ROGALAND, NORWAY: 1824, 1826


<<-- Episodes Listing



File:Jens Esmark.png

Jens Esmark (1763-1839) began his career as a government mining inspector and lectured in the Mining Academy at Kongsberg until it closed in 1814, whereupon he moved to the Royal Frederick University in Christiania (Oslo) as the first professor of Geosciences at that new university.


In 1824 he published a paper in a journal published by his university: the paper was titled (in Danish) "Contribution to the history of our Earth." Two years later, in 1826, this was published in translation in Edinburgh (Scotland) as "Remarks tending to explain the geological history of the Earth."


Esmark stated: "in Norway I have found many proofs of the operation of immense masses of ice which have now disappeared" (p.115). Concerning mountain valleys and erratics, he observed that "Men [Hall, deLuc, and Dolomieu are mentioned] have often had recourse to extraordinary exertions of the powers of nature in explaining these phenomena" but that it "is a very general opinion in Switzerland" that ice has been responsible (p.114).



Regarding von Buch's theory, involving glacial dams and floods, he argued that the transportation and deposition of erratics could not be explained by "torrents of water:"  "It cannot be admitted that they could be brought to such situations by torrents of water, for the same torrents which could have been capable of bringing such masses of rock [erratics], must at the same time have carried off the gravel and sand." Glacier deposition could also explain their location high in mountain valleys (p.116).


While on a business trip in 1823 to the Stavanger area, he observed: "[The] upper end this sandy plain [near Forsand] was bounded by a glacier-dike ["Gletscher- Vold"] or rampart, which extended across the whole valley . . .  this glacier dike is remarkable . . . lying close to the level of the sea, in a district where you find only a few heaps of perpetual snow in hollows of the mountains . . . The dike itself consists of coarse  gravel and sand, mixed with a great number of immense blocks of gneiss, which is the prevailing kind of rock in the mountain. We find this gravel and sand not only heaped up across the valley, but pushed up in great quantity on the opposite side of the dike, to the length of 1400 feet towards the mountain." (p.117)


Esmark's moraine ("Gletscher-Vold"): 75ft high, it dams Lake Haukalivatnet in a branch of the Lysefjorden
(Andersen and Borns 1997, p.13)


Esmark reported similar features "adjoining to the glaciers presently existing between Londfiord [Sondfjord/Songefjord] and Lomb, in Guldbrandsdal" -- in south-central Norway, apparently in today's Jotunheimen National Park southwest of Lom (where Esmark had made a reputation as a mountain climber).


In the same volume of The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal  in which Esmark's paper appeared, Christian Frederik Gottfied  Bohr described a contemporary glacial environment  between the Songefjord and Lodal  (the glaciers of the Jostedal ice field), and used the Swiss term "moraines" to label these "glacier dikes."


Esmark was the first to attribute valleys themselves to erosion by ice which greatly modified the original form of the valleys to create the fiords (p.118-119). He described how smooth the valleys sides were, presumably from the abrasive action of ice flowing across them. Norway's fiords are spectacular.




Esmark used his glacier observations to support a comprehensive "theory of the Earth" that he derived from the ideas of William Whiston (1667-1752): namely, that Earth had once been a comet that had been "vitrified" by an approach to the Sun and had then been entirely glaciated at the aphelion of its orbit. "At first view, it seems not likely that we should be able to exhibit any proof of this. But . . . we shall find actual proofs that the earth had been covered with ice and snow . . . in our own Norway" (p.113). His observations on glaciers were sandwiched between an extensive account of this fanciful theory (as his contemporaries would have seen it) and a summary of it at the end of the paper.


Nevertheless, his ideas on glaciers were noted in the 1830s by Jean de Charpentier, and William Buckland, in his Presidential Address to the Geological Society of London in February 1840, noted Esmark's death and listed his accomplishments: "A translation of his remarks on the Geological History of the Globe was published in the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal (1827), vol. vi. P. 107- The most important portion of this paper consists in its bearing his evidence to show that the greater part of Norway has, at some period, been covered with ice, and that the granite blocks, so abundant in that country, have been brought to their present place by glaciers."



  1. How did Esmark justify generalizing that Earth had been glaciated on the strength of his observations in Norway?
  2. How does the larger context Esmark provided affect your thinking about his glacial hypothesis?
  3. Can Esmark be thought of as the originator of the "glacial theory?"



Esmark was a supporter of the "Neptunist" views of the German mineralogist/geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749-1817).  According to this view, Earth's crustal rocks had all precipitated or settled out of a primeval ocean. 


File:Robert Jameson.jpgRobert Jameson (1774-1854), the Regius Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh also supported Werner's views (like Esmark, he had studied under Werner at Freiburg). Jameson founded the "Wernerian Natural history Society of Edinburgh," of which Esmark was a founding foreign member. Jameson co-founded The Edinburgh Philosophical Journal in 1819, and in 1824 established The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal. Over the next three decades or so, this widely-read journal published some of the most important papers on glaciation. [Jameson, who had taught Charles Darwin in Edinburgh in courses that turned Darwin off geology for a time, ultimately repudiated his Neptunist beliefs.]








Andersen, B., Borns, H.W. 1997 The Ice Age world (The Scandinavian Press, Oslo)


Buckland, W. 1840 Anniversary Address of the Rev. Prof. Buckland,  President, The Geological Society, Feb.21, 1840 ("Notice of Deceased members: Jens Esmark") . Proceedings of the Geological Society of London v.III (Nov. 1838 to June 1842), p. 260-261 http://www.google.com/books?id=giPPAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA260


Bohr, G. 1826 Account of a Visit to the Glaciers of Justedal, and to the Mantle of Lodal. The New Edinburgh Philosophical Journal 1827 (Oct.1826-April 1827) p.255-264 http://books.google.com/books?id=AksEAAAAYAAJ&pg=RA1-PA255


Esmark, J. 1824 Bidrag til vor Jordklodes Historie [Contribution to our Earth's history]. Magazin for Naturvidenskaberne v.2(1) p.29-54 http://www.google.com/books?id=zR0AAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA28

ENGLISH TRANSLATION Esmark, J.  1824 (trans. Oct-Dec 1826) Remarks tending to explain the geological history of the Earth. The New Edinburgh Philosophical Journal 1827 (Oct.1826-April 1827) p.107-121 http://books.google.com/books?id=AksEAAAAYAAJ&pg=RA1-PA107


Worsley, P., 2006 Jens Esmark, Vassryggen and early glacial theory in Britain. Mercian Geologist v.16(3) p.161-172 http://www.geo365.no/sfiles/7/87/4/file/Esmark8.pdf


<<-- Episodes Listing