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History of theories respecting the causes of subterranean ice


The only glacier which is in any sense historical, is that near Besancon; and a brief account of the different theories which have been advanced in explanation of the phenomena presented by it, will include almost all that has been written on ice-caves.

The first mention I have found of this cave is contained in an old history of the Franche Comte of Burgundy, published at Dole in 1592, to which reference has been already made. Gollut, the author, speaks more than once of a glacier in his topographical descriptions, and in a short account of it he states that it lay near the village of Leugne, which I find marked in the Delphinal Atlas very near the site of the Chartreuse of Grace-Dieu; so that there can be no doubt that his glaciere was the same with that which now exists. His theory was, that the dense covering of trees and shrubs protected the soil and the surface-water from the rays of the sun, and so the cold which was stored up in the cave was enabled to withstand the attacks of the heat of summer.In the case of many of the glacieres, there can be no doubt that this idea of winter cold being so preserved, by natural means, as to resist the encroachments of the hotter seasons, is the true explanation of the phenomenon of underground ice.

The next account of this glaciere is found in the History of the Royal Academy of Sciences (French), under the year 1686, but no theory is there suggested. The writer of the account states that in his time the floor of the cave was covered with ice, and that ice hung from the roof in festoons. In winter the cave was full of thick vapours, and a stream of water ran through it. The ice had for long been less abundant than in former times, in consequence of the felling of some trees which had stood near the entrance.

The Academy received in the same year another letter on this subject, confirming the previous account, and adding some particulars. From this it would seem that people flocked from all sides to the glacier with waggons and mules, and conveyed the ice through the various parts of Burgundy, and to the camp of the Saone; not thereby diminishing the amount of ice, for one hot day produced as much as they could carry away in eight days. The ice seemed to be formed from a stream which ran through the cave and was frozen in the summer only. The writer of this second account saw vapours in the glaciere (the editor of the Histoire de l'Academie does not say at what season the visit to the cave took place), and was informed that this was an infallible sign of approaching rain; so much so, that the peasants were in the habit of determining the coming weather by the state of the grotto.

In 1712, M. Billerez, Professor of Anatomy and Botany in the University of Besancon, communicated to the Academy an account of a visit made by him to this cave in September 1711. He found 3 feet of ice on the floor of the cave, in a state of incipient thaw, and three pyramids, from 15 to 20 feet high and 5 or 6 feet in diameter, which had been already considerably reduced in size by thaw. A vapour was beginning to pass out from the cave, at the highest part of the arch of entrance; a phenomenon which, he was told, continued through the winter, and announced or accompanied the departure of the ice: nevertheless, the cold was so great that he could not remain in the glaciere more than half an hour with any sort of comfort. The thermometer stood at 60 degrees outside the cave, and fell to 10 degrees when placed inside; but thermometrical observations of that date were so vague as to be useless for present purposes. The ice appeared to be harder than the ordinary ice of rivers, less full of air-bubbles, and more difficult to melt.

M. Billerez enunciated a new theory to account for the phenomena presented by the cave. He observed that the earth in the immediate neighbourhood, and especially above the roof of the grotto, was full of a nitrous or ammoniac salt, and he accordingly suggested that this salt was disturbed by the heat of summer and mingled itself with the water which penetrated by means of fissures to the grotto, and so the cave was affected in the same way as the smaller vessel in the ordinary preparation of artificial ice. He had heard that some rivers in China freeze in summer from the same cause.

In 1726, a further communication was made to the Academy by M. des Boz, Royal Engineer, describing four visits which he had made to the grotto near Besançon at four different seasons of the year, viz., in May and November 1725, and in March and August 1726. In all cases he found the air in the cave colder than the external air, and its variations in temperature corresponded with the external variations, the cold being greater in winter than in summer.

M. des Boz ascribed the existence of ice in the cave to natural causes. The opening being towards the north-east, and corresponding with a gorge in the hills opposite, running in the same direction, none but cold winds could reach the mouth of the grotto. Moreover, the soil above was so thickly covered with trees and brushwood, that the rays of the sun could not reach the earth, much less the rock below. Credible persons asserted that since some of the trees had been felled, there had not been so much ice in the cave.

