Another “Cold Snap”

Ambrose Bierce

San Francisco Examiner/March 1, 1887

Among our special dispatches yesterday was one from Washington, detailing the views held by Professor Hayden of the Coast Survey on the significance of certain recent seismic and meteorological phenomena, or, as they say in English, earthquakes and storms. It is the Professor’s notion that some stupendous changes are going on in the center of the earth. As the human race does not happen to live in that locality, it may be thought that these changes are insufficiently important to engage the attention of the public press; unfortunately, we are not permitted to entertain that pleasing illusion, for the learned scientist has traced an obscurely marked, but indubitable, connection between them and the blizzards and cyclones of the Northwest. In a manner not clearly explained, the “central changes” of which the earthquake is the outward and visible sign, beget also “a nipping and an eager air” singularly distasteful to the Montana cattle-grower, and afflict Dakota with that kind of zephyr which, as a nameless humorist has averred, “just sits down on its hind legs and howls.” Here, again, we are denied the double gratification of seeing the northwestern states and territories “all torn up,” and feeling ourselves secure from the same devastation. Professor Hayden, whose good will is unquestionable, has no hope of confining these frigorific activities to the region of their birth and overcoming them by some scientific coup de main, as man beat the gout by herding it in his great toe and then cutting off the toe. No; the blizzard, both still and sparkling, will spread all over the globe with increasing intensity and vehemence, to the no small discomfort of the unacclimated, though greatly, no doubt, to the innocent glee of Esquimau, Innuit, Aleut and other natives of those “thrilling regions”

Where the playful Polar bear

Nips the hunter unaware.

In short, as the Professor puts it, “scientific men here and abroad concur in the opinion that we are approaching an extremely interesting period.”

We are not left in doubt as to the precise nature of the disasters which an “interesting period” may naturally be expected to entail; it is strongly intimated that the period is to be “another glacial age,” the one with which we were last favored, not longer ago, according to some authorities, then a matter of twenty thousand years, appears to have accomplished its purposes of erosion and extinction imperfectly. Its vast layers of ice, moving down from the Pole to the Equator, planed off the surface of the earth so badly that such asperities as the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada, and the Himalayas may be supposed to offend the mechanical eye of Nature and make her anxious to go over them again. The fact that the now temperate and torrid zones are still infested by men and other beasts is evidence that the Cave-Dwellers of the pre-glacial age were a tougher lot than the good old dame had supposed. In her next attempt she will probably pile on more ice and give it a superior momentum, at the same time heralding its southward encroachment with a temperature that will be such a holy terror as to turn the citrus belt white in a single night and bounce it out of California altogether.

Having been encouraged by Professor Hayden to nourish anticipations of an “interesting period” pregnant with such pleasing possibilities as these, it is inexpressibly disappointing to have him say, as he does, that the operation of the great “central changes” to which we are to be indebted for all this is so slow that it may be a thousand years, or even longer, before they get their work in with perceptible efficacy. Of course one must recognize the stern necessity that dominates the scientific prophet: he has to carry the fulfillment so far into the future as to avoid the melancholy fate of short-range prophets, like Wiggins; and therein we discern the true difference between the scientist and the impostor.

Nevertheless, in a matter of such “pith and moment,” it would have been unspeakably agreeable to have been permitted to hope that these fascinating events would begin to occur in our day, and their author (if we may reverently venture to call him so) would have done a graceful thing if he had so far departed from the strictly scientific method as to have assured us that some of us, at least, might reasonably expect to be frozen into the advancing wall of ice like the famous Siberian mastodon of blessed memory, and become objects of intense interest to possible Haydens of a later dispensation. As he has denied us the gratification which he could so cheaply have given to our curiosity and ambition, we feel justified in denouncing him as a miscreant and a viper.