The Student’s Elements of Geology

Author: Charles Lyell

Computation of the Average Annual Amount of Subaerial Denudation.

The geology of the district above alluded to may assist our imagination in conceiving the extent to which groups of ancient rocks, each of which may in their turn have formed continents and oceanic basins, have been disturbed, folded, and denuded even in the course of a few out of many of those geological periods to which our imperfect records relate. It is not easy for us to overestimate the effects which causes in every day action must produce when the multiplying power of time is taken into account.

Attempts were made by Manfredi in 1736, and afterwards by Playfair in 1802, to calculate the time which it would require to enable the rivers to deliver over the whole of the land into the basin of the ocean. The data were at first too imperfect and vague to allow them even to approximate to safe conclusions. But in our own time similar investigations have been renewed with more prospect of success, the amount brought down by many large rivers to the sea having been more accurately ascertained. Mr. Alfred Tylor, in 1850, inferred that the quantity of detritus now being distributed over the sea-bottom would, at the end of 10,000 years, cause an elevation of the sea-level to the extent of at least three inches. (Tylor Philosophical Magazine 4th series page 268 1850.) Subsequently Mr. Croll, in 1867, and again, with more exactness, in 1868, deduced from the latest measurement of the sediment transported by European and American rivers the rate of subaerial denudation to which the surface of large continents is exposed, taking especially the hydrographical basin of the Mississippi as affording the best available measure of the average waste of the land. The conclusion arrived at in his able memoir was that the whole terrestrial surface is denuded at the rate of one foot in 6000 years (Croll Philosophical Magazine 1868 page 381.), and this opinion was simultaneously enforced by his fellow-labourer, Mr. Geikie, who, being jointly engaged in the same line of inquiry, published a luminous essay on the subject in 1868.

The student, by referring to my "Principles of Geology" (Volume 1 page 442 1867.) may see that Messrs. Humphrey and Abbot, during their survey of the Mississippi, attempted to make accurate measurements of the proportion of sediment carried down annually to the sea by that river, including not only the mud held in suspension, but also the sand and gravel forced along the bottom.

It is evident that when we know the dimensions of the area which is drained, and the annual quantity of earthy matter taken from it and borne into the sea, we can affirm how much on an average has been removed from the general surface in one year, and there seems no danger of our overrating the mean rate of waste by selecting the Mississippi as our example, for that river drains a country equal to more than half the continent of Europe, extends through twenty degrees of latitude, and therefore through regions enjoying a great variety of climate, and some of its tributaries descend from mountains of great height. The Mississippi is also more likely to afford us a fair test of ordinary denudation, because, unlike the St. Lawrence and its tributaries, there are no great lakes in which the fluviatile sediment is thrown down and arrested in its way to the sea. In striking a general average we have to remember that there are large deserts in which there is scarcely any rainfall, and tracts which are as rainless as parts of Peru, and these must not be neglected as counterbalancing others, in the tropics, where the quantity of rain is in excess. If then, argues Mr. Geikie, we assume that the Mississippi is lowering the surface of the great basin which it drains at the rate of one foot in 6000 years, 10 feet in 60,000 years, 100 feet in 600,000 years, and 1000 feet in 6,000,000 years, it would not require more than about 4,500,000 years to wear away the whole of the North American continent if its mean height is correctly estimated by Humboldt at 748 feet. And if the mean height of all the land now above the sea throughout the globe is 1000 feet, as some geographers believe, it would only require six million years to subject a mass of rock equal in volume to the whole of the land to the action of subaerial denudation. It may be objected that the annual waste is partial, and not equally derived from the general surface of the country, inasmuch as plains, water-sheds, and level ground at all heights remain comparatively unaltered; but this, as Mr. Geikie has well pointed out, does not affect our estimate of the sum total of denudation. The amount remains the same, and if we allow too little for the loss from the surface of table-lands we only increase the proportion of the loss sustained by the sides and bottoms of the valleys, and vice versa. (Transactions of the Geological Society Glasgow volume 3 page 169.)


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Chicago: Charles Lyell, "Computation of the Average Annual Amount of Subaerial Denudation.," The Student’s Elements of Geology, ed. Bryant Conant, James and trans. Babington, B. G. (Benjamin Guy), 1794-1866 in The Student’s Elements of Geology Original Sources, accessed July 14, 2024,

MLA: Lyell, Charles. "Computation of the Average Annual Amount of Subaerial Denudation." The Student’s Elements of Geology, edited by Bryant Conant, James, and translated by Babington, B. G. (Benjamin Guy), 1794-1866, in The Student’s Elements of Geology, Original Sources. 14 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Lyell, C, 'Computation of the Average Annual Amount of Subaerial Denudation.' in The Student’s Elements of Geology, ed. and trans. . cited in , The Student’s Elements of Geology. Original Sources, retrieved 14 July 2024, from