W. L. (William Larkin) Webb.

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

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by the ancients that they are always developed in or near the sea.
Thousands of eruptions occur in the sea bottom, but only occasion-
ally do the new volcanoes reach the surface. More frequently
the presence of fire under the sea is told by the boiling of the water,
and by dead fish found floating on the surface. Even the Greeks
and Romans noticed these submarine outbreaks, and their dis-
astrous effects on marine animals.

Volcanoes on land always break out near the shore, in moun-
tain ranges which are folded sharply upward as in the Andes
and the Aleutian Islands. Such sharp folds are always near the
sea, and their dependence on it is also proved by the vast prepon-
derance of water vapor which they emit. According to Sir Archi-
bald Geikie, 999 in 1000 parts of all the vapor they emit is steam.
The pumice which they blow out is only molten rock saturated
with steam and other vapors, and afterwards dried up. And as
pumice underlies every mountain, an earthquake which opens an
orifice is sure to blow out considerable quantities of this light
material. When pumice is ground up it makes ashes, and hence
the vast clouds of dust blown out of volcanoes, which obscure the
sun and are carried over the earth for hundreds and even thou-
sands of miles.

As recently developed, geology has presented the singular
anomaly of admitting the existence of shells and marine fossils
thousands of feet above the sea, without any means of explaining
how they got there; and at the same time denying the bodily ele-
vation of the sea coasts by earthquakes, though formerly this
doctrine of elevation was generally accepted. It is now easy to
see how all these phenomena can be reconciled and explained by
indicating the simplest of causes, the leakage of the ocean bottoms,
which produces elevations and also depressions.

Not only do we prove the elevation of the sea coasts by earth-
quakes, which thus push lava under the land, from beneath the


sea, but also that subsidences may happen somewhat less fre-
quently. The sea bottom often sinks when lava is expelled from
beneath it, so as to undermine the support from below; and in
like manner any coast may subside temporarily if the subterranean
movement of lava is such as to undermine the foundation. This
has happened in numerous historical cases, of which we shall
mention only a few.

In 1692, Jamaica was visited by a terrible earthquake, and
afterwards about three-fourths of Port Royal sank into the sea,
where the houses long afterwards could be seen beneath the waves.

The sinking was caused by a block of the earth's crust giving
down during the earthquake, which had weakened the founda-

In 1746, Callao, Peru, was terribly shaken by an earthquake,
and the coast inundated by a seismic sea wave, said to have been
eighty feet high. In this case the sea bottom sank some distance
from the land, and it carried parts of the shore down with it. Old
Callao was thus submerged beneath the waves, and the houses
could be seen in the bottom of the new harbor.

Another good illustration of this undermining is afforded by
the coast of Pamphylia, in Asia Minor. In the fourth century
B.C., Alexander the Great marched his army along a road on the
sea coast overhung by the Climax Mountains. Strabo says that
on a stormy day, when the waves beat on the road, the soldiers
waded to the middle of their bodies in water; at the present time
the same road is covered by the water to a depth of over twelve
feet, even when the weather is calm. Hence the whole coast must
have subsided by about this amount. The shores of the Mediter-
ranean present numerous cases of harbor works of the classic
period, some above and some below the present level of the sea.

But the most celebrated case of subsidence is that of the
Homeric City of Helike, which formerly stood on the southern
shore of the Gulf of Corinth. In the year 373 B.C., the whole
of Peloponnesus was shaken by a terrible earthquake. Helike and
Bura were leveled to the ground, and great chasms opened in the


ground near the latter place; then the bed of the Gulf of Corinth
gave down at least 100 feet, and carried Helike down with it. The
inrush of the mighty sea wave destroyed ten Lacedemonian vessels
lying in the harbor, and the sea rose so high about the Temple of
Neptune that only the tops of the trees remained above the water,
though for centuries afterwards the houses could still be seen be-
neath the waves. This happened when Plato was fifty-four, and
at the head of the Academy in Athens, and Aristotle was a boy
eleven years old. The sinking of Helike greatly perplexed the
wisest of the Athenian sages, but in spite of all their learning and
acuteness they were utterly unable to account for such a strange

