A Source Book in Geology [1400-1900]

Author: Lord Kelvin William Thomson  | Date: 1864

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From Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Vol. XXIII, pp. 157–169, 1864.

8. It must indeed be admitted that many geological writers of the "Uniformitarian" school, who in other respects have taken a profoundly philosophical view of their subject, have argued in a most fallacious manner against hypotheses of violent action in past ages. If they had contented themselves with showing that many existing appearances, although suggestive of extreme violence and sudden change, may have been brought about by long-continued action, or by paroxysms not more intense than some of which we have experience within the periods of human history, their position might have been unassailable; and certainly could not have been assailed except by a detailed discussion of their facts. It would be a very wonderful, but not an absolutely incredible result, that volcanic action has never been more violent on the whole than during the last two or three centuries; but it is as certain that there is now less volcanic energy in the whole earth than there was a thousand years ago, as it is that there is less gunpowder in a "Monitor" after she has been seen to discharge shot and shell, whether at a nearly equable rate or not, for five hours without receiving fresh supplies, than there was at the beginning of the action. Yet this truth has been ignored or denied by many of the leading geologists of the present day, because they believe that the facts within their province do not demonstrate greater violence in ancient changes of the earth’s surface, or do demonstrate a nearly equable action in all periods.

9. The chemical hypothesis to account for underground heat might be regarded as not improbable, if it was only in isolated localities that the temperature was found to increase with the depth; and, indeed, it can scarcely be doubted that chemical action exercises an appreciable influence (possibly negative, however) on the action of volcanoes; but that there is slow uniform "combustion," "eremacausis," or chemical combination of any kind going on, at some great unknown depth under the surface everywhere, and creeping inwards gradually as the chemical affinities in layer after layer are successively saturated, seems extremely improbable, although it cannot be pronounced to be absolutely impossible, or contrary to all analogies in nature. The less hypothetical view, however, that the earth is merely a warm chemically inert body cooling, is clearly to be preferred in the present state of science.

10. POISSON’S celebrated hypothesis, that the present underground heat is due to a passage, at some former period, of the solar system through hotter stellar regions, cannot provide the circumstances required for a palaeontology continuous through that epoch of external heat. For from a mean of values of the conductivity, in terms of the thermal capacity of unit volume, of the earth’s crust, in three different localities near Edinburgh, which I have deduced from the observations on underground temperature instituted by Principal FORBES there, I find that if the supposed transit through a hotter region of space took place between 1250 and 5000 years ago, the temperature of that supposed region must have been from 25° to 50° Fahr. above the present mean temperature of the earth’s surface, to account for the present general rate of underground increase of temperature, taken as 1° Fahr. in 50 feet downwards. Human history negatives this supposition. Again, geologists and astronomers will, I presume, admit that the earth cannot, 20,000 years ago, have been in a region of space 100° Fahr. warmer than its present surface. But if the transition from a hot region to a cool region supposed by POISSON took place more than 20,000 years ago, the excess of temperature must have been more than 100° Fahr., and must therefore have destroyed animal and vegetable life. Hence, the farther back and the hotter we can suppose POISSON’S hot region, the better for the geologists who require the longest periods; but the best for their view is LEIBNITZ’S theory, which simply supposes the earth to have been at one time an incandescent liquid, without explaining how it got into that state. If we suppose the temperature of melting rock to be about 10,000° Fahr. (an extremely high estimate), the consolidation may have taken place 200,000,000 years ago. Or, if we suppose the temperature of melting rock to be 7000° Fahr. (which is more nearly what it is generally assumed to be), we may suppose the consolidation to have taken place 98,000,000 years ago.

11. These estimates are founded on the Fourier solution demonstrated below. The greatest variation we have to make on them, to take into account the differences in the ratios of conductivities to specific heats of the three Edinburgh rocks, is to reduce them to nearly half, or to increase them by rather more than half. A reduction of the Greenwich underground observations recently communicated to me by Professor EVERETT of Windsor, Nova Scotia, gives for the Greenwich rocks a quality intermediate between those of the Edinburgh rocks. But we are very ignorant as to the effects of high temperatures in altering the conductivities and specific heats of rocks, and as to their latent heat of fusions. We must, therefore, allow very wide limits in such an estimate as I have attempted to make; but I think we may with much probability say that the consolidation cannot have taken place less than 20,000,000 years ago, or we should have more underground heat than we actually have, nor more than 400,000,000 years ago, or we should not have so much as the least observed underground increment of temperature. That is to say, I conclude that LEIBNITZ’S epoch of "emergence" of the "consistentior status" was probably between those dates.


24. How the temperature of solidification, for any pressure, may be related to the corresponding temperature of fluid convective equilibrium, it is impossible to say, without knowledge, which we do not yet possess, regarding the expansion with heat, and the specific heat of the fluid, and the change of volume, and the latent heat developed in the transition from fluid to solid.