In order to test the presence of salt, M. des Boz melted some of the ice, and evaporated the resulting water, but found no taste of salt in the matter which remained. He denied the existence of the spring of water which previous accounts had mentioned, and believed that the water which formed the ice came solely from melted snow, and from the fissures of the rock.

In 1727, the Duc de Levi caused the whole of the ice to be removed from the cave, for the use of the army of the Saone, which he commanded. In 1743 the ice had formed again, and the grotto was subjected to a very careful investigation by M. de Cossigny, chief engineer of Besançon, in the months of August and October. The thermometer he used had been presented to him by the Academy, and was very probably constructed by M. de Reaumur himself, for de Cossigny's account was sent through M. de Reaumur to the Academy, but still the observations made with it cannot be considered very trustworthy. On the 8th of August, at 7.30 A.M., the temperature in the cave was 0.5 degree above the zero point of this thermometer, and at 11.30 A.M. it had risen to 1 degree above zero. On the 17th of October, at 7 A.M., the thermometer stood at 0.5 degree, and at 4 P.M. it gave the same register.

M. de Cossigny found that the entrance to the cave was rather more than 150 feet above the Abbey of Grace-Dieu, and about half a league distant by the ordinary path. A great part of his account is occupied by contradictions of previous accounts, especially in the matter of dimensions. The people of Besançon had urged him to stay only a short time in the cave, because of the sulphureous and nitrous exhalations, but he detected no symptoms of anything of that kind. The most curious thing which he saw was the soft earth which lay, and still lies, at the bottom of the long slope of ice by which the descent is made; and he subjected this to various chemical tests and processes, but could not find that it contained anything different from ordinary earth.

When M. de Cossigny visited the cave, there were 13 or 14 columns of ice, from 6 to 8 feet high, and he was in consequence inclined to doubt the accuracy of the statement of M. Billerez, that in his time (1711) there were three columns only from 15 to 20 feet high. But my own observation of the shape of the columns suggested that the largest of all was probably an amalgamation of several others; so that it is not unreasonable to suppose that after the Duc de Lévi removed the large columns seen by M. Billerez, a number of smaller columns were formed on the old site, and that these had not become large enough to amalgamate in 1743.

Not satisfied with these visits of August and October, M. de Cossigny visited the cave in April 1745. He found the temperature at 5 A.M. to be exactly at the freezing point, and at noon it had risen 1 degree. From this he concluded that the stories of the greater cold in the cave during the summer, as compared with the winter, were false.

In 1769, M. Prevost, of Geneva, visited the cave, as a young man; and in 1789, he wrote an account of his visit in the Journal de Genève (March), which was afterwards inserted as an additional chapter in his book on Heat. He believed that one or two hundred toises was the utmost that could be allowed for the height of the hill in which the glacière lies, - a sufficiently vague approximation. He rejected the idea of salt as the cause of ice, and came to the conclusion that the cave was in fact nothing more than a good natural ice-house, being protected by dense trees, and a thick roof of rock, while its opening towards the north sheltered it from all warm winds. He accounted for the original presence of ice as follows: In the winter, stalactites form at the edges of various fissures in the roof, and snow is drifted on to the floor of the cave by the north winds down the entrance-slope. When the warmer weather comes, the stalactites fall by their own weight, and, lying in the drifted and congealed snow, form nuclei round which the snow is still further congealed, and the water which results from the partial thaw of portions of the snow is also converted into ice. Thus, a larger collection of ice forms in winter than the heat of summer can destroy; and if none of it were removed, it might, in the course of years, almost fill the cave. At the time of his visit (August), M. Prevost found only one column, from 6 to 8 feet high.