In the light of the above theory it is easy to see that the earth-
quake had pushed lava from beneath the Gulf of Corinth, and thus
caused the chasms to open near Bura. No doubt the mountains
of Arcadia were badly shaken and somewhat uplifted; then the
sea bottom gave down, and Helike disappeared beneath the
waves. Such subsidences are less frequent than uplifts of the
coasts, but they occur occasionally and sometimes cause great

Now that the cause of earthquakes and sea waves is perfectly
clear, the people have a better means of protecting themselves
against such calamities than formerly. No city on the coast of a
deep sea is ever entirely safe from earthquakes and sea waves;
but if good houses are built, and a place for refuge exists, in case
the water retires from the shore after an earthquake, indicating
that the sea bottom has sunk, the danger to the population is com-
paratively small. The only means of safety is to flee with the
utmost speed to the high grounds, as the people in South America
have learned to do by long and bitter experience. There is gen-
erally time enough for escape, before the wave returns; and even
the ships in the harbor will be safe, if they promptly put to sea;
for in the open sea, they can ride over the wave without injury,
but if they lay in the harbor they are sure to be lost or washed


Studies of the phenomena of the ocean and of the laws of the
physical world by which the mountains are formed, owing to the
secular leakage of their waters through the crust of the earth, may
thus contribute greatly to the safety of mankind, as well as throw
light on the mystery and grandeur connected with all the great
secrets of Nature.

In this brief outline of the results embodied in four scientific
memoirs recently published by the American Philosophical Society
at Philadelphia, we have touched only upon those topics which
seemed likely to be of most popular interest. The new theory has
been adopted with enthusiasm in the highest circles of the scientific
world; and hence the results here given may be considered as
demonstrated. Since the death of Helmholtz, of Berlin, 1894,
Professor Arrhenius, of Stockholm, has gradually taken the fore-
most place among the physicists of Continental Europe. He is
one of those who have adopted the new theory from the first.
Among others may be mentioned Professor Suess, of Vienna, the
most eminent geologist in Europe, and the veteran physicists, Lord
Kelvin and Sir Wm. Huggins, two of the most illustrious ex-
presidents of the Royal Society.



By T. J. J. SEE.

1. Introductory Remarks.

E four memoirs dealing with the cause of earthquakes,
mountain formation, and kindred phenomena connected
with the physics of the earth, which the writer had the honor
to communicate to this Society in the years 1906-08, and have
published in the Proceedings, have laid the foundations of a new
theory of the physics of the earth's crust. The new theory already
is widely adopted by the most eminent investigators, and the pur-
pose of the present paper is merely to add a final confirmation of
some interest.

During the past five years the writer's attention has been so
fully occupied with the problems of Cosmogony that the problems
relating to Geogony, or the formation of the earth, have been left
largely in abeyance; and yet some new light has been shed on
them, especially by the researches showing that the lunar craters
are due to impact, and thus in no way similar to terrestrial vol-
canoes as was so long believed.

Quite recently it was thought worth while to re-examine the
phenomena of the earth's crust, in the light of the New Science of
Cosmogony resulting from the researches of the past five years.
For in studying the problem of the origin of the Himalayas and the
plateau of Tibet some important considerations were brought out
that were not included in my former papers, and thus it seems

* Presented to the American Philosophical Society held at Philadelphia, on
the occasion of the Annual General Meeting, April 17-19, 1913.


advisable to place them on record as confirming and extending my
former investigations.

