W. L. (William Larkin) Webb.

Brief biography and popular account of the unparalleled discoveries of T.J.J. See .. online

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itself in the atmosphere, while in the other it continued to agitate
till movements occurred which gave more space beneath the earth's
crust, and was then followed by a cessation of the shocks. Aris-
totle's view was thus consistent with Newton's rule of philosophy,
that the same effects are to be ascribed as far as possible to the
same causes; and in marked contrast with the modern method of
dividing earthquakes into two arbitrary classes, volcanic and
tectonic, according as they are accompanied by eruption, or only


by a surface dislocation of the earth's crust along a fault

While Aristotle's theory is imperfect in many respects, the
general ideas underlying it are essentially sound; and in reading
this work written more than twenty- two centuries ago, one cannot
but be impressed both by his penetration into the nature of things,
and by the vast extent of his knowledge. With characteristic
independence he refused to accept the views of his predecessors,
but examined de now all questions upon their merits, so far as the
existing state of Science would permit. He is thus led to many
interesting remarks, and the criticisms which he offers are often
as good as can be made to-day.

In view of the great afflictions due to earthquakes suffered
by so many countries from the earliest ages, it seems to the modern
student truly remarkable that our understanding of the cause of
these disturbances has remained so unsatisfactory. Whether we
read in Strabo or Pliny that a great earthquake in Syria had laid
waste twelve cities in a single night, or turn to the current books
and press dispatches, which tell of widespread devastation by
modern earthquakes, we are left equally in the dark as to the cause
of these calamities. In current discussions we often see it stated
that earthquakes may occur anywhere, and that no place is free
from the dreadful ravages which they inflict upon large portions
of mankind. This statement obviously is not correct, yet it shows
that heretofore Science has not reached the true laws of these phe-

The main object of Science is the illumination of the human
mind, and much of it scarcely admits of application to practical
affairs, so as to alleviate human suffering; but if we had a true
science of earthquakes it ought to be indeed of the highest humane
as well as scientific interest. Shall our cities continue to be de-
vastated and rebuilt without an understanding of the disturbing
cause? If so, what advance has our boasted civilization made over
that of the Greeks and Romans? Nay, shall we not know even
the regions especially afflicted by earthquakes? We could indeed


The Burning Cloud of December 6, 1902, seen from the sea. A most impressive
illustration of the vast quantities of steam emitted from volcanoes.


Photographed by Professor Angelo Heilprin. This vast mass of granite rock
1,000 feet high and 500 feet in diameter, was ejected from the volcano with terrific
force, but caught and held fast in the orifice, till at length it crumbled to pieces. If
steam can eject such a massive column, there is no mountain uplift which it is
incapable of producing.


have learned this from the study of Aristotle; but in our time we
claim, though not always justly, to have improved on the knowl-
edge of the ancients. If we do not find out the regions especially
subject to eartquakes, so as to forewarn the people as to what kind
of houses to build and how to protect their cities from fire in the
case of an earthquake, of what practical use is Science to the com-
munity? Some branches of Science might be very excellent indeed
and still be of no use to the multitude of people; yet this obviously
is not true of a science which deals with earthquakes imperiling
the lives and property of thousands of our fellow citizens.

We must confess that heretofore this knowledge of the cause
of earthquakes has not been forthcoming. But as a physicist
believing in the existence of natural laws, which, if known, would
be of the greatest service to mankind both now and throughout
coming ages, I am going to treat of earthquakes and kindred
phenomenon connected with the physics of the earth. The theory
of which I shall treat has been recently presented to the American
Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, and I take this occasion to
acknowledge my indebtedness to this illustrious society for the
publication of lengthy arguments which can be mentioned here
only with the utmost brevity.*

At the time of the great earthquake at San Francisco, I had
just finished the researches on the Physical Constitution of the
Heavenly Bodies which have been recently published in the Astro-
nomische Nachrichten; and as the explanations of the earthquake

* 1. The Cause of Earthquakes, Mountain Formation and Kindred Phe-
nomena connected with the Physics of the Earth. Proc. Am. Philos. Society, 1906,
issued March, 1907.

