Minds in Ablation Part Three: Botanical Fantasies

Copyright © 1998, 1999 by Sean Mewhinney (df736@freenet.carleton.ca).

Botanical Fantasies

Ginenthal often jump-cuts between sources as though they are talking about the same thing, when actually they are talking about something quite different. He then builds up to some sweeping statement which is not justified by the facts. This is conspicuous, for example, in the way Ginenthal handles botanical evidence. His most sweeping statements also give the structure of his argument, so that makes a good place to begin. During the hypsithermal, according to Ginenthal,

In essence, we have temperate forests near the Arctic Ocean, across from Siberia to Norway and from Alaska to Hudson's [sic] Bay. Temperate forests were also found on Spitsbergen, the outermost islands of Norway, and there was rich vegetation on Ellesmere Island and Novaya Zemlya. Temperate conditions existed for thousands of years both east and west of Greenland and at all the Greenland latitudes.... Therefore, it is more than reasonable to expect that Greenland did not escape the fate of all these regions, that it lost its icecap and grew a lush vegetation. 1

Even if this were a fair summary of the many observations which preceded it in Ginenthal's citations, and it is not, the deduction would not logically follow. Climatic conditions are not necessarily the same at the same latitude. One must take into account the altitude, the prevailing winds, the distribution of land, sea, and ice, and the proximity of mountain ranges and ocean currents.

Comparing Ginenthal's sources with his summation, we find an escalation of language. The word "rich", referring specifically to the flora of Spitsbergen, appears in Brooks. Ginenthal escalates that to "lush". The word "temperate", repeated three times here, appears in none of his sources. It seems that whenever Ginenthal finds a tree, or something he thinks is a tree, he calls it a forest, and to him, "forest" and "temperate forest" are synonymous. Let's look at the trees.

Ginenthal has culled passages from several sources -- Borisov, Pielou, and Charlesworth -- on the northern limit reached by the treeline in Russia, Canada, and Norway, and thrown in a couple of other things that don't fit. He makes it sound as though there was a continuous strip of forest fronting on the Arctic Ocean right around the globe, which is not correct, and that the forest zone included such high Arctic Islands as Spitsbergen (from about 76.5 to 80 degrees north latitude), which is nonsense. (See Figs. 1, 2, 3, and 4.) I will repeat one rather long quotation from Charlesworth:

Trees grew in Norway's outermost islands and as far as Ingo Island, off North Cape........ Additional evidence is given by... peats and relics in Greenland -- the northern limits may have been displaced northwards through several degrees of latitude -- by Vaccinium uliginosum and other plants in Novaya Zemlya, and by peat and ripe fruit stones of Empetrum nigrum in Spitsbergen that no longer ripen in these northern lands. Various plants were more generally distributed in Ellesmere Land [sic], birch grew more widely in Iceland... 2

(Ginenthal routinely omits the species names.) So the treeline reached North Cape in Norway, about 71.5 degrees north latitude, but it's only a couple of degrees south of that now 3; birch grew more widely in Iceland, but it grows there now. Empetrum nigrum is the black or common crowberry -- not a tree, but a low Arctic shrub whose branches trail on the ground. 4 Charlesworth's "ripe fruit stones" are Ginenthal's imaginary "temperate forests" on Spitsbergen.

"The point to stress," according to Ginenthal, "is that large trees should never be able to grow on islands north of the Arctic Circle. As explained by Ivan T. Sanderson, `pieces of large tree trunks of the types [found]... do not and cannot live at those latitudes today for purely biological reasons. The same goes for huge areas of Siberia'." 5 Why does Ginenthal say "never"? This earth is several billion years old, and in that time it has experienced many periods of climate warmer than today's. To find trees growing in the Arctic, you just have to go back far enough -- upwards of three quarters of a million years.

In the Canadian Arctic islands, the Beaufort Formation, and above it, the Worth Point Formation, contains numerous logs and seed cones of boreal forest trees. These strata, and the 20- to 40-meter-thick glacial Duck Hawk Bluffs Formation found above them on Banks Island, fall within the Matuyama epoch of reversed magnetic polarity, which ended about 780,000 years ago. 6 Tree trunks up to 15 feet long are found in the Kap København Formation in northern Greenland. This stratum also lies within the Matuyama epoch. Foraminifera, mollusks, and mammals indicate that it straddles the Pliocene/Pleistocene boundary, about 1.8 million years ago. 7 Equivalent strata are found in Siberia, where many early travellers remarked upon the ancient wood lying below the surface. But these ancient forests have nothing to do with the hypsithermal. Their latest stands are about a hundred times older.

