Hit by a speeding glacier July 10, 2020

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Hit by a speeding Glacier II

On the Rocks, The Woodstock times

March 27, 1997

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus


Around here late winter drags into spring. We get teased by a day or two of warmth and then back comes the cold. It’s depressing and takes its toll on people. But imagine for a moment being teased by some warm weather only to have to face another few centuries of cold. It happened.

Last time we saw the great Hudson Valley glacier advancing from the north, turning into the Woodstock-Ashokan vicinity and flooding the lower Esopus Creek valley. This is sometimes called the Wagon Wheel ice margin and it occurred about 17,000 years ago. That state of affairs lasted for quite some time, maybe centuries. But all bad things must come to an end, and eventually the Arctic cold gave up some of its grip. The ice began to melt, and the glacier retreated from the Esopus. The front of the ice retreated to a line that extended from just south of Overlook Mountain to just north of Kingston. This is quite a time in the history of Woodstock as it conjures up a fine geological scenario. Once again, it’s the mind’s eye that can take us to see an ancient wonder.

It is 16,000 years ago. In our mind’s eyes we are over Boiceville, drifting down the lower Esopus Creek Valley. The valley is a complete mess. It has just emerged from beneath melting ice and is strewn with glacial debris left behind. You know what your backyard looks like in April after a thick snow has melted; this is worse. To the north, behind us, glacial ice is still rapidly melting and that’s feeding enormous amounts of meltwater into the valley. Immediately below us, the Esopus is a swollen white-water stream. Its churning, swirling torrents are cascading down the valley. There are some stretches of the valley which are choked by enormous mounds of sand and gravel, deposits left by the recently retreating ice. These are blocking the valley and small lakes have formed behind the dams. In other locations the valley floor is covered by relatively flat plains of sand. There the Esopus has spread out across the sand and its channel has split up into a myriad of small crisscrossing streams. Geologists called them “braided” streams.

We continue our mind’s journey and leave the Esopus at Ashokan and head northeast toward Woodstock. Below, the landscape continues to be a desolate mess, more heaps of glacial sediment alternating with many small ponds. There are no trees as the climate is still too cold. As we continue drifting eastward, we begin to see a number of much larger pools of water. Beyond them the Hudson Valley glacier rises. The front of the glacier runs north-south right through the present-day location of Woodstock. The front of the ice is very low and behind the front the ice rises at a very low angle. Advancing glaciers loom tall and menacing in a valley, but the low slope of the ice we see is the hallmark of a melting glacier. All along the front of the glacier large springs of dirty meltwater are welling up into those pools of water. From time to time masses of ice collapse into these pools. These are noisy affairs and large waves radiate across the ponds.

All this should be a hopeful sign. There were no people in North America to witness this melting but had there been there would have been grand rejoicing at the retreat of the great ice sheets. Glaciers had filled the lower Hudson valley for the last 5,000 years. Now this awful glaciation seemed about to end.

But sadly, all good things come to an end. Earth history seems to be an endless number of cyclical events. Alas at 16,000 years ago conditions once again shifted in favor of the glaciers. “Spring” would be delayed a few centuries as there was another advance of ice into the Esopus Creek valley. This one is called the Rosendale readvance of the ice and it repeated much of the Wagon Wheel event. Once again, a glacier passed across Woodstock and once again it crossed today’s Ashokan Reservoir. But this time the advance was not quite as far. Once again, the cyclical sequence was repeated. The ice advanced as far as it would and then stagnated. Still one more time the cycle, predictably, swung back from cold to less cold. That favored melting and the glacier retreated the Woodstock area, this time for good. Is “for good” as long as forever? Not likely, but the glaciers have left for good, at least in the way humans measure time.

Oh, the indignity of it all. In effect a glacier ran across Woodstock about 17,000 years ago. Then, a thousand years later, the ice stopped, backed up and ran across Woodstock a second time. Nature means no offence to Woodstock; her endless cycles are just her way.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

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