of phenomena which attest in a most striking manner the vast spaces left vacant by the erosive power of water. I may allude, first, to those valleys on both sides of which the same strata are seen following each other in the same order, and having the same mineral composition and fossil contents. We may observe, for example, several formations, as Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, in the diagram (Fig. 80): No. 1, conglomerate, No. 2, clay, No. 3, grit, and No. 4, limestone, each repeated in a series of hills separated by valleys varying in depth. When we examine the subordinate parts of these four formations, we find, in like manner, distinct beds in each, corresponding, on the opposite sides of the valleys, both in composition and order of position. No one can doubt that the strata were originally continuous, and that some cause has swept away the portions which once connected the whole series. A torrent on the side of a mountain produces similar interruptions; and when we make artificial cuts in lowering roads, we expose, in like manner, corresponding beds on either side. But in nature, these appearances occur in mountains several thousand feet high, and separated by intervals of many miles or leagues in extent.

In the “Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Great Britain” (vol. i), Professor Ramsay has shown that the missing beds, removed from the summit of the Mendips, must have been nearly a mile in thickness; and he has pointed out considerable areas in South Wales and some of the adjacent counties of England, where a series of primary (or palćozoic) strata, no less than 11,000 feet in thickness, have been stripped off. All these materials have of course been transported to new regions, and have entered into the composition of more modern formations. On the other hand, it is shown by observations in the same “Survey,” that the Palćozoic strata are from 20,000 to 30,000 feet thick. It is clear that such rocks, formed of mud and sand, now for the most part consolidated, are the monuments of denuding operations, which took place on a grand scale at a very remote period in the earth’s history. For, whatever has been given to one area must always have been borrowed from another; a truth which, obvious as it may seem when thus stated, must be repeatedly impressed on the student’s mind, because in many geological speculations it is taken for granted that the external crust of the earth has been always growing thicker in consequence of the accumulation, period after period, of sedimentary matter, as if the new strata were not always produced at the expense of pre-existing rocks, stratified or unstratified. By duly reflecting on the fact that all deposits of mechanical origin imply the transportation from some other region, whether contiguous or remote, of an equal amount of solid matter, we perceive that the stony exterior of the planet must always have grown thinner in one place, whenever, by accessions of new strata, it was acquiring thickness in another.

It is well known that generally at the mouths of large rivers, deltas are forming and the land is encroaching upon the sea; these deltas are monuments of recent denudation and deposition; and it is obvious that if the mud, sand, and gravel were taken from them and restored to the continents they would fill up a large part of the gullies and valleys which are due to the excavating and transporting power of torrents and rivers.

Alluvium.—Between the superficial covering of vegetable mould and the subjacent rock there usually intervenes in every district a deposit of loose gravel, sand, and mud, to which when it occurs in valleys the name of alluvium has been popularly applied. The term is derived from alluvio, an inundation, oralluo, to wash, because the pebbles and sand commonly resemble those of a river’s bed or the mud and gravel washed over low lands by a flood.

In the course of those changes in physical geography which may take place during the gradual emergence of the bottom of the sea and its conversion into dry land, any spot may either have been a sunken reef, or a bay, or estuary, or sea-shore, or the bed of a river. The drainage, moreover, may have been deranged again and again by earthquakes, during which temporary lakes are caused by landslips, and partial deluges occasioned by the bursting of the barriers of such lakes. For this reason it would be unreasonable to hope that we should ever be able to account for all the alluvial phenomena of each particular country, seeing that the causes of their origin are so various. Besides, the last operations of water have a tendency to disturb and confound together all pre-existing alluviums. Hence we are always in danger of regarding as the work of a single era, and the effect of one cause, what has in reality been the result of a variety of distinct agents, during a long succession of geological epochs. Much useful instruction may therefore be gained from the exploration of a country like Auvergne, where the superficial gravel of very different eras happens to have been preserved and kept separate by sheets of lava, which were poured out one after the other at periods when the denudation, and probably the upheaval, of rocks were in progress. That region had already acquired in some degree its present configuration before any volcanoes were in activity, and before any igneous matter was superimposed upon the granitic and fossiliferous formations. The pebbles therefore in the older gravels are exclusively constituted of granite and other aboriginal rocks; and afterwards, when volcanic vents burst forth into eruption, those earlier alluviums were covered by streams of lava, which protected them from intermixture with gravel of subsequent date. In the course of ages, a new system of valleys was excavated, so that the rivers ran at lower levels than those at which the first alluviums and sheets of lava were formed. When, therefore, fresh eruptions gave rise to new lava, the melted matter was poured out over lower grounds; and the gravel of these plains differed from the first or upland alluvium, by containing in it rounded fragments of various volcanic rocks, and often fossil bones belonging to species of land animals different from those which had previously flourished in the same country and been buried in older gravels.