Ginenthal makes a great deal of finds of peat in Greenland and other Arctic islands. He quotes a Britannica article to the effect that "peat is formed `chiefly in temperate, humid climates'." 8 "Chiefly"? -- That may be so, but Ginenthal believes, "exclusively" -- or does he? This is followed up with a quote from Brooks which seems to lend authority to this belief: "peat bogs... require a rainfall of at least 40 inches a year and a mean temperature above 32 F." 9 This quote seems to be made to order for Ginenthal's thesis. In the passage from which this was taken, Brooks was describing the Mediterranean climatic/vegetation zone. The full sentence reads as follows: "This zone is the peculiar home of peat bogs, which require a rainfall of at least 40 inches a year and a mean temperature above 32° F." From the wording of the sentence, it sounds as though Brooks is making a general statement about peat. If it weren't such common knowledge that peat grows in the Arctic, that's what I'd think he meant, too. But botanists have a bewildering variety of names for different characteristic types of bogs adapted to different climatic and topographic conditions. Whether you call them peat bogs, muskeg, blanket mires, aapamires, or palsa mires, whatever the specific complex of species that compose it, peat is peat, and it grows in all of them. More likely, Brooks had in mind a particular type of bog that characterizes the warm temperate zone -- the classic bog that infills a previously existing lake.

Was Ginenthal merely misled by Brooks? That judgement would be too hasty. The passage he quoted above about large tree trunks found at high latitudes was taken from page 80 of Ivan T. Sanderson's The Dynasty of Abu. On the same page, speaking of mammoth remains in the Arctic, Sanderson says, "Some are `pickled' in peat bogs." Another of his sources, Pielou, describes muskeg, "otherwise known as peatland, or sometimes simply as bog." 10 She notes: "Muskeg has grown up over much of the area where permafrost prevails..... permafrost creates the conditions for muskeg." 11 Ginenthal might have overlooked that passage, but he actually quotes this sentence from Orr: "The Arctic gives the appearance of being a wasteland of lakes, bogs and marshes only because the ground, permanently frozen a few feet down, impedes drainage." 12 So what did he think Orr was talking about?

About one sixth of Canada's land surface is muskeg, 13 most of it in the north, and about half of it is sitting on permafrost. Arctic peat survives freezing very nicely. In fact, freezing helps prevent desiccation during the long winters. In the main peatland zone of Canada, where precipitation is often less than 4 centimeters a year (about one and a half inches), 14 freezing confers an important advantage.

Peat grows today in Greenland, too. Where Charlesworth speaks of "peats and relics," "relics" in his usage is the equivalent of the more usual "relicts". That is, an isolated population thought to have once had a more extensive range. In other words, "relic" doesn't mean something dead -- it's a living population. The principal constituent of peat is sphagnum moss. In 1952, Bodil Lange could write that 22 species of sphagnum were represented in more than 500 botanical collections from Greenland, ranging as far as 77 degrees north latitude on both east and west coasts. 15

In this sort of scavenger hunt, no scrap of information is too trivial, irrelevant, or absurdly inconsistent to be trotted out as "evidence". Ginenthal puts the same relentlessly positive spin on everything. Here is how he introduces the next item:

...it is assumed that Greenland was glaciated all this time and no plants that do not grow there now ever lived there during the hipsithermal. [sic] Nonetheless, during an expedition to northeast Greenland, from a dike ridge of a glacier, crushed plant parts were being exuded through the ice. 16

Well, yes, in fact, that is precisely what his own sources tell him. I have referred several times to a passage Ginenthal quoted from Charlesworth, mentioning, among other things, "peats and relics in Greenland." At the point where Ginenthal's quotation stops, in the very next sentence, Charlesworth makes this statement: "this optimum... in Greenland was only slightly warmer and had no plant formation or species that does not now live there." 17 This blows his whole case out of the water from the start, so Ginenthal suppresses it. The whole thing is an exercise in perversity.

