Louis Agassiz and the Ice Ages

Louis Agassiz
(1807 – 1873)

On May 28, 1807, Swiss paleontologist, glaciologist, and geologist Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz was born, who is considered a prominent innovator in the study of the Earth’s natural history. He was the first to scientifically propose that the Earth had been subject to a past ice age.

Louis Agassiz studied medicine at the universities of Zurich, Heidelberg, and Munich, but educated himself also in nature sciences and botany. To his early mentors belonged Alexander von Humboldt and Georges Cuvier, who motivated the young scientist to keep up his interest in geology, zoology and ichtyology. In the 1820’s, Agassiz undertook a research journey to Brasil to study fish, which depicted a turning point in his career. After Johann Baptist von Spix, who joined his travel, passed away, Agassiz was asked to complete the researcher’s studies which he greatfully did. Several publications followed the trip and Agassiz’ reputation across the continent grew.

While being occupied as professor in Neuchâtel, Louis Agassiz proceeded his research on fish and fossils at the Swiss canton of Glasrus, which depicted the foundation for his later works that made him internationally famous. For many decades, researchers tried to find out how boulders were transported over quite large distances, especially in the foothills of the Alps. Several scientists already thought of glacier-activities but had difficulties to prove their ideas. Other ideas included volcanos or floods.

In the 1830’s Karl Friedrich Schimper mentioned his theories on a possible ice age and therefore a solution to the boulder problem. Louis Agassiz visited the researcher during his scientific journey to the Black Forest and was finally convinced by Schimper’s ideas. They began working on the topic together and Agassiz presented their results on the ice age theory in Switzerland in 1837 dramatically. Firstly, Louis Agassiz did not find many supporters, wherefore he put further work in researching and proving his proposition.

For the next 5 years, Agassiz traveled to glacier areas observing their structures and possible movements. In further publications, he explained his new and improved studies. He described the movements of glaciers and their historical importance to the Alpine area, as well as clarified how certain areas were once completely covered in ice. Louis Agassiz then began working together with William Buckland, finding out how Scottland, Endland and Wales were formed by glaciers, which they also published.

Unfortunately, their theories were not immediately accepted throughout the scientific community and beyond. However, after decades of attempting to convince his fellow researchers and several publications, more and more scientists began to focus on his subject as well. One of the most sceptic researchers was Charles Lyell, who at first supported Agassiz but later rejected his theories for several years. A few years after Louis Agassiz’ passing, many scientists were finally convinced by the ice age theory and it slowly reached everyone across Europe, an achievement which Louis Agassiz is mostly remembered for today.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a video talk by James Balog on global warming and immense ice loss.

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