2. On the Temperature, Secular Cooling and Contraction of the Earth and
on the Theory of Earthquakes held by the Ancients. Proc. Am.Philos. Society,

3. The New Theory of Earthquakes and Mountain Formation as illustrated
by Processes now at work in the Depths of the Sea. Proc. Am. Philos. Society,
1907, issued in March, 1908.

[4. Further Researches on the Physics of the Earth, and especially on the
Folding of Mountain Ranges and the Uplift of Plateaus and Continents pro-
duced by movements of Lava beneath the Crust arising from the secular
leakage of the Ocean Bottoms, Proc. Am. Philos. Soc., No. 189, Sept., 1908.]


then made public by men of science did not seem to me to be well
founded, I temporarily laid aside astronomical work in order to
take up this problem of the Physics of the Earth. It is not too
much to say that the papers which the American Philosophical
Society did me the honor to publish have awakened a lively inter-
est in the scientific world ; and whilst one can scarcely hope that
every difficulty has been overcome, it is evident that at least a
good foundation has been laid for the true theory of earthquakes,
mountain formation and kindred phenomena connected with the
physics of the globe.

Since the processes involved in earthquakes are forever hidden
from mortal view, the discovery of the cause involved naturally
has been very difficult. But as the effects would become most
sensible in earthquakes of the world-shaking class, it was felt at
the outset that the investigation should be restricted to the study
of these great phenomena. If the study of the greatest earth-
quakes enabled us to reach the underlying cause, the inquiry could
later be made to include the smaller disturbances, many of which
are after-shocks of the great earthquakes.

In speaking of earthquakes therefore we shall have in mind
primarily earthquakes of the world-shaking class. If we had
attempted to study all earthquakes together, the results could
only have been hopeless confusion; for we should have been un-
able to discover the processes even of the greatest earthquakes.

One of the most remarkable results of these inquiries is the
conclusion that the earth is not shrinking, as commonly held in
all the physical sciences for the past eighty years; but that it may
indeed be slightly expanding. Another is that there is a pro-
gressive secular desiccation of the oceans, which are becoming
narrower and also deeper in many places, so that as the world
grows older the intensity of the earthquakes is slowly increasing,
not diminishing. But obviously there has been no sensible change
within the historical period.

We shall now proceed to state the cause of earthquakes and
related phenomena, and after so doing shall resume the considera-

a. Mountain formation just beginning.

b. Mountain formation in the middle stages.

c. Mountain formation in the later stages.

d. New range rising fi;om* th sea". '





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tion of the other questions connected with the physics of the

1. It is shown that the principal cause of world-shaking
earthquakes is the secular leakage of the ocean bottoms, which
produces steam beneath the earth's crust. When the pressure
has sufficiently accumulated the movement of the underlying
molten rock shakes the earth, lays waste cities and devastates whole
countries. Much steam is formed under the ocean, but scarcely
any under the land, and hence the usual process of movement
consists in the expulsion of lava from beneath the sea, and the
pushing of it under the land. The crust is thus pushed up and
broken along the seashore, and thus forms mountains parallel to
the coast.

2. The mountain systems of the world have been formed
by this expulsion of lava from under the sea, and not at all by the
shrinkage of the globe. Taking account of the mere lay of the
mountains relatively to the sea, it is proved by the theory of prob-
ability that the chances are at least a decillion decillions to one
that they were formed so exactly parallel to the coast by a true
physical cause depending on the oceans. Moreover there are other
phenomena to be considered of such weight that it becomes an
absolute certainty that the mountains are formed by the sea.

