CITY OF THE SMARTS: Meet the Glacier That Made East Lansing

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Saturday, November 22, 2014, 12:41 am
Alice Dreger

This is Geography Awareness Week, and so MSU’s Geography Chairperson, Prof. Alan Arbogast, wants you to be aware of geography. Explains Arbogast (shown above), geographers like him “think about location—where things are—but we also think about place. By ‘place’ we mean what makes a place distinctive. What makes it funky? Unique? Different? What makes it feel the way it feels?”

I went to Arbogast not because I knew it was Geography Awareness Week (I was, in fact, completely unaware), but because I wanted to know why Valley Court is shaped as it is—a flat plain with a dramatic slope on the north side. Thanks to a fascinating hour-long tutorial from Arbogast—who is himself an East Lansing resident—I ended up learning not only about Valley Court but about the geography of the whole East Lansing area. I learned why our local soil varies in type so much, what East Lansing was probably like at the beginning of the 1900s, and why it’s so hard to find hills for exercise in East Lansing.

It all comes back to a big old glacier known as the Laurentide Ice Sheet. About twenty thousand years ago, the Laurentide Ice Sheet covered millions of square miles, including all of what is now Michigan as well as most of Canada and a big chunk of the northern United States. The ice sheet was about 10,000 feet thick in northeastern Canada and perhaps about 2,500 feet thick here. East Lansing was probably buried under such ice for about 5,000 years! (And you thought last winter was rough.)

As the earth started to emerge from that Ice Age, the ice started to melt and retreat back into Canada. As the lobes (the “fingers”) of the southern part of the glacier melted in Michigan, the Great Lakes as we know them slowly began to take shape. Where the freeze and melt was relatively volatile, or where land was squeezed between lobes, big hills were formed by sediment being left behind in big masses. But here in what became East Lansing, the situation was what geographers call “low energy,” so we ended up with relatively small hills.

With a relatively thin ice layer having existed where we are, plus the ice in this part of Michigan being relatively stagnant with low energy, we ended up with a much more subdued topography than the tremendous hills “up north.” In some places, where a block of ice melted in place, a “kettle lake” formed. (Lake Lansing is a kettle lake.) In other places, swampy conditions developed and ultimately led to organic growth that sometimes turned into peaty soil. In other places (like many parts of my yard), conditions in still ponds led to formation of thick, gray clay.

In still other places, glacial retreat and wind led to the formation of sand dunes, including one near Munn Arena, which Arbogast himself has dated to about 16,000 years ago. It’s in the spot with all the pine trees, trees planted there many years ago by MSU arborists who were probably trying to prevent erosion of the dune.

The glacier’s retreat also left behind in some places a big ridge of sediment called a moraine. The Grand Ledge Moraine cuts through East Lansing and the northern edge of Valley Court is part of that moraine. You’ll notice the Grand Ledge Moraine if you’re driving south on Abbot Road from Saginaw. Just as you pass Hannah Community Center, you’ll hit a rise in the road that is the north flank of the moraine. You’ll also find a ridge running behind the library to the high school.

The reason the rivers here—including the Red Cedar and the Looking Glass—run east to west is because the glacier melted from south to north, leaving behind moraines that run east and west.  As a result, streams such as the Red Cedar formed between the moraines and flow east to west rather than north to south.

East Lansing used to be extremely swampy because of the geography left behind by the glacier. Over time, humans have drained away the swamps here to make life easier for us, including in terms of reducing what was probably a significant mosquito population and the diseases that came with those mosquitos. According to Arbogast, the practice field at the high school used to be a swampy outwash plain, until it was drained.

Arbogast has heard from an old-timer who knew an even older old-timer that you used to be able to paddle in the spring from about Glencairn up to the Chandler swamps (the “northern tier”). Arbogast thinks it is possible that the funny triangular public greens in the Glencairn neighborhood mark spots that used to be too swampy to build a road or a building.

When I’ve looked at the original subdivision plan for Oakwood, along Valley Court, I’ve seen signs that what is now Valley Court Park was never intended to have buildings, and now I think that may be because it was a wet outwash plain—too wet to develop—thanks again to the action of that glacier during our last Ice Age. Proper drainage means it no longer becomes a swampy mess in heavy rains or during snowmelts.

So, thanks to East Lansing’s own Prof. Alan Arbogast, now you know: all over East Lansing, if you’re aware of geography, you’ll be aware of the glacier that left what we enjoy today.

Want to see a video of the Laurentide Ice Sheet retreating over North America, leaving East Lansing as we now know it behind? Watch this:


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