But to continue. The plant remains Ginenthal is talking about were found in silt protruding a few inches from a glacier tongue in the Skille Valley on Clavering Island. The find was made about two and a half miles above the terminus of the glacier. In his report, R. F. Flint writes that it was "giving off a powerful odor like that of decaying vegetable matter, strongly detectable 250 meters" away.

The silt was examined for fossils by Dr. Esa Hyyppa of the Geological Survey of Finland, who reported the following:

Macroscopic Fossils. The silt examined contained two whole leaves, several leaf fragments, and two fruits of Dryas octopetala; a small, partly decayed leaf of a shrub, species not definitely determinable, [but resembling Salix arctica;] and an abundance of much-decayed small fragments of plant tissues, mostly leaf veins and root hairs, [evidently chiefly of Dryas octopetala.] No remnants of tree vegetation were found. 18

(Ginenthal omits the words in brackets.) Salix arctica is the arctic willow, which grows as a shrub, not a tree. Dr. Oosting, botanist of the expedition, found arctic willows growing a short distance away. Dryas octopetala is a low flowering plant so typical of tundra vegetation that it gave its name to three cold periods near the end of the last glaciation. Once again, typical Arctic plants. Both species are found all over the area. To emphasize the supposed significance of this find, Ginenthal adds:

The northeastern corner of Greenland is actually the coldest region of this great island. Lister stated that it has a `continental climate [and is] remote from the influence of the sea?' 19

This is completely off the wall. Different expedition, different part of Greenland. Lister was referring to an area about fifty miles from the coast in Dronning Louise Land. The plants were found on Clavering Island, off the coast of Greenland, about 200 miles to the south. And neither is particularly cold for Greenland.

Hyyppa also found some microscopic tissues of shrubs and mosses. His report concludes: "The entire plant assemblage, macroscopic and microscopic, is indicative of a forestless field vegetation adapted to arctic climatic conditions. It is quite possibly similar to the vegetation now living in ice-free parts of Greenland." 20 (Not quoted by Ginenthal, of course.) Flint adds:

There can be little doubt that the silt is being squeezed up from the base of the ice. As the local bedrock is gneiss, it seems probable that the source is a superficial deposit on the valley floor. The modern aspect of the included flora precludes a preglacial time of origin for it.

Ginenthal quotes these two sentences, but omits the next:

We may be dealing here with an interglacial bed or vegetation-covered surface which has been re-glaciated and is now within 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) of being again exposed. 21

In other words, Flint thinks the plants grew right where their remains were found. Ginenthal has a more fanciful interpretation: He thinks they came from the interior of Greenland.

Northern Greenland had the same rich type of vegetation on lands where the glaciers had practically melted away. Then this region was covered over by ice, which pushed the vegetation toward the Greenland coast where it is being exuded through the ice. 22

This seems extremely unlikely. To reach the Skille glacier, the nearest outlet glaciers on Greenland would have to fill in about 10 miles of fjord with ice, climb steep cliffs on the other side, and rise 1400 meters while advancing another 15 miles across Clavering Island. (The Danish government has a nice set of 1:250,000-scale maps of Greenland. See Figs. 5 and 6.)

"Not only did peat grow in abundance on Greenland," Ginenthal tells us, "but, at the northeastern end of the island, the icecap did not exist so as to permit these plants to grow.... the coldest part of the Greenland glacier melted completely away and permitted a rich vegetation to thrive." 23

The tales of ancient man, of a golden age climate when life was beautiful, is in full agreement with the climate of the hipsithermal [sic], which must have made the Earth an Eden of clement weather for our ancient ancestors... 24

But as our ancient ancestors gamboled with the musk oxen across the lush tundra of Eden North, I doubt that they removed their parkas. This is what Ginenthal does to botany. Now let's see what he does to glaciology.