Figure 81 - Alluviums of different ages

The annexed drawing (Fig. 81) will explain the different heights at which beds of lava and gravel, each distinct from the other in composition and age, are observed, some on the flat tops of hills, 700 or 800 feet high, others on the slope of the same hills, and the newest of all in the channel of the existing river where there is usually gravel alone, although in some cases a narrow strip of solid lava shares the bottom of the valley with the river.

The proportion of extinct species of quadrupeds is more numerous in the fossil remains of the gravel No. 1 than in that indicated as No. 2; and in No. 3 they agree more closely, sometimes entirely, with those of the existing fauna. The usual absence or rarity of organic remains in beds of loose gravel and sand is partly owing to the friction which originally ground down the rocks into small fragments, and partly to the porous nature of alluvium, which allows the free percolation through it of rain-water, and promotes the decomposition and removal of fossil remains.

The loose transported matter on the surface of a large part of the land now existing in the temperate and arctic regions of the northern hemisphere, must be regarded as being in a somewhat exceptional state, in consequence of the important part which ice has played in comparatively modern geological times. This subject will be more specially alluded to when we describe, in the eleventh chapter, the deposits called “glacial.”

Denuding Power of Rivers affected by Rise or Fall of Land.—It has long been a matter of common observation that most rivers are now cutting their channels through alluvial deposits of greater depth and extent than could ever have been formed by the present streams. From this fact it has been inferred that rivers in general have grown smaller, or become less liable to be flooded than formerly. It may be true that in the history of almost every country the rivers have been both larger and smaller than they are at the present moment. For the rainfall in particular regions varies according to climate and physical geography, and is especially governed by the elevation of the land above the sea, or its distance from it and other conditions equally fluctuating in the course of time. But the phenomenon alluded to may sometimes be accounted for by oscillations in the level of the land, experienced since the existing valleys originated, even where no marked diminution in the quantity of rain and in the size of the rivers has occurred.

We know that many large areas of land are rising and others sinking, and unless it could be assumed that both the upward and downward movements are everywhere uniform, many of the existing hydrographical basins ought to have the appearance of having been temporary lakes first filled with fluviatile strata and then partially re-excavated.  Suppose, for example, part of a continent, comprising within it a large hydrographical basin like that of the Mississippi, to subside several inches or feet in a century, as the west coast of Greenland, extending 600 miles north and south, has been sinking for three or four centuries, between the latitudes 60° and 69° N.1 It will rarely happen that the rate of subsidence will be everywhere equal, and in many cases the amount of depression in the interior will regularly exceed that of the region nearer the sea. Whenever this happens, the fall of the waters flowing from the upland country will be diminished, and each tributary stream will have less power to carry its sand and sediment into the main river, and the main river less power to convey its annual burden of transported matter to the sea. All the rivers, therefore, will proceed to fill up partially their ancient channels, and, during frequent inundations, will raise their alluvial plains by new deposits. If then the same area of land be again upheaved to its former height, the fall, and consequently the velocity, of every river will begin to augment. Each of them will be less given to overflow its alluvial plain; and their power of carrying earthy matter seaward, and of scouring out and deepening their channels, will be sustained till, after a lapse of many thousand years, each of them has eroded a new channel or valley through a fluviatile formation of comparatively modern date. The surface of what was once the river-plain at the period of greatest depression, will then remain fringing the valley-sides in the form of a terrace apparently flat, but in reality sloping down with the general inclination of the river. Everywhere this terrace will present cliffs of gravel and sand, facing the river. That such a series of movements has actually taken place in the main valley of the Mississippi and in its tributary valleys during oscillations of level, I have endeavoured to show in my description of that country;2 and the fresh-water shells of existing species and bones of land quadrupeds, partly of extinct races, preserved in the terraces of fluviatile origin, attest the exclusion of the sea during the whole process of filling up and partial re-excavation.