Moreover, the subject of the origin of the Himalayas is attract-
ing attention abroad. Apparently without knowledge of my work
Colonel Sidney G. Burrard, R. E., F. R. S., Surveyor-General of
India, has been devoting considerable attention to the subject
in 'Professional Paper No. 12, Survey of India,' a summary
of which is given in The Observatory for November, 1912,
p. 413:

"It may be remembered that several years ago Col. Burrard
showed that there appears to be a subterranean mass of great
density lying across India in mean latitude 23 north. He now
shows that the observations indicate the existence of a line of low
density between this subterranean mass and the Himalayas, and
suggests that there was, or is, one long crack in the earth's sub-
crust extending from Sumatra round the Arrakan coast across
Northern India, through the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean,
traces of which are seen in the parallel shores of the Gulf of Oman
and the Persian Gulf. The crack has been filled with alluvial
deposit across Northern India and in other places, but the Hima-
layas remain as the result of the rift in the earth, a great mass of
matter having been pushed northward. It has been supposed by
others that the Himalayan range was formed by the southward
advance of the northern part of the Asiastic continent on to the
Indo-African tableland."

The idea here developed by Colonel Burrard, including especi-
ally the light material under northern India, and the pushing of the
Himalayas northward, is so very similar to that developed in my
memoirs that it must be regarded as an independent confirmation
of the theory that the mountains are formed by the sea. And as
this conclusion applies to the greatest and most intricate range in
the world, the external relations of which are not entirely simple,
I deem it worthy of attention.

Finally, it may be noted that much interest has been awak-
ened in this subject in England and other countries of Europe.

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The new theory already is widely taught in the schools of Great
Britain and the Continent; and in his new work The Growth of a
Planet, (The MacMillan Co., New York, 1911), the London geo-
physicist Mr. Edwin Sharpe Grew, M. A., concedes that the
author's reasoning on the Aleutian Islands is unanswerable, and
finally says:

"Dr. See has arranged his facts with great ingenuity, and the
presentation of his case is the most powerful argument which has
ever been advanced in favor of the view held since the days of
Strabo, Aristotle or Pliny, that the expansive force of steam is the
prime cause of volcanic and seismic disturbances."

In view of this general interest a few additional considera-
tions on the origin of the Himalayas maybe important. For after
careful reflection I regard the Himalayas as the crucial test; and
as the theory is triumphantly verified by a more complete study
of this great range, it must hereafter be regarded as firmly and
permanently established.

2. The Volumes of the Plateaus of the Rocky Mountains, of
the Andes, and of the Himalayas.

In the four Memoirs included in the Proceedings of this Society
for 1906-08, the new theory of mountain formation is treated with
considerable detail, but some numerical relations between the
plateaus above mentioned are worthy of more attention than they
have yet received.

The Pacific plateau of North America is of variable width,
being less than 500 miles wide in Mexico, and perhaps 600 miles
wide in Canada, but from 1,000 to 1,500 miles wide in the United
States. Perhaps 750 miles wide would be a good average estimate
of the whole plateau. And the height may be taken as approxima-
tely 5,000 feet, or a mile above the sea. These average figures
will satisfactorily represent the Pacific plateau in North America.
It is noticed also in many places that where the plateau is broadest
it is of less average height; but where it is narrower the height is
somewhat increased.


In the Andes the same principles prevail. The plateau is
highest in the region of Lake Titicaca, where the elevation is over
12,600 feet, or 2.5 miles. The width here does not exceed 300
miles. Further north, near Quito, it narrows up, and is not over
half this width; but in Columbia it again spreads out to a width
of 300 or 400 miles, but is only about 6,000 or 8,000 feet in height,
scarcely more than half that along the more southern portion of
the Andes.

It is noticeable that the height decreases from 12,600 feet
near Lake Titicaca, to 11,000 feet in central Peru, and perhaps
10,000 feet at Quito; while south of Titicaca the height does not
decrease appreciably till central Chile is reached, after which it
falls steadily till the continent sinks beneath the sea at Cape

Now it is remarkable that if we take a typical section of the
highest and broadest part of the Andean plateau, 2.5 miles high
by 300 miles wide, the numerical product of width by height in
miles is 750. And the Rocky Mountain plateau, one mile high
and 750 miles wide, gives the same product, 750 square miles.

