Finger Lakes Residents Connect With the Region’s Glacial Past

Eighteen thousand years ago, the Laurentide Ice Sheet covered most of what is now New York State. Two glacial advances, or periods of growth in a glacier, formed Long Island.

Today, residents of Ithaca, New York, a city in the Finger Lakes region known for its gorges and for being home to Cornell University, remember the impact that glaciers had on their landscape and, in turn, their history.

Glaciers and Ithaca’s natural landscape

Millions of years ago, the Finger Lakes were streams running through narrow valleys. Glacial advances and retreats from what is now Canada deepened and widened the valleys, eventually forming the lakes within them. “The previous glaciers left the state anywhere from ten to eighteen thousand years ago, and whatever we see now is new landscape,” Anthony Grande, a geographer at Hunter College, told GlacierHub.

Ithaca boasts 150 waterfalls within ten miles, twelve of which are located in the city’s own Treman State Park.

Josh Teeter, an environmental educator at the park, gives presentations on Ithaca’s gorges in schools, in retirement homes, and within the park.“[Without glaciers], these parks wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t have these beautiful gorges all around us,” he told GlacierHub.

“Most people think that the glaciers created the gorges,” he said.

However, the gorges were formed by the interactions between the north-south river valleys, which were chiseled out by the glaciers, and smaller east-west streams, according to Ithaca’s Paleontological Research Institution (PRI).

Glaciers in Ithaca’s Museum of the Earth

PRI maintains the Museum of the Earth, located in northwest Ithaca, which educates the community on Ithaca’s geological and glacial past.

The museum is laid out as a walk-through timeline. Visitors start at 4.5 billion years ago and move through time as they explore rooms and corridors filled with fossils, rocks, videos and plaques that tell the story of the history of the Earth through local artifacts.

Rob Ross, associate director for outreach at PRI, told GlacierHub that the museum informs the public on both the Earth’s past and the impacts of human activity on the planet looking forward. An exhibit on glaciers ties these goals together. 

Featuring a plastic glacier, the exhibit represents the ice age world, known as the Quaternary Period, which we are still in, Ross said. “The idea is to give people maybe a little bit of a sense, even though it’s made out of plastic, what a glacier kind of looks like if you were to walk up to one,” he said, laughing a little.

The exhibit tells two stories, he said. At the entrance of the plastic glacier is information on how glaciers sculpted the Finger Lakes region. By the end of the tunnel the focus switches to the impact of global warming on glaciers.

Technically, we are still in an ice age, Ross explained. “If it’s defined as a substantial amount of ice at the poles, there have been substantial glaciers on Antarctica for at least thirty or forty million years.” But more recently, about two and a half million years ago, ice began a pattern of growing and receding over the Northern Hemisphere. The most recent glacial maximum—the point in time when the Earth peaked in its quantity of ice—was about 20,000 years ago. Assuming cycles of 100,000 years, “if it weren’t for current human activity, we’d probably be entering another one in 80,000 years or so,” he said.

This video explaining how glaciers sculpted the Finger Lakes is displayed on a screen within the walk-through glacier.

Signs throughout the museum detail what global warming is doing to the Earth’s ecosystems and landscapes. The museum is planning a new exhibit on climate change that will be the last stop at the end of the timeline.

A centerpiece of the exhibit will be a diagram showing temperature and carbon dioxide levels in the glacial periods (“ice ages”) and interglacial periods of the past 700,000 years. We have this data, Ross explained, from ice cores in Antarctica that indicate past carbon dioxide levels. The end of the diagram will show the carbon dioxide and temperature increase in the past hundred years, which will “completely dwarf” the other variations on the graph, Ross said. “The idea is to say basically in a picture, the change that we’re causing right now is really vast and significant even compared with the significant changes we’ve seen” between glacial and interglacial periods.

The Paleontological Research Institution’s climate advocacy

Ithaca’s Cayuga Nature Center, also run by PRI, already has an exhibit on local climate change. Ingrid Zabel, as climate change education manager at PRI, works to make climate science accessible through both the Cayuga Nature Center and Museum of the Earth.

She is also the lead author of PRI’s Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change. “We want to provide information and resources for teachers to help them teach about climate change  in the classroom,” Zabel told GlacierHub. The Institution is running a campaign to send the book, which discusses glaciers in the context of the indicators and effects of global warming, to high school teachers around the country.

More locally, PRI recently published a book, “Gorges History” (the title is a riff on Ithaca’s slogan, “Ithaca is Gorges”), which aims to be an accessible yet detailed introduction to the geology and landscape of the Finger Lakes, Matthew Pritchard, the force behind the completion of the book, told GlacierHub.

“Gorges History” was written by Art Bloom, a Cornell geomorphologist and professor, but was not completed in his lifetime.  Pritchard, who went on field trips with Bloom and encouraged his writing of the book, worked with others to “finish this labor of love,” according to the book’s acknowledgements.

Glaciers and Cornell University

The landscape left by glaciers has an impact on the experience of university students studying at Cornell University and Ithaca College. The glacial history inspired Cornell architecture student Ihwa Choi to design a model for a glacier-themed bridge and aquatic center that would cross through Ithaca’s Six Mile Creek, titled “The Glacier.”

“The textures and colors of the stream that I saw at the site were beautiful and I wanted to research about how those textures were created and from what they originated from,” Choi told GlacierHub. She went on to research the local geological history and create her project, which she calls an “interpretation of what a memory of a glacier could be.” She told GlacierHub, “I wanted to essentially pay homage to what created the site we were given to begin with.”

Choi’s model for a glacier-inspired bridge in downtown Ithaca. (Source: Cornell University College of Architecture, Art, and Planning)

The landscape left by glaciers has an impact on the experience of the students and residents of the region. Through museums, art, and gorges, residents of Ithaca have plentiful opportunities to connect with the region’s past and reflect on the planet’s present and future changes. 

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