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Does the north pole move? Instead of being fixed in a permanent location, does it vary? Professor A. G. Nathorst, the Swedish famous paleontologist, believes that it does, and that is the cause of the instability of climatic conditions. The professor's theory, which has been received with the consideration to which his scientific emidence entities any of his conclusions, were driven to the world in a lecture before the Swedish Academy of Science. That lecture, translated, is as follows:

Few phenomena tend to prove the instability of present climatic conditions of the earth more than does the fact that the arctic regions, now covered by snow and ice, have formerly enjoyed a climate which permitted tropical vegetation. The fossil flora of those regions has proved that, although the climate appears to have grown colder before the middle of the tertiary period, Spitzbergen at that time was covered by forests of maple, linden, magnolia, sycamore, oak, hazel, beech, poplar, cypress, sequoia and other trees.

From these facts, at first, one naturally drew the conclusion that the climate of the earth formerly had been, not only warmer than now, but also more uniform at the same latitudes. But a satisfactory explanation of the cause of such a state has not been found. At one time it was supposed that the internal heat of the earth influenced the temperature at the surface. But this supposition has been proved to be erroneous. Without entering further into this question of the effect of the heat of the earth, I might mention that, had this heat caused the warm climate of the tertiary period, the temperature of the coal period would have been so high that neither plants nor animals could have existed on the earth, while as a matter of fact, animals and plants existed even millions of years before that time. For this and other reasons it is now generally accepted that the internal heat of the earth, from the time when organic life commenced, has exercised no appreciable influence upon the climate. This way of explaining the phenomenon in question has therefore failed, nor have various other attempts at explanation been more successful; and the impartial inquirer must acknowledge that the question so far has remained without a solution.

Evidence From Plant Distribution.

Strictly speaking, scientists started from a wrong supposition when they took for granted that the climate, during the tertiary period, was warmer at higher latitudes than it is now. For it is by no means certain that, for instance, Spitzbergen was at that time at the same distance from the north pole as it is now. Or, in other words, the north pole during the tertiary period may have been located quite differently from what it is now. From time to time such a possibility has been suggested, but it has always seemed to be excluded by the manner in which tertiary plants appeared to have been distributed round the pole. Haughton's opinion that the north pole was surrounded by fossil plants so completely that there was no hope of its getting out was always cited with confidence. But Houghton was wrong, for the fossil flora surrounding the pole has been found not to be uniform.

Before I further explain this latter statement I would say a few words about the views of the astronomers concerning the possibility of a change in the location of the poles. If no change took place in the distribution of matter on the earth, a change of the poles could evidently not occur except from external causes. It is a fact, however, that in course of time immense changes of matter do occur. The rivers carry down to the sea large quantities of sand and other matter, which, at the mouth of the Mississippi, for instance, amounts to no less than 200,000,000 of cubic meters annually. Volcanoes throw out lava and ashes, immense mountain chains are raised, and so forth. Some of these changes are no doubt counteracted by others, but in many instances they may reasonably be supposed to be "one-sided," and as such tending to alter the location of the poles. And that they really must have this effect has been pointed out by a number of astronomers. Professor Gylden, among others, stated more than ten years ago that one might easily conceive such a transformation of continental and ocean valleys that the earth's momentum became changed, and with it the axis of rotation. And the learned professor seems to be convinced that the changes actually taking place on the earth in the respect mentioned do have an influence upon the axis of rotation. But the question is, to what extent?

How Far Has the Pole Moved?

Since the middle of the tertiary period there have been great upheavals on the earth's surface. The mountain chains along the Pacific coast of America, from Terra del Fuego to Alaska, their continuation in eastern Asia, the Himalayas, the Caucasus, the Alps and the Pyrenees, have all formed since that time. Likewise the masses of basalt covering Iceland, the Faroe Islands, parts of Ireland and Scotland, and large tracts of western America. They have all been formed after the middle of the tertiary period. A large part of the Mediterranean and of the Atlantic Ocean then came into existence. And then, further, we have had the work of the rivers, previously mentioned. Now, we cannot very well suppose that, all through, one change has neutralized another, but on the contrary we might almost regard it as certain, from the very start, that the influences at work have been such that the tertiary north pole has been moved. The question is, how far?

Several scientists have attempted to measure the actual transposition of matter in order to come to a conclusion as to its effect upon the axis of rotation. The results of their calculations, however; do not agree, and I shall here not further enter into this side of the question. I shall instead make use of our actual experience in another direction. On comparing recent geographical determinations of certain localities, made for instance at the observatory of Pulkowa or Koenigsberg, with determinations made, say, some decades or even a century ago, we invariably find a discrepancy, which might have been caused by possible inaccuracy in older instruments were it not for the fact that the difference in every instance runs in the same direction, showing for every place in question a more southerly determination the more recently the latter was made--the difference amounting to as much as a second for the century. From this experience we may consider not only that the instability of the location of the north pole is an established fact, but that we may have a measurement by which the movement of the poles may be determined. Supposing the forces causing the movement--no matter what the forces are--to act uniformly, we can see that in course of 6,000 years the latitude of a certain place must have been reduced by one minute, and after 360,000 years by one degree. To bring the change up to ten or twenty degrees, the supposed causes must have acted some 3,600,000 or 7,200,000 years.