3. The coast frequently is noticed to be upheaved during
earthquakes, and the adjacent sea bottom is shown to sink, from
the way in which the water retires before the inrush of the accom-
panying seismic sea wave. The sea does not withdraw from the
land by the violence of the agitation of the ground during the
earthquake, but slowly drains off afterwards, as in the ebbing of
a tide, only the withdrawal is more rapid in the case of the move-
ment before the sea wave; and as the sea level near the shore is
thus lowered sometimes by forty or fifty feet, so that vessels at
anchor in seven fathoms of water are left resting on the ground,
it follows that the sea bottom sinks some distance from the shore,
and the water rushes in from all sides to fill up the depression.
When the currents meet at the center the water is forced up into


a corresponding elevation, above the normal sea level, and the
collapse of this aqueous ridge sends a great wave ashore, to add
to the horror of the earthquake.

4. If, then, the sea bottom frequently sinks and the coast is
simultaneously upraised, it follows that lava is expelled from under
the sea and pushed under the land. For in the regular order of
nature the sea bottom could not sink unless it was in some way
undermined, and the coast could not be uplifted unless something
was pushed under it; and as one sinks while the other rises it
follows that lava is expelled from under the sea and pushed under
the land. Not only is this process now going on along the west
coast of South America, and elsewhere, as repeatedly observed
within historical times, but we may also affirm that the long con-
tinuation of this undermining in the past has sunk the sea bottom
down into a deep trough and at the same time pushed such vast
quantities of lava under the adjacent mountains that the lofty
peaks in the Andes with snow-capped summits now seem to near
the stars. There is thus direct continuity between the small
movements observed within the historical period and the vastly
greater effect of these forces operating over immense periods of

5. The process by which mountains and deep ocean troughs
are formed is even better, illustrated in the Aleutian and Kurile
Islands, where the mountains under water are just rising out of
the sea and the adjacent ocean trench is very narrow, and runs
exactly parallel to them for great distances (see Manual of Tides,
Coast Survey Reports, 1900, Part IV, A, by Rollin A. Harris,
including maps of the depths of the ocean). This chain is also
one of the worst earthquake belts in the world, and many of the
mountains have burst open and become volcanoes. The earth-
quakes are frquently accompanied by great seismic sea waves,
showing that the bed of the ocean sinks after lava has been ex-
pelled from under it in the formation of mountains. If the pro-
cess thus made out is a true law of nature, it follows that all the
great mountain chains of the globe were formed by this same pro-


From Frye's Complete Geography, by permission of Ginn & Co., Publishers. Illustrating the
New Theory that the Mountains were formed by the oceans, and thus run parallel to the Sea Coast, as
in the typical case of the Andes. It was this vast wall along the Western sea-board of South America
and the earthquakes afflicting that region that led to the discovery of the cause of Earthquakes and
Mountain Formation in 1906. The foundations of the New Science of Geogony were thus laid by

Professor See in 1906.


cess, though in some cases the recession of the sea coast due to the
movement of the crust by earthquakes, has changed the original
shapes of the troughs, and consequently can now be made out only
by careful investigation.

6. Our present knowledge of the earth's surface does not en-
able us to decide just what movement of the land has taken place
in each case, but the parallelism of the mountains to the sea coast
is sufficiently remarkable to attract universal attention. Here-
tofore the cause of this phenomenon has been quite obscure, and
some have inferred that it is a "coincidence which is only in part
casual." It is shown, however, as already remarked, that the
chances are at least a decillion decillions to one that the parallelism
depends on a true physical cause connected with the sea. It is
absolutely unthinkable that the Pacific Ocean could be so effective-
ly walled in by great mountain chains all around, unless the moun-
tains were formed about the Ocean itself, by the expulsion of lava,
in the way we have described.