To be sure this product can be varied considerably by taking
different sections of the plateaus of North and South America,
but all in all this average estimate appears to be a fair one. For
in the article Andes, in the Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th edition,
Sir Archibald Geikie estimates the bulk of the Andes as of the
average width of 100 miles, and the height 13,000 feet. The
present estimate gives greater width but somewhat less height.

On the whole, I am inclined to think that the average sectional
area in the Andes is somewhat less than that in the Rocky
Mountain plateau; for between Colorado and the Pacific coast
the width is about 1,500 miles, and the average height about a
mile. The plateau is much narrower in Canada, and very much
narrower in Mexico, practically disappearing entirely in Central
America and Panama. Thus at one point in the United States
the sectional contents may be twice that in the Andes; yet the
average sectional volume for the Pacific plateau of North America


is not much greater than the larger sectional volumes for the
plateau of the Andes.

The significance of this equality in the sections of the two
plateaus lies in the fact that both are the products of the common
Pacific Ocean, one in the northern, the other in the southern conti-
nent. The new theory does not require that the volumes should
be exactly equal, but it implies that they should be comparable,
and such is the fact in a very striking degree.

Let us now consider the plateau of Tibet, in comparison with
that of the Andes. The height of western Tibet is about 15,000
feet, while eastern Tibet has an elevation of only 11,000 feet. The
breadth also varies from some 200 miles on the west to 500 miles
at the eastern extremity (General Strachey, Article Himalayas,
Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th edition).

Accordingly, if we take the wider part of western Tibet as
having a sectional height of three miles and a breadth of 250 miles,
the product in miles is 750, exactly the same as in the Andes and
the Rocky Mountains. Further east in Tibet the width may be
500 miles, and the height about two miles, which gives a sectional
product of 1,000. This is larger than the average Andean prod-
uct adopted above, and more like that of the Rocky Mountain
plateau west of Colorado.

But the circumstance that the sectional volumes of three
great plateaus in the three leading continents of the globe should
all be so nearly equal is fully as impressive a fact as the related
fact that all of these plateaus should overlook the same great ocean
by which they were elevated.

Altogether the similarity in the volumes of sections of these
three greatest plateaus is so striking as to make it difficult to deny
that it constitutes practically a mathematical demonstration that
these plateaus were uplifted by the Pacific Ocean. The relation-
ships here brought out as to the volumes of these plateaus, in
addition to the situations about the Pacific Ocean, could not well
be accounted for by chance, even if we did not know the cause of
mountain formation. But as the cause of mountain formation


is fully understood, the cause which has built the plateaus is also
clearly shown, and it is impossible to consider any other explana-
tion than that here outlined.

3. General Law that where a Continuous Plateau increases
in width, it decreases in elevation.

This law doubtless results from the process of uplifting by
which the mountains and plateaus have been raised above the
sea. For example, in case of the continuous plateau crowned
with mountain crests which surrounds the Pacific Ocean from Cape
Horn to Alaska, and then extends down the south eastern shores
of Asia, runs westward through India, and down the east shore of
Africa to the Cape of Good Hope, it is observed in each of the four
continents traversed that where the plateau is highest it usually
narrows in width, and vice versa.

Thus we have seen that the plateau of the Andes is high in
Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, but in Columbia falls to about
half its former level, but expands to about double width. This
expansion of the width of the plateau in Columbia is character-
istic of plateau formation in general. There are slight exceptions
to the rule, but the conformity to it is much more noticeable.
For example, at Titicaca the width is about 250 miles, but some
distance north of this region the Andean plateau seems to narrow
up till the width scarcely exceeds 150 miles, in Ecuador; but it
then spreads out again as the range enters Columbia.

It is not easy to explain this narrowing of the range, unless
the great width and great height at Titicaca are due to the indenta-
tion of the coast at this point, giving uplifting forces from both
directions, at the same time. This explanation seems to be well
founded, and is confirmed by the corresponding effect north of
central India, where the plateau of Tibet reaches its maximum

Accordingly, we probably should conclude, that the width of
the Andean plateau is normally less than at Lake Titicaca, and


the width there is due to a combination of forces from the two lines
of coast, meeting at an angle of about 135. It is therefore a fact
in South America that wherever the plateau is widest, it decreases
in elevation, as in Columbia.

