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The Dr. John Champlin Glacier Park

With the controversy about global warming it would seem an appropriate time to discuss climate change. What does global warming have to do with Westerly? Quite a bit in fact. The Dr. John Champlin Glacier Park off Shore Road in Westerly, is a great place to see exactly how. The park is a 135 acre preserve with unique geologic features that tell the story of how the last ice age shaped our land, and one of the great hikes in Westerly.

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The park was created out of a 173 acre parcel that over the years served many different purposes. Originally it was used for hunting and farming and later as a riding and polo club, as a resort with an inn and restaurant, and a military reservation.

Military use

During World War II four 155mm gun batteries were built on top of the glacier moraine to protect the coast. After the war the land reverted back to Dr. John Champlin, a noted physician in Westerly. In 2004 Dr. Champlin’s family sold the property to the Westerly Land Trust. As part of the process, 38 acres were sold off for the Weekapaug Cottages and the 135 remaining acres were preserved.

Scientists still don’t know why climatic fluctuations caused the ice ages. One theory is that fluctuations in earth’s orbit around the sun effect the amount of solar radiation the earth’s surface receives.

What we know

During the past 2.5 million years there have been at least 5 and perhaps as many as 13 ice ages. Each of these glacial stages lasted about 70,000 years and was separated by warmer, longer interglacial stages. We are in an interglacial stage right now.

The most recent ice age began to accumulate about 75,000 years ago and the ice expanded out to a glacial maximum about 21,000 years ago. Glaciers are dirty and as the ice advances it picks up soil, sand, gravel and boulders, and like a bulldozer it pushes the material in front of it.

Hikes in Westerly – not always

When the climate started to warm 21,000 years ago the glacier stopped advancing and the ice started to melt back leaving a push ridge of sediments. This ridge, called the terminal moraine, extends from New York City to Nantucket and helped create Long Island, Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

Instead of continuing to warm about 17,000 years ago the climate cooled temporarily. Long enough for the glacier to re-advance a few tens of miles to form a new push ridge. This push ridge is called the recessional moraine and extends from New York to Cape Cod. It runs right through Westerly and the coast of Rhode Island. As you drive down Ocean View Highway or along Shore Road in Westerly you can see the recessional moraine on your left and the coastal plain on your right.

A trip through time

Let’s go back about 17,000 years and imagine that you’re standing on Shore Road in Westerly. You’re looking north and immediately in front of you is the face of a tremendous ice cliff over a mile high. This is the front of a glacier which was a vast ice sheet up to two and a half miles thick that extended all the way back to the Canadian Arctic.

Ice fishing?

Melt water is pouring down the front of the glacier in a myriad of streams. If you look south where the ocean is today the sea is nowhere in sight. Sea level was 350 feet lower than it is today; the sandy plain you’re standing on extends to the shore of a large freshwater lake. The lake is from the glacier’s meltwater and is 8 miles wide and 60 miles long. Beyond the lake is a ridge along the southern horizon (the terminal moraine) and out of sight beyond that is the
coastal plain extending about 150 miles to the edge of the continental shelf.

17,000 years ago this coastal plain was covered by tundra type vegetation. The tundra is rich fodder and it supported great herds of caribou. There were also musk-ox and woolly mammoths. Carnivores including wolves, cave bears, and sabre-tooth tigers preyed on these animals. The large herds of animals eventually attracted Paleo-Indians who arrived as early as 8,000 to 10,000 years ago as the glaciers retreated.

Hikes in Westerly | Dr. John Champlin Glacier Park

The Dr. John Champlin Glacier Park is where you can see the unique Kame and Kettle topography which makes up a lot of Westerly’s landscape. Kames are rounded ridges separated by Kettle holes, which fill with water and become ponds.

Kettle holes formed where great blocks of ice left over from the glacier got stuck in the ground before slowly melting away. They are roughly circular but their size and depth depend on the size and depth of the ice chunk that formed them. The Kame ridges separating the kettle holes were formed by the crevasses in the ice filling with glacial debris. When the ice melted these crevasse fillings were left standing as ridges.

Expensive real estate

The Ocean House, Taylor Swift’s High Watch, part of the Misquamicut Club’s Golf Course, and the Dr. John Champlin Glacier Park all sit on the recessional moraine. No Bottom Pond and Dr. Lewis Pond are kettles, as are most of the little ponds in Watch Hill and Block Island.

There are many large boulders in the park called glacial erratic’s. The boulders were frozen into the base of the glacier and transported to the park by the ice.


The future

Most scientists today agree that global warming is occurring but there is debate over how much manmade greenhouse gases are contributing to the process. According to NASA, sea level has risen 6.7 inches in the last century. Many scientists now think that the process is accelerating and our predictions about sea level rise might be too conservative. Some computer models show a 2 meter rise in the next century could be possible. If that were to happen New York City and much of Florida would be underwater. Most of Misquamicut and Napatree Point would also be gone.

Today 10% of the earth’s surface is covered by ice and if it were all to melt sea level would rise an astonishing 200 feet. If that were to happen, civilization as we know it, would not survive.

Great hikes in Westerly

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – climate is a fickle thing and changes constantly. Perhaps technological advances in the future can help stabilize the earth’s climate. Advances in energy production might reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we produce but time is getting short.

There are large pockets of methane gas trapped in the ocean floor and frozen in the arctic permafrost that, if released, could greatly accelerate global warming. The Westerly Land Trust’s Dr. John Champlin Glacial Park is a relic left over from the last ice age 17,000 years ago. It is one of the best places to see how the ice shaped our land, and one of the great hikes in Westerly.

Its shaded woods and quiet trails are a great place for everyone in the family to enjoy the outdoors and learn about this unique landscape that the great glaciers of the last ice age left behind.


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1 Comment

  1. Wow, what an amazing story! Who would have known that it had such an incredible history.. Thanks to Greg reporting on it, now I know. And I look very much forward to checking it out and relishing in its beauty and history..

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