In 1783 (August 6), M. Girod-Chantrans visited the Glacière of Chaux (so called from a village near the glaciere, on the opposite side from the Abbey of Grace-Dieu), and his account of the visit appeared in the Journal des Mines of Prairial, an iv., by which time the writer had become the Citizen Girod-Chantrans. He found a mass of stalactites of ice hanging from the roof, as if seeking to join themselves with corresponding stalagmites on the floor of the cave; the latter, five in number, being not more than 3 or 4 feet high, and standing on a thick sheet of ice. There was a sensible interval between this basement of ice and the rock and stones on which it reposed: it was, moreover, full of holes containing water, and the lower parts of the cave were unapproachable by reason of the large quantity of water which lay there. The thermometer stood at 35.9 F. two feet above the floor, and at 78 F. in the shade outside. M. Girod-Chantrans determined, from all he saw and heard, that the summer freezing and winter thaw were fables, and he believed that the cave was only an instance of Nature's providing the same sort of receptacle for ice as men provide in artificial ice-houses. He was fortunate enough to obtain by chance the notes of a neighbouring physician, who had made careful observations and experiments in the glaciere at various seasons of the year, and a precis of these notes forms the most valuable part of his account.

Dr. Oudot, the physician in question, found ten columns in January 1778, the largest of which was 5.5 feet high. The flooring of ice was nowhere more than 15 inches thick, and the parts of the rock which were not covered with ice were perfectly dry. The thermometer - M. Girod-Chantrans used Reaumur, so I suppose that he gives Dr. Oudot's observations in degrees of Reaumur, though some of the results of that supposition appear to be anomalous - gave 22 F. within the cave, and 21 F. outside.

In April of the same year, the large column had increased in height to the extent of 13 inches; and the floor of ice on which it stood was 1.5 inch thicker, and extended over a larger area than before; the thermometer stood at 36.5 F. and 52 F. respectively in the same positions as in the former case. In July, the large column had lost 6 inches of its height, and the thermometer gave 38.75 F. and 74.75 F.

In October, the large column was only 3 feet high, and many of the others had disappeared, while their pedestal had become much thinner than it had been in the preceding months. There was also a considerable amount of mud in the cave, brought down apparently by the heavy rains of autumn. The thermometer gave 37.6 F. and 63.5 F.

On the 8th of January, 1779, there were nine columns of very beautiful ice, and one of these, as before, was larger than the rest, being 5 feet high and 10 feet in circumference. The temperatures were 21 F. and 16.15 F. in the cave and in the open air respectively.

Tradition related that, before the removal of the ice in 1727, one of the columns reached the roof, (Prevost calculated the limits of the height of the cave at 90 and 60 feet,) and this suggested to Dr. Oudot the idea of placing stakes of wood in the heads of the columns he found in the cave, in the hope that ice would thus collect in greater quantities under the fissures of the roof. Accordingly, he made holes in three of the columns, and established stakes 4, 5, and 10 feet high, returning on the 22nd of February, after an interval of six weeks, to observe the result of his experiment. He found the two shorter stakes completely masked with ice, forming columns a foot in diameter; and the longest stake, though not entirely concealed by the ice which had collected upon it, was crowned with a beautiful capital of perfectly transparent ice. The columns which had no stakes fixed upon them had also increased somewhat in size, but not nearly in the same proportion as those which were the subject of Dr. Oudot's experiment. The thermometer on this day gave 29.5 F. and 59 F. as the temperatures.

It may be remembered that I found one very beautiful column, far higher than any of those mentioned by Dr. Oudot, and higher than those which M. Billerez saw, formed upon the trunk and branches of a fir-tree. I have now no doubt that the peculiar shape of another - the largest of the three columns which were in the cave at the time of my visit - is due to the fact of its being a collection of several smaller columns, which have in course of time flowed into one as they increased separately in bulk, and that its height has been augmented by a device similar to that adopted by Dr. Oudot. The two magnificent capitals which this column possessed, as well as the numerous smaller capitals which sprang from its sides, will thus be completely accounted for.