1. Ginenthal, "I.C.E," Part VII.

2. J. K. Charlesworth, The Quaternary Era (London, Edward Arnold, 1957), Vol. 2, pp. 1486-7, Ginenthal's note 64.

3. The greatest northward extension reached by the boreal forest has been mapped by paleobotanists. For Canada, see Harvey J. Nichols, "Palynological and Paleoclimatic Study of the Late Quaternary Displacements of the Boreal Forest-Tundra Ecotone in Keewatin and MacKenzie, N.W.T., Canada," Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research Occasional Paper 15 (1975), Fig. 1, p. viii. A somewhat truncated version of this map appears in Nichols, "Historical Aspects of the Northern Canadian Treeline," Arctic Vol. 29, no. 1 (March, 1976), Fig. 1, p. 41. This publication may be easier to find. The present treeline of Alaska is shown in J. Brigham-Grette and L. D. Carter, "Pliocene Marine Transgressions of Northern Alaska: Circumarctic Correlations and Paleoclimatic Interpretations," Arctic Vol. 45, no. 1 (March, 1992), Fig. 6, p. 82. For Siberia and Russia, see N. A. Khotinskiy, "Holocene Vegetation History," Fig. 18-11 on p. 194, in A. A. Velichko et al., eds., Late Quaternary Environments of the Soviet Union (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984). For Norway, see Brian Huntley and I. Colin Prentice, "Holocene Vegetation and Climates of Europe," Fig. 73 on p. 140, in H. E. Wright, Jr. et al., eds., Global Climates Since the Last Glacial Maximum (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1993). A more coarsely drawn map of present-day and hypsithermal treelines for the whole circumpolar region may be found in: Hubert H. Lamb, Climate: Present, Past and Future Vol. 2 (London & N.Y., 1977), Fig. 16.20 on p. 398.

4. Nicholas Polunin, Circumpolar Arctic Flora (Clarendon Press, 1959), p. 309.

5. Ginenthal, note 65, quoting Ivan T. Sanderson, The Dynasty of Abu: A History and Natural History of the Elephants and their Relatives Past and Present (N.Y., Knopf, 1962), p. 80.

6. L. V. Hills and R. T. Ogilvie, "Picea banksii n. Sp. Beaufort Formation (Tertiary), Northwestern Banks Island, Arctic Canada," Canadian Journal of Botany Vol. 48 (1970), pp. 457-464; Jean-Serge Vincent, William A. Morris, and Serge Occhietti, "Glacial and Nonglacial Sediments of Matuyama Paleomagnetic Age on Banks Island, Canadian Arctic Archipelago," Geology Vol. 12 (March, 1984), pp. 139-142.

7. Svend Funder et al., "Forested Arctic: Evidence from North Greenland," Geology Vol. 13 (August, 1985), pp. 542-546; R. J. Fulton, ed., Quaternary Geology of Canada and Greenland (Geol. Survey of Canada, 1989), Chapter 13, p. 743 ff.

8. Ginenthal's note 66, citing a Micropaedia article on "Peat".

9. Ginenthal's note 67, citing C. E. P. Brooks, Climate Through the Ages, (N.Y., Dover, 1970 reprint), p. 173.

10. E. C. Pielou, After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America (Univ. Of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 292.

11. Ibid., op. cit., p. 295.

12. Ginenthal's note 48, citing Clyde Orr, Jr., Between Earth and Space, p. 155 of the 1961 ed.

13. L. D. Gignac and D. H. Vitt, "Response of Northern Peatlands to Climate Change," (abstract), in Canadian Arctic Global Change Research, a workshop (Univ. of Alberta, 1992), p. 14.

14. Peter D. Moore and D. J. Bellamy, Peatlands (London, 1974), p. 31.

15. Bodil Lange, "The Genus Sphagnum in Greenland," The Bryologist Vol. 55, no. 2 (June, 1952), p. 124.

16. Ginenthal, "I.C.E.,"Part VI.

17. Charlesworth, op. cit., p. 1487.

18. Richard Flint, "Glacial Geology and Geomorphology," in Louise A. Boyd, The Coast of Norheast Greenland, American Geographical Society Special Publication no. 30 (1948), p. 132; Ginenthal, note 69.

19. Ginenthal, "I.C.E.,"Part VI.

20. Flint, op. cit., p. 133.

21. Ibid., op. cit., loc. cit.

22. Ginenthal, "I.C.E.,"Part VI.

23. Ginenthal, "I.C.E.,"Part VI.

24. Ginenthal, "I.C.E.,"Part VIII.

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