7. In 1899, September 3-20, a terrible earthquake took place
at Yakutat Bay, Alaska, during which the coast was elevated for
more than a hundred miles, and at the maximum the elevation
amounted to forty-seven and one-third feet. Elevations of from
seven to twenty feet were common, while small depressions also
occurred in a few places. This case was carefully investigated by
Professor R. S. Tarr, of Cornell University, and Mr. Lawrence
Martin, of the National Geographical Society; and their memoir
in the Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, Vol. 17, May,
1906, is illustrated by photographs of the most convincing kind,
showing the uplifted coasts, with barnacles still adhering to the
rocks. Their investigation is classic and absolutely conclusive.
In the confused state of scientific opinion heretofore prevailing,
geologists could deny the bodily uplift of the solid land; but after
the publication of this memoir, they could no longer legitimately
maintain this attitude. And if one instance of elevation by a
powerful earthquake could be clearly established, it naturally
followed that others could arise from similar causes. Last year


the earthquake at Valparaiso, August 16, 1906, is said to have
raised the Chilian coast about ten feet; and many similar move-
ments at other places both in ancient and modern times can be
certainly established.

8. The fact that no active volcano exists over about one
hundred miles from the sea or other large body of water, and the
further fact that according to Geikie 999 in 1,000 parts of the
escaping vapor is steam, shows the dependence of volcanoes on
the sea. The activity of one hundred and five volcanoes in the
Andes within historical time shows that volcanoes are nothing but
ordinary mountains broken through by the pressure of subterra-
nean steam. Hence it follows that the same forces which raise
the mountain chains and peaks also cause the eruption of some
of them.

9. The vapor of steam and no other is the cause of both
mountain building and of volcanic outbreaks; for mountain build-
ing always takes place in or near the sea, and volcanoes through-
out the world develop near the center of the earthquake belts.
Volcanoes emit chiefly vapor of stream, and eruptions generally
cease when the vapor has escaped into the atmosphere. Thus
earthquakes, volcanoes, mountain formation, and seismic sea
waves are all due to a common cause.

10. As the expulsion of lava from under the sea causes the
earthquakes and seismic sea waves, it follows also that all moun-
tains are underlaid with pumice of various degrees of density,
which is simply molten rock inflated with stream and then cooled
and dried. The expulsion of such vast quantities of pumice from
volcanoes shows that there must be a process for its abundant
manufacture in nature, and that it must have been formed under
all mountains when they were originally upheaved. The preva-
lence of pumice in volcanic regions is therefore accounted for in a
perfectly simple manner. The grinding up of pumice makes
volcanic ashes, and hence arise the vast quantities of this dust
blown out of many volcanoes. Pumice and its disintegrated prod-
uct in the form of ashes, result from the diminished pressure


exerted on steam saturated lava, when it is pushed under the
mountains where the crust is broken, and increased expansion of
the molten rock takes place.

11. The formation of islands in the sea and of plateaus on
land, is to be explained by elevation of a portion of the earth's
crust by the injection of lava beneath. This lava comes from
neighboring areas, which are thus undermined, unless the partial
cavity is again filled up by an additional supply of molten rock.
Hence plateaus such as those of Titicaca and Tibet are closely
associated with the expulsion of lava, which originally caused the
uplift of the Andes and Himalayas. In many cases islands in the
sea have depressions near them, showing that the sea bottom was
undermined in the elevation of the islands, and afterwards sank
down to secure stability.

12. As all mountains and plateaus exhibit a feeble attraction
when measured in geodetic operations, it follows that the cause
of this phenomenon is the pumice underlying these elevated por-
tions of the crust, which makes them attract as if they were hollow,
or filled with caverns. This was noted by Bouguer and LaCanda-
mine in their observations on Chimborazo as early as 1738.

13. When the subterranean pressure becomes great enough
to shake the earth's crust, it naturally moves at the nearest fault
line, where the rocks are broken, and the resistance is least, but the
movement observed is the result, not the cause of the earthquake. It
has been customary heretofore to explain earthquakes by the
movement of faults, without assigning the cause of the fault move-
ment, or by vague references to the supposed secular cooling of
the earth. Such procedure is altogether illogical, for it does not
account for the origin of faults, nor even point out the correct
cause of their movement.

