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Marco Polo’s brush with the cryosphere

By Graham Cogley

Hannibal is not the only figure from deep in history who is known to have come close to noticing a glacier. One of the better known references to glaciation is from early renaissance times, in the Travels of Marco Polo.

There is a good deal of uncertainty about this book. Marco Polo set off from Venice in 1271, bound for the Orient. On his return to Italy in 1291 he was captured by the Genoese, who were then at war with Venice, and clapped into jail. The usual account is that he told the story of his travels to a cellmate, Rustichello of Pisa, who wrote them up in Old French. There is, however, no authoritative text. The travels were an immediate hit, and manuscript copies proliferated in several languages.

The uncertainty extends to the contents. It is unclear how close Marco Polo ever came to Mount Ararat, of which Rustichello says he said (in the English rendition of Henry Yule and Henri Cordier from 1902):

And you must know that it is in this country of Armenia that the Ark of Noah exists on the top of a certain great mountain on the summit of which snow is so constant that no one can ascend; for the snow never melts, and is constantly added to by new falls. Below, however, the snow does melt, and runs down, producing such rich and abundant herbage that in summer cattle are sent to pasture from a long way round about, and it never fails them. The melting snow also causes a great amount of mud on the mountain.

Except perhaps for some in the Icelandic sagas, this is one of the earliest glaciological remarks ever written down. It is therefore worth a close look. Resist the tempting byways (Noah’s Ark; the pastoral aspect; the mud), and never mind whether it is the account of an eye-witness. This is an avenue for gauging the extent to which late 13th-century observers understood glaciers.

First, it is not true that no one can ascend Mount Ararat, as alpinists have shown repeatedly since the first ascent in 1829. This late date has more to do with lack of time, lack of inclination, and in short with attitude, than with any real difficulty. Of course Ararat is a long way from Italy, and there may have been a religious tint in the attitude of 13th-century Armenians. But the scientific attitude to glaciers, and to mountains generally, was a thing of the future.

Second, it is probably not true that the snow on top of Mount Ararat never melts. Ararat is about 50 km south of Yerevan on what is now the Turkish side of the River Araks. At 5,137 m above sea level in latitude 39.7° north, there should be at least a short season of above-freezing temperatures every year. But here Marco Polo was on the ball at least to the extent of recognizing, or even taking for granted, a basic fact of glaciology and meteorology: it is colder higher up. He was, however, more a traveller than an analytical thinker. Taken literally, his account implies that Mount Ararat should have been getting steadily higher and, probably, pointier.

And so we come to the big gap in 13th-century understanding. How does the snow manage to stay perpetual at the top of the mountain but to stay ephemeral part way down? Apparently Marco Polo and his contemporaries didn’t even notice the contradiction — that you cannot pile snow up indefinitely, as observed at the tops of mountains (including the Alps, only 200 km from Marco Polo’s birthplace), without something having to give.

If this contradiction was difficult to recognize, it was yet harder to explain. What was required was the realization, first, that snow will turn into ice if it keeps on piling up, and then that if the snow keeps coming the ice must flow.

Neither of these discoveries was proposed until the 18th century, and neither was nailed down firmly until the 19th. Making the necessary intellectual progress called not just for more detailed observation, but for a change of attitude. To show that the ice moves you can put a stake in it, and measure its position accurately twice — not all that difficult. Why it was not sensible, or possible, to do this or to think this way in the 13th century, but it became sensible by the 18th century, is another question.

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