Littoral Denudation.—Part of the action of the waves between high and low watermark must be included in subaërial denudation, more especially as the undermining of cliffs by the waves is facilitated by land-springs, and these often lead to the sliding down of great masses of land into the sea. Along our coasts we find numerous submerged forests, only visible at low water, having the trunks of the trees erect and their roots attached to them and still spreading through the ancient soil as when they were living. They occur in too many places, and sometimes at too great a depth, to be explained by a mere change in the level of the tides, although as the coasts waste away and alter in shape, the height to which the tides rise and fall is always varying, and the level of high tide at any given point may, in the course of many ages, differ by several feet or even fathoms. It is this fluctuation in the height of the tides, and the erosion and destruction of the sea-coast by the waves, that makes it exceedingly difficult for us in a few centuries, or even perhaps in a few thousand years, to determine whether there is a change by subterranean movement in the relative level of sea and land.

We often behold, as on the coasts of Devonshire and Pembrokeshire, facts which appear to lead to opposite conclusions. In one place a raised beach with marine littoral shells, and in another immediately adjoining a submerged forest. These phenomena indicate oscillations of level, and as the movements are very gradual, they must give repeated opportunities to the breakers to denude the land which is thus again and again exposed to their fury, although it is evident that the submergence is sometimes effected in such a manner as to allow the trees which border the coast not to be carried away.

Inland Sea-cliffs.—In countries where hard limestone rocks abound, inland cliffs have often retained faithfully for ages the characters which they acquired when they constituted the boundary of land and sea. Thus, in the Morea, no less than three or even four ranges of cliffs are well-preserved, rising one above the other at different distances from the actual shore, the summit of the highest and oldest occasionally attaining 1000 feet in elevation. A consolidated beach with marine shells is usually found at the base of each cliff, and a line of littoral caverns. These ranges of cliff probably imply pauses in the process of upheaval when the waves and currents had time to undermine and clear away considerable masses of rock.

But the beginner should be warned not to expect to find evidence of the former sojourn of the sea on all those lands which we are nevertheless sure have been submerged at periods comparatively modern; for notwithstanding the enduring nature of the marks left by littoral action on some rocks, especially limestones, we can by no means detect sea-beaches and inland cliffs everywhere. On the contrary, they are, upon the whole, extremely partial, and are often entirely wanting in districts composed of argillaceous and sandy formations, which must, nevertheless, have been upheaved at the same time, and by the same intermittent movements, as the adjoining harder rocks.

Escarpments.—Besides the inland cliffs above alluded to which mark the ancient limits of the sea, there are other abrupt terminations of rocks of various kinds which resemble sea-cliffs, but which have in reality been due to subaërial denudation. These have been called “escarpments,” a term which it is useful to confine to the outcrop of particular formations having a scarped outline, as distinct from cliffs due to marine action.

I formerly supposed that the steep line of cliff-like slopes seen along the outcrop of the chalk, when we follow the edge of the North or South Downs, was due to marine action; but Professor Ramsay has shown3 that the present outline of the physical geography is more in favour of the idea of the escarpments having been due to gradual waste since the rocks were exposed in the atmosphere to the action of rain and rivers.

Mr. Whittaker has given a good summary of the grounds for ascribing these apparent sea-cliffs to waste in the open air. 1. There is an absence of all signs of ancient sea-beaches or littoral deposits at the base of the escarpment. 2. Great inequality is observed in the level of the base line. 3. The escarpments do not intersect, like sea-cliffs, a series of distinct rocks, but are always confined to the boundary-line of the same formation. 4. There are sometimes different contiguous and parallel escarpments—those, for example, of the greensand and chalk—which are so near each other, and occasionally so similar in altitude, that we can not imagine any existing archipelago if converted into dry land to present a like outline.

The above theory is by no means inconsistent with the opinion that the limits of the outcrop of the chalk and greensand which the escarpments now follow, were originally determined by marine denudation. When the south-east of England last emerged from beneath the level of the sea, it was acted upon, no doubt, by the tide, waves, and currents, and the chalk would form from the first a mass projecting above the more destructible clay called Gault. Still the present escarpments so much resembling sea-cliffs have no doubt, for reasons above stated, derived their most characteristic features subsequently to emergence from subaërial waste by rain and rivers.