25. For instance, supposing, as is most probably true, both that the liquid contracts in cooling towards its freezing-point, and that it contracts in freezing, we cannot tell, without definite numerical data regarding those elements, whether the elevation of the temperature of solidification, or of the actual temperature of a portion of the fluid given just above its freezing-point, produced by a given application of pressure, is the greater. If the former is greater than the latter, solidification would commence at the bottom, or at the center, if there is no solid nucleus to begin with, and would proceed outwards, and there could be no complete permanent incrustation all round the surface till the whole globe is solid, with, possibly, the exception of irregular, comparatively small spaces of liquid.

26. If, on the contrary, the elevation of temperature, produced by an application of pressure to a given portion of the fluid, is greater than the elevation of the freezing temperature produced by the same amount of pressure, the superficial layer of the fluid would be the first to reach its freezing-point, and the first actually to freeze.

27. But if . . . the liquid expanded in cooling near its freezing-point, the solid would probably likewise be of less specific gravity than the liquid at its freezing-point. Hence the surface would crust over permanently with a crust of solid, constantly increasing inwards by the freezing of the interior fluid in consequence of heat conducted out through the crust. The condition most commonly assumed by geologists would thus be produced.


30. It is, however, scarcely possible, that any such continuous crust can ever have formed all over the melted surface at one time, and afterwards have fallen in. The mode of solidification conjectured in §25, seems on the whole the most consistent with what we know of the physical properties of the matter concerned. So far as regards the result, it agrees, I believe, with the view adopted as the most probable by Mr. HOPKINS.* But whether from the condition being rather that described in §26, which seems also possible, for the whole or for some parts of the heterogeneous substance of the earth, or from the viscidity as of mortar, which necessarily supervenes in a melted fluid, composed of ingredients becoming, as the whole cools, separated by crystallising at different temperatures before the solidification is perfect, and which we actually see in lava from modern volcanoes; it is probable that when the whole globe, or some very thick superficial layer of it, still liquid or viscid, has cooled down to near its temperature of perfect solidification, incrustation at the surface must commence.

31. It is probable that crust may thus form over wide extents of surface, and may be temporarily buoyed up by the vesicular character it may have retained from the ebullition of the liquid in some places, or, at all events, it may be held up by the viscidity of the liquid; until it has acquired some considerable thickness sufficient to allow gravity to manifest its claim, and sink the heavier solid below the lighter liquid. This process must go on until the sunk portions of crust build up from the bottom a sufficiently close ribbed solid skeleton or frame, to allow fresh incrustations to remain bridging across the now small areas of lava pools or lakes.

32. In the honey-combed solid and liquid mass thus formed, there must be a continual tendency for the liquid, in consequence of its less specific gravity, to work its way up; whether by masses of solid falling from the roof of vesicles or tunnels, and causing earthquake shocks, or by the roof breaking quite through when very thin, so as to cause two such hollows to unite, or the liquid of any of them to flow out freely over the outer surface of the earth; or by gradual subsidence of the solid, owing to the thermodynamic melting, which portions of it, under intense stress, must experience, according to views recently published by my brother, Professor JAMES Thomson.* The results which must follow from this tendency seem sufficiently great and various to account for all that we see at present, and all that we learn from geological investigation, of earthquakes, of upheavals and subsidences of solid, and of eruptions of melted rock.

33. These conclusions, drawn solely from a consideration of the necessary order of cooling and consolidation, according to BISCHOF’S result as to the relative specific gravities of solid and of melted rock, are in perfect accordance with what I have recently demonstrated regarding the present condition of the earth’s interior—that it is not, as commonly supposed, all liquid within a thin solid crust of from 30 to 100 miles thick, but that it is on the whole more rigid certainly than a continuous solid globe of glass of the same diameter, and probably than one of steel.

* See his Report on "Earthquakes and Volcanic Action." British Associa-lion Report for 1847.

* Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 1861, "On Crystallization and Liquefaction as influenced by Stresses tending to Change of Form in Crystals."

In a paper "On the Rigidity of the Earth," communicated to the Royal Society a few days ago. April, 1862.


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Chicago: Kelvin William Thomson, "On the Secular Cooling of the Earth," A Source Book in Geology [1400-1900] in A Source Book in Geology [1400-1900], ed. Kirtley F. Mather and Shirley L. Mason (New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1939), 472–476. Original Sources, accessed April 18, 2021, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=68NPQESY6XHVSJ9.

MLA: Thomson, Kelvin William. "On the Secular Cooling of the Earth." A Source Book in Geology [1400-1900], Vol. XXIII, in A Source Book in Geology [1400-1900], edited by Kirtley F. Mather and Shirley L. Mason, New York, Hafner Publishing Company, 1939, pp. 472–476. Original Sources. 18 Apr. 2021. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=68NPQESY6XHVSJ9.

Harvard: Thomson, KW, 'On the Secular Cooling of the Earth' in A Source Book in Geology [1400-1900]. cited in 1939, A Source Book in Geology [1400-1900], ed. , Hafner Publishing Company, New York, pp.472–476. Original Sources, retrieved 18 April 2021, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=68NPQESY6XHVSJ9.