14. If faults were due to the secular cooling of the earth they
ought to originate and move in the interior of continents as well
as along the ocean shores. Acre for acre as much heat is being
lost by Kansas, or Sahara, as by any sea coast or ocean bed in the
world. Yet no important movements occur inland, while the sea


coast is repeatedly shaken. The constant shaking of the Andes
compared to the general quiescence of the Rocky Mountains shows
the effect of proximity to the sea, and proves that the secular cool-
ing of the earth is not a true cause of earthquake movements.

15. In the papers published by the American Philosophical
Society at Philadelphia it is shown that the effects of secular cool-
ing are wholly inappreciable, and that the earth is not really con-
tracting; but in all probability slightly expanding, owing to the
predominant effects of elevations of the land by world-shaking
earthquakes, 120,000 of which have occurred since the beginning
of the Christian Era. And it is calculated that the effects of
elevation may exceed the effects of contraction from ten to one
hundred times, so that in all probability the globe is really ex-

16. It turns out therefore that the doctrine of mountain
formation based on the theory of contraction and now held for
some eighty years is quite devoid of real foundation. If the earth
is not shrinking another cause must be sought to account for the
observed elevations of the crust as seen in mountain folds; and it
should explain mountain ranges in the sea as well as on the land.
The present theory meets this severe test perfectly, and is beauti-
fully illustrated by the phenomena exhibited near the Aleutian
and Kurile Islands. Here the earthquakes are raising islands and
at the same time sinking down the adjacent sea bottom, as may
be confidently inferred from the accompanying seismic sea waves.
These long narrow trenches have been dug out by the expulsion
process, and it is still going on at the present time. No other
interpretation of the observed phenomena is really possible.

17. The whole plateau west of the Rocky Mountains has
been raised from the sea in recent geological time. This is shown
by the abundant beds of fossils, and by the numerous parallel
mountain ranges nearer the Pacific Coast. The San Joaquin and
Sacramento Valleys have been recently raised from the sea, and
the great earthquake at San Francisco, April 18, 1906, was but
one of an infinite number which have raised the Coast Range little


by little and finally lifted California above the ocean level. Earth-
quakes obviously will recur in California, but no important dis-
turbance is to be expected at San Francisco for at least a genera-
tion. This is inferred from the study of other places similarly
disturbed during the historical period, and from the nature of the
process of ocean leakage, which is very slow and gradual.

18. The cause of the terrible earthquakes in Japan is now
perfectly clear, namely, the leakage of the deep sea just to the east
of Nipon, known as the Tuscarora Deep. By the expulsion of
lava from under this area the whole island of Nipon has been lifted
above the sea, and the process still continues with increasing
violence. The east coast of Japan has risen considerably within
the historical period, and naturally a movement of this kind con-
firms the theory here developed.

19. The present theory of mountain formation enables us
to account for all the principal mountain ranges of the globe, and
the more gradual slopes which they exhibit towards the sea from
which the lava has been expelled in the process of elevation. In
the case of islands the mountains run lengthwise, right through
their centers like veritable backbones. In other cases lava escapes
under larger submarine areas which will eventually be raised above
the sea and formed into larger islands or continents. The princi-
pal cause of the movement of the earth's crust is everywhere the
same, but we do not yet know the details of all parts of the globe,
because most of it is under water, and even that above sea level
is very imperfectly surveyed.

20. As land is raised above the sea by earthquakes, it fol-
lows that the chief effect of seismic activity is the formation of
more land. Since this narrows the oceans, and water is also con-
stantly sinking down into the earth, and only a small part of it
again escapes through the vents of volcanoes, it follows that there
is a secular desiccation of the oceans, but the process is excessively
slow, and not certainly recognizable within the historical period.
Yet a portion of the lowering of the strand line noticed in later
geological ages may be due to this cause.


21. In studying the sinking of the sea bottoms in connection
with the expulsion of lava for the elevation of coasts and the for-
mation of mountains, the writer took up the problem of the sink-
ing of the Homeric City of Helike, after the great earthquake in

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Online LibraryW. L. (William Larkin) WebbBrief biography and popular account of the unparalleled discoveries of T.J.J. See .. → online text (page 10 of 28)