Submarine Denudation.—When we attempt to estimate the amount of submarine denudation, we become sensible of the disadvantage under which we labour from our habitual incapacity of observing the action of marine currents on the bed of the sea. We know that the agitation of the waves, even during storms, diminishes at a rapid rate, so as to become very insignificant at the depth of a few fathoms, and is quite imperceptible at the depth of about sixteen fathoms; but when large bodies of water are transferred by a current from one part of the ocean to another, they are known to maintain at great depths such a velocity as must enable them to remove the finer, and sometimes even the coarser, materials of the rocks over which they flow. As the Mississippi when more than 150 feet deep can keep open its channel and even carry down gravel and sand to its delta, the surface velocity being not more than two or three miles an hour, so a gigantic current, like the Gulf Stream, equal in volume to many hundred Mississippis, and having in parts a surface velocity of more than three miles, may act as a propelling and abrading power at still greater depths. But the efficacy of the sea as a denuding agent, geologically considered, is not dependent on the power of currents to preserve at great depths a velocity sufficient to remove sand and mud, because, even where the deposition or removal of sediment is not in progress, the depth of water does not remain constant throughout geological time. Every page of the geological record proves to us that the relative levels of land and sea, and the position of the ocean and of continents and islands, has been always varying, and we may feel sure that some portions of the submarine area are now rising and others sinking. The force of tidal and other currents and of the waves during storms is sufficient to prevent the emergence of many lands, even though they may be undergoing continual upheaval. It is not an uncommon error to imagine that the waste of sea-cliffs affords the measure of the amount of marine denudation of which it probably constitutes an insignificant portion.

Dogger-bank.—That great shoal called the Dogger-bank, about sixty miles east of the coast of Northumberland, and occupying an area about as large as Wales, has nowhere a depth of more than ninety feet, and in its shallower parts is less than forty feet under water. It might contribute towards the safety of the navigation of our seas to form an artificial island, and to erect a light-house on this bank; but no engineer would be rash enough to attempt it, as he would feel sure that the ocean in the first heavy gale would sweep it away as readily as it does every temporary shoal that accumulates from time to time around a sunk vessel on the same bank.4

No observed geographical changes in historical times entitle us to assume that where upheaval may be in progress it proceeds at a rapid rate. Three or four feet rather than as many yards in a century may probably be as much as we can reckon upon in our speculations; and if such be the case, the continuance of the upward movement might easily be counteracted by the denuding force of such currents aided by such waves as, during a gale, are known to prevail in the German Ocean. What parts of the bed of the ocean are stationary at present, and what areas may be rising or sinking, is a matter of which we are very ignorant, as the taking of accurate soundings is but of recent date.

Newfoundland Bank.—The great bank of Newfoundland may be compared in size to the whole of England. This part of the bottom of the Atlantic is surrounded on three sides by a rapidly deepening ocean, the bank itself being from twenty to fifty fathoms (or from 120 to 300 feet) under water. We are unable to determine by the comparison of different charts made at distant periods, whether it is undergoing any change of level, but if it be gradually rising we can not anticipate on that account that it will become land, because the breakers in an open sea would exercise a prodigious force even on solid rock brought up to within a few yards of the surface. We know, for example, that when a new volcanic island rose in the Mediterranean in 1831, the waves were capable in a few years of reducing it to a sunken rock.

In the same way currents which flow over the Newfoundland bank a great part of the year at the rate of two miles an hour, and are known to retain a considerable velocity to near the bottom, may carry away all loose sand and mud, and make the emergence of the shoal impossible, in spite of the accessions of mud, sand, and boulders derived occasionally from melting icebergs which, coming from the northern glaciers, are frequently stranded on various parts of the bank. They must often leave at the bottom large erratic blocks which the marine currents may be incapable of moving, but the same rocky fragments may be made to sink by the undermining of beds consisting of finer matter on which the blocks and gravel repose. In this way gravel and boulders may continue to overspread a submarine bottom after the latter has been lowered for hundreds of feet, the surface never having been able to emerge and become land. It is by no means improbable that the annual removal of an average thickness of half an inch of rock might counteract the ordinary upheaval which large submarine areas are undergoing; and the real enigma which the geologist has to solve is not the extensive denudation of the white chalk or of our tertiary sands and clays, but the fact that such incoherent materials have ever succeeded in lifting up their heads above water in an open sea. Why were they not swept away during storms into some adjoining abysses, the highest parts of each shoal being always planed off down to the depth of a few fathoms? The hardness and toughness of some rocks already exposed to windward and acting as breakwaters may perhaps have assisted; nor must we forget the protection afforded by a dense and unbroken covering of barnacles, limpets, and other creatures which flourish most between high and low water and shelter some newly risen coasts from the waves.


1 Principles of Geology 7th ed., p. 506; 10th ed., vol. ii, p. 196.

2 Second Visit to the United States, vol. i, chap. xxxiv.

3 Physical Geography and Geology of Great Britain, p. 78, 1864.

4 Principles, 10th ed., vol. i, p. 569.