In this problem of uplift, however, something depends on the
depth and width of the adjacent elevating ocean, and thus a cer-
tain amount of variety should result. Since the adjacent sea is
not of uniform effectiveness, we should expect minor deviations
from the law; but obviously they should not be too pronounced.

In North America, the same general law holds true. Where-
ever the plateau is narrow, as in central Mexico, the elevation is
great; but where it is wide, the elevation generally is lower. There
are of course some exceptions to the rule, but it generally holds

For example, along the Rocky Mountain range the highest
part of the plateau probably is in Colorado, where the whole
Pacific plateau is widest; but this only indicates that the forces
which raised such high mountains as Pike's Peak, also raised a
high plateau in the general region, independent of the width of
the plateau afterwards elevated from the sea. And so on gene-

The rule that the plateau decreases in height when it increases
in width, must be understood to apply to a region of not too great
width. For when the width is very great, we have rather a series
of plateaus added together side by side than a single one; and the
final result is a composite effect, one plateau section fitting onto
another, and the whole series of sections running together as an
unbroken embankment of variable height. '

In view of these considerations, a plateau so wide as that
between Colorado and California is really a series of plateaus, each
of unusual width at this point, and the whole effect therefore a
very broad compound plateau. The entire Pacific plateau is the
cumulative work of the ocean, done in successive sections; and
as the ocean is deepest opposite California, the uplift naturally
has been greatest in this part, which also developed the Sierra


Nevada Mountains, and at a still earlier stage the Wasatch range
in Utah.

The history of the building of the Pacific plateau from Colo-
rado to California is too long to be described here, but these hints
on the method by which it was elevated give some idea of the
growth of the continent westward from the ancient border which
was east of the present Rocky Mountain range.

4. The Cause of the great height of the plateaus of western
Tibet and Titicaca.

Since writing the Memoirs of 1906-08, I have had occasion
to re-examine the relationship of the great mountains to the
plateaus, and of the plateaus to the sea, with the result of con-
firming in the most conclusive manner the uplift of the plateaus
by the ocean. It is found that the plateau of western Tibet has
almost exactly the relationship to the ancient sea valley formerly
covering northern India, that the plateau of Titicaca now has to
the border of the Pacific Ocean.

If we examine a good map of northern India, we shall find
not only that the Indus and Ganges now flow in the ancient sea
valley formerly depressed below the waves, and now elevated less
than 1,000 feet above the ocean; but also that this valley made
a sharp bend in north central India. It has the form of the Greek
letter lambda, with the Ganges leg of the lambda by far the longest,
and the included angle about 105.

If the lava expelled from beneath this ancient sea valley came
from two directions, at such an angle, the forces of uplift naturally
would accumulate at the head of the sea valley. For they would
come from the southeast and also from the southwest, as well as
from the south; and the result of compounding these forces, would
be magnified forces of unusual intensity, directed to the elevation
of the Himalayas of north central India. This is exactly what
has taken place; and hence we see why the plateau of Tibet is so
high in the western part of that great "roof of the world."


If now we turn to the region of Lake Titicaca, in South Amer-
ica, we find an exactly similar relative situation. The coasts from
the south and northwest meet at an angle of some 135; and the
forces producing the uplift have come from the two directions, and
also from the west. The result has been a convergence of the
forces tending to produce an uplift; but as the angle of 135 is
less acute than in northern India, where the angle is 105, it
is not remarkable that the plateau of Titicaca is less elevated
than that of western Tibet, where the forces converged more
powerfully and were so compounded as to produce the maximum

It certainly is not accidental that these two highest plateaus
of the world stand in similar centers of converging forces directed
from the ocean; and that the higher plateau of western Tibet has

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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 13 of 28)