Friday, December 19, 2008

Great Gulf on Mt. Washington, NH, from Jefferson's Knee, September 2006

As a rookie naturalist in the early 1960’s I carried in my pack dog eared copies of The Geology of the Presidential Range published in 1940 by Richard Goldthwait, and another text by Marland Billings and Katherine Fowler-Billings, titled The Geology of the Mt. Washington Quadrangle published in 1946. These contained the cutting edge theories about both the geology and the glacial history of the White Mountains. These three geologists often worked as a team and were regular visitors at the high huts, Lakes and Madison, and at the Mt. Washington Observatory (The Obs). where we could sit down with them and enjoy lengthy conversations about geology and glaciers.

The Goldthwait-Billings theory (I will call it) is this: before the inundation by the Wisconsinan continental ice sheet there were nine small, local, alpine glaciers on the Presidential Range. This is more than 110,000 years ago when the White Mountains may have looked much different than they do now. In a discussion with Marland Billings at the Mt. Washington Observatory in the early 1960’s he asked us to imagine that the 'youthful' White Mountains, back 500,000 years ago, may have been as high as, or higher, than the Alps of current day France, Italy and Switzerland. He thrilled us with the image of Mt. Moosilauke being 18,000 feet high, or higher.

If you’re interested in the glacial period in the White Mountains I recommend reading Richard Goldthwait’s Mountain Glaciers of the Presidential Range in New Hampshire published in 1970 in Arctic and Alpine Research, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1970, pp. 85-102. It’s also available on the web. This is a published text of his 1968 address to the International Symposium on Antarctic Glaciological Exploration held at Dartmouth College that I was fortunate to attend. Another paper available on the web is The History of Research on Glaciation in the White Mountains, New Hampshire (USA) by Woodrow B. Thompson (1999) which is a brilliant summing up of how this complex puzzle gradually came together along with short biographies of all the characters that played a role in solving it over the past 200 years, or so.

An interesting note about this photo is that it was taken from a spur of Mt. Jefferson called Jefferson's Knee, a sharp ridge that abruptly separates the Great Gulf from Jefferson Ravine.
The picture is taken from just below a flat area on the Knee that has an uncharacteristically deep, loamy topsoil in select locations indicating low levels of disturbance, climate protection, sunlight, and a consistent supply of water. It is one of a few 'islands' of similar micro-environments in the alpine zone of the Presidential Range. Mt. Jefferson itself is interesting as it is the most western peak in the range and bears the brunt of the prevailing northwesterly winds. Some observers have attributed a Venturi-like effect in speeding up winds that blast Mt. Washington .

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