Seven Million Years Ago.

Now, how far back do we reach by 7,000,000 years? Could we reach the middle of the tertiary period? Certainly not. For that we should probably need double the time. To be sure, certain theorists have given much lower figures for the geological ages, but the real and practical geologist can hardly be misled by such calculations. Appreciating the overwhelming though slow effect of the geological forces, he is rather inclined to side with Nordenskiold when the latter said that the scientist in estimating the length of the cosmical time periods should no place himself on the standpoint of the child that desires with its hand to grasp the silver disk of the moon.

Having thus found that a change of the north pole, to the extent of 10 degrees, very easily might have taken place since the middle of the tertiary period, we return to the fossil flora for further testimony.

As mentioned above, it has been said that the tertiary fossils proved that the north pole of the tertiary period must have been located just where it is now. This assertion, however, was too hasty, since in northern Asia, at the time, the tertiary fossils had been examined only in Kamchatka. When Heer described the fossil plants from Alaska, collected by H. Furuhjelm and now kept in the Swedist(sic) State Museum, he intimated that the flora in that part indicated a colder climate than the other tertiary floras of the same latitude. Such was still more found to be the case later when the same explorer examined the fossils of the Island of Saghalien. From these facts Heer concluded that the isotherms for northern Asia even during the tertiary period extended further south than they did in Europe, but he seems not for a moment to have suspected that this circumstance might have been caused by the north pole of the tertiary period being located nearer to those colder countries.

Having examined the fossil collections brought home to Nordenskiold from Miako in southern Japen(sic), I found that the same testified to a climate colder than the present one, and as the fossil plants collected at Miako were comparatively young, it might have been possible that the indicated colder climate depended upon the low temperature of the ice period. Recently, however, I have had the opportunity also to examine and determine the tertiary plants collected by the geological survey of Japan, and I have found the remarkable fact that even the tertiary flora of Japan shows a colder climate.

Europe's Climate Was Warmer.

Europe proves to have had a much warmer climate during the tertiary period than did Japan at a latitude of 35 to 40 degrees. In many places of Europe, as for instance at Peningen, in Bavaria, several species of the palm tree seem to have been common. This difference between the tertiary flora of Europe and Japan can no longer be explained by accidental causes influencing the isotherms of eastern Asia but must depend upon more essential and permanent forces.

If we turn to Greenland, at a latitude of 35 to 40 degrees farther north than Japan, we shall be surprised to find from its tertiary flora that the climate of the tertiary period must have been at least equally as warm as that of Japan. Now, Greenland lies diametrically opposite to Japan, a straight line between the two countries going right over the north pole, and nothing would seem more natural than to ask whether the climatic differences in question may not depend upon a movement of the north pole along the said line, in direction from Japan to Greenland. Supposing such a movement, we are really able to find such ample verifications that we may say the supposition may be proved to be a fact.

Would Explain Many Phenomena.

Let us then suppose that the Miocene north pole was located some 20 degrees nearer to Japan, that is, at about 70 degrees latitude and 130 degrees longitude, east of Greenwich. The tertiary flora of Japan would than have been found between 53 and 58 degrees latitude, while that of Greenland would have been found at a latitude between 51 and 53 degrees, and if we examine all other hitherto known tertiary flora, we shall find from everyone of them that they confirm such a location of the north pole. It would then seem perfectly natural that Oeningen in southern Bavaria, for instance, should have had such an abundance of palm trees, for it would have been situated at about 36 degrees north latitude, or about the same latitude as Algeria at present.

The southern hemisphere will further, and not less substantially, confirm our supposition. It is known from Chile, at about 35 degrees southern latitude, that the fossil fauna of mollusks from the older and middle tertiary period, in similarity with the tertiary flora of Japan, contains no forms indicating a warmer climate. This circumstance was hitherto seemed inexplicable, but would be most satisfactorily explained by our supposition concerning the locality of the poles, for the mollusks in question would then have lived some twenty degrees nearer to the south pole than what has so far been supposed.

For the present it would thus appear that the fossil flora of the arctic regions, testifying as they do to a warmer climate, cannot be better understood and explained than by accepting a change in the earth's axis of rotation. For, though some difficulties arise is to which time does not permit me to enter, these difficulties seem so small comparatively that they could not in any instance make our supposition impossible. Still, I purposely use the expression, "for the present," for the history of science has proved only too often that the hypothesis which at one time seems to explain everything later on must make room for something better. Should such be the fate of the hypothesis here presented, I still venture to hope that it is a step in the right direction. And in that case some wide vistas would be opened to the naturalist. We might suspect the solution of a number of questions which have hitherto baffled all attempts at explanation, and regarding which I would say what a great scientist once said: "I feel disposed to envy coming generations because of the many interesting questions they will solve."

Reproduced with permission: L.L. Dyche, Explorations (Newspaper Clippings Related to Polar Exploration), Vol. 1 & 2. University Archives, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence, KS.


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Original Source:

Chicago Herald, Chicago, Il, Aug. 8, 1897

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  Patrick Harper
University of Kansas
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