One more account may be mentioned, before I proceed to the theory which has found most favour in Switzerland of late years. M. Cadet published some Conjectures on the formation of the ice in this cavern, in the Annales de Chimie, Nivose, an XI. He saw the cave in the end of September 1791, and found very little ice - not a third of what there had been a month before, according to the account of his guide. The limonadier of a public garden in Besancon informed him that the people of that town resorted to the glaciere for ice when the supplies of the artificial ice-houses failed, and that they chose a hot day for this purpose, because on such days there was more ice in the cave. Ten chars would have been sufficient to remove all the ice M. Cadet found, and the air inside the cave seemed to be not colder than the external air; but, nevertheless, M. Cadet believed the old story of the greater abundance of ice in summer than in winter, and he attempted to account for the phenomenon.

The ground above and near the cave is covered with beech and chestnut trees, and thus is protected from the rays of the sun. The leaves of these trees give forth abundant moisture, which has been pumped up from their roots; and as this moisture passes from the liquid to the gaseous state, it absorbs a large quantity of caloric. Thus, throughout the summer, the atmosphere is incessantly refrigerated by the evaporation produced by the trees round the cave; whereas in winter no such process goes on, and the cave assumes a moderate temperature, such as is usually found in ordinary caves. Unfortunately for M. Cadet's theory, the facts are not in accordance with his imaginary data, nor yet with his conclusions. He adds, on the authority of one of his friends, that the intendant of the province, M. de Vanolles, wishing to preserve a larger amount of ice in the cave, built up the entrance with a wall 20 feet high, in which a small door was made, and the keys were left in the hands of the authorities of the neighbouring village, with orders that no ice should be removed. The effect of this was, that the ice diminished considerably, and they were obliged to pull down the wall again. M. Cadet saw the remains of the wall, and the story was confirmed by the Brothers of Grace-Dieu. It would be very interesting to know at what season this wall was built, and when it was pulled down. If my ideas on the subject of ice-caves are correct, it would be absolutely fatal to shut out the heavy cold air of winter from the grotto.

One of De Saussure's experiments, in the course of his investigation of the phenomena and causes of cold currents in caves, is worth recalling. He passed a current of air through a glass tube an inch in diameter, filled with moistened stones, and by that means succeeded in reducing the temperature of the current from 18 C. to 15 degrees Celsius; and when the refrigerated current was directed against a wet-bulb thermometer, it fell to 14 C., thus showing a loss of 7.2 F. of heat. No one can see much of limestone caverns without discovering that the surfaces over which any currents there may be are constrained to pass, present an abundance of moisture to refrigerate the currents; and it is not unreasonable to suppose that the large number of evaporating surfaces, which currents passing through heaps of debris - such as the basaltic stones - come in contact with, are the main cause of the specially low temperature observed under such circumstances.

Pictet's theory, however, did not convince all those into whose hands his paper fell, and M.J. Deluc wrote against it in the Annales de Chimie et de Physique of the same year, 1822. Deluc had not seen any glaciere, but he was enabled to decide against the cold-current theory by a perusal of Pictet's own details, and of one of the accounts of the cave near Besançon. He objected, that in many cases the ice is found to melt in summer, instead of forming then; and also, that in the Glaciere of S. Georges, which Pictet had described, there was no current whatever. Further, in all the cases of cold currents investigated or mentioned by De Saussure, the presence of summer ice was never even hinted at, and the lowest temperatures observed by him were considerably above the freezing point. I may add, from my own experience, that on the only occasions on which I found a decided current in a glaciere - viz., in the Glaciere of Monthezy, and that of Chappet-sur-Villaz, - there was marked thaw in connection with the current. In the latter case, the channel from which the current came was filled with water; and in the former, water stood on the surface of the ice.

The view which Deluc adopted was one which I have myself independently formed; and he would probably have written with more force if he had been acquainted with various small details relating to the position and surroundings of many of the caves. The heavy cold air of winter sinks down into the glacieres, and the lighter warm air of summer cannot on ordinary principles of gravitation dislodge it, so that heat is very slowly spread in the caves; and even when some amount of heat does reach the ice, the latter melts but slowly, for ice absorbs 60 degrees C. of heat in melting; and thus, when ice is once formed, it becomes a material guarantee for the permanence of cold in the cave.

