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Several years ago I read a book about the history of my hometown Brooklyn, New York. Brooklyn is a borough of New York City --along with Manhattan, The Bronx, Staten Island and Queens-- the last of which it shares the western most part of Long Island. In print and film, the borough is renowned in part for the myriad characterizations of the typical Brooklynite: A rather flinty, blue collar, conservative type. In a flash of typical Brooklyn wit and insight the author chose to begin the first chapter with the line “The Ice Age ended in Brooklyn.”
Now, this sentence says a lot in a little. And it’s true as well. Long Island is made of something called a terminal moraine, which is just the debris that piles up at the front of a glacier --a large long-lasting river of ice. Glaciers deposit moraines much like that pile of snow delivered to your driveway right after a blizzard, courtesy of the local municipal plow trucks.
“Hey pal, I’ve got to put it somewhere.”
The terminal moraine that was part of a large glacial formation called the Wisconsin Glaciations, and which, in addition to providing the scenic backdrops for Saturday Night Fever and Marty, created a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska that allowed Eurasian hunters to migrate to the Americas, a land mass sometimes referred to as Beringia. The Wisconsin Glaciations were in turn part of a worldwide series of glacial movements usually just called “The Last Ice Age” and which featured other major glaciers in Scandinavia (The Weichsel Glaciations), Great Britain (The Devensian Glaciations) and in Switzerland (The Würm Glaciations). The general glacial advance began about 70,000 years ago and reached its maximum extent (called the “Last Glacial Maximum”) about 20,000 years ago, continuing onwards to about 12,000 years ago. In Europe, the ice sheet reached as far south as the Baltic coastline of Germany.
During the times of Last Glacial Maximum, ice covered most of Northern and Eastern Europe and blocked passage between China and the West, except for the very hardy animals able to negotiate the chilly mountain passes in summer.
We currently live in an interglacial period, the interval of warmer global average temperatures that separates ice ages, and if anything our climate seems to be getting warmer. This current interglacial period has lasted for about the last 11,400 years, so we’ve grown quite accustomed to a more warmer and humid climate that that which greeted the early European, Asian and American immigrants.
This ice sheet was dense permafrost, probably not much different than present day Antarctica. Immediately below and to the sides of this huge ice field were enormous areas of polar and alpine deserts, empty of life except perhaps for a few hardy grasses and some lichens.
Like snow and rocks, people form moraines as well, probably by being in the avant-garde of migrations in search of better hunting grounds, or maybe just being pushed ahead and out of harm’s way of other, more powerful, groups and tribes.
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