Stagnant Ice: an Exotic Fantasy Setting

Map of North America during the ice age
Map of North America during the ice age (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What could stagnant ice possibly have to do with your fantasy novel, you ask? In truth probably not a lot but I’m not talking about the bizarrely sculpted remnants of the ice cubes in your old glass of icewater. In this usage, I’m talking about the orphaned ice beyond the active edge of a glacier, specifically, ice that has become covered with glacial till. Why is this interesting? I happen to like scientific curiosities like this but to keep this on topic for a blog on writing fantasy, it illustrates an alien terrain that either might make an interesting setting for a novel, science fiction or fantasy, or simply spur your imagination and lead to something even more exotic.

Most examples of stagnant ice today are just some dirty lobes of ice near retreating glaciers in Alaska and similar places, not too exciting in themselves. But after the last Ice Age, there were places in North America where blocks of ice hundreds of feet thick were covered first with glacier till but later by fertile soil and forests for as many as 3,000 years. Dirt is an excellent insulator and a buried block of ice can last a very, very long time. That has possibilities for fantasy settings.

This concept came as a surprise to me when I came across it in  After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America by E. C. Pielou, a fascinating book that describes the late Ice Age and its immediate aftermath: what was life like near the end of the Ice Age? What was it like when the ice started melting? How did life survive to re-colonize after the retreating ice? How long did it take for various types of plants and animals to return? There’s a lot of interesting material here, including something else that might make for an interesting setting but won’t be covered in this post: refugiums, places like an off-shore island or mountain hilltop where more northerly species could ride out the Ice Age. (For a fantasy angle, consider a refugium type place in a world that has been turned to desert, wasted by magic, or overrun by dragons).

The idea of a large forest existing for thousands of years over a thick sheet of ice really struck my fancy. Can’t say I have any stories pending that would use this concept and there’s the challenge of setting this up to the reader without saying “this makes sense because it happened on Earth.” In its simplest form, one could ask, so what? What difference does it make if fifty feet under the trees, there’s a thick layer of ice if, on top, it still looks like a forest? However, most of these stagnant ice situations, were not vast, monolithic blocks of ice. They could be large, square miles or more but they were often in the a valley or an isolated lobe, meaning, the edge of the ice wasn’t that far off from any spot in the forest. In general, the ice edge would also have to be covered by dirt but there would likely be places were a spring of very cold water emerged, caves that lead from dirt into ice caves, crevasses in the woods, possibly a cliff of exposed ice and other anomalies that could make this place anything but simply a forest on a low hill or plateau.

If I ever do something with this, I’d probably have to make it either the main setting of a book or at least a major portion of a book. This is because it may take a fair amount of work to describe the landscape and its reason for being to the reader, which would make it hard to use for a short scene. Having done that, I’d want to extract the most for that effort by stressing the more exotic aspects of this landscape (otherwise, why bother with it?) So, caves in the ice below might be the home of ice creatures: white dragons, ice-elementals, ice-giants. Surface-worlders might have to gain access to these caves through strange cracks in the forest that exude icy cold air, which start as simply an odd gash in the dirt before becoming ice-walled deeper down. Exit might be on a river that has cut its way through the ice and gushes from a cliff. As the ice melts, parts of the forest might subside gracefully but sink-holes, crevices and bogs might swallow