For this explanation to hold good, it is necessary that the level at which the ice is found should be below the level of the entrance to the cave; otherwise the mere weight of the cold air would cause it to leave its prison as soon as the spring warmth arrived. In every single case that has come under my observation, this condition has been emphatically fulfilled. It is necessary, also, that the cave should be protected from direct radiation, as the gravitation of cold air has nothing to do with resistance to that powerful means of introducing heat. This condition, also, is fulfilled by nature in all the glacieres I have visited, excepting that of S. Georges; and there art has replaced the protection formerly afforded by the thick trees which grew over the hole of entrance. The effect of the second hole in the roof of this glaciere is to destroy all the ice which is within range of the sun. A third and very necessary condition is, that the wind should not be allowed access to the cave; for if it were, it would infallibly bring in heated air, in spite of the specific weight of the cold air stored within. It will be understood from my descriptions of such glacières as that of the Grand Anu, of Monthezy, and the Lower Glaciere of the Pre de S. Livres, how completely sheltered from all winds the entrances to those caves are. There can be no doubt, too, that the large surfaces which are available for evaporation have much to do with maintaining a somewhat lower temperature than the mean temperature of the place where the cave occurs. This had been noticed so long ago as Kircher's time; for among the answers which his questions received from the miners of Herrengrund, we find it stated that, so long as mines are dry, the deeper they are the hotter; but if they have water, they are less warm, however deep. From the mines of Schemnitz he was informed that, so long as the free passage of air was not hindered, the mines remained temperate; in other cases they were very warm. Another great advantage which some glacières possess must be borne in mind, namely, the collection of snow at the bottom of the pit in which the entrance lies. This snow absorbs, in the course of melting, all heat which strikes down by radiation or is driven down by accidental turns of the wind; and the snow-water thus forced into the cave will, at any rate, not seriously injure the ice. It is worthy of notice that the two caves which possess the greatest depth of ice, so far as I have been able to fathom it, are precisely those which have the greatest deposit of snow; and the ice in a third cave, that of Monthézy, which has likewise a large amount of snow in the entrance-pit, presents the appearance of very considerable depth. The Schafloch, it is true, which contains an immense bulk of ice, has no snow; but its elevation is great, as compared with that of some of the caves, and therefore the mean temperature of the rock in which it occurs is less unfavourable to the existence of ice.

I believe that the true explanation of the curious phenomena presented by these caves in general, is to be found in Deluc's theory, fortified by such facts as those which I have now stated. The mean temperature of the rock at Besancon, where the elevation above the sea is comparatively so small, renders the temptation to suggest some chemical cause very strong.

The question of ice in summer where thaw prevails in winter, may fairly be considered to have been eliminated from the discussion of such caves, in spite of the persistent assertions of some of the peasantry. The observations, however, in caverns in volcanic formations, and in basaltic debris, are so circumstantial that it is impossible to reject them; and in such cases a theory similar to that enunciated by Mr. Scrope seems to be the only one in any way satisfactory, though I have not heard of such marvellous results being produced elsewhere by evaporation. One observer, for instance, of the cavern near the village of Both, in the Eiffel, found a thickness of 3 feet of ice; and in that case it was melting in summer, instead of forming. In some cases it has been suggested that the length of time required for external heat or cold to penetrate through the earth and rock which lie above the caves is sufficient to account for the phenomenon of summer frost and winter thaw. Thus, it is said, the thickness of the superincumbent bed may be such that the heat of summer only gets through to the cave at Christmas, and then produces thaw, while in like manner the greatest cold will reach the cave in mid-summer. But there is a fatal objection to this idea in the fact that the invariable stratum - i.e., the stratum beyond which the annual changes of external temperature are not felt - is reached about 60 feet below the surface in temperate latitudes, while at the tropics such changes are not felt more than a foot below the surface. Humboldt calculated that in the latitude of central France the whole annual variation in temperature at a depth of 30 feet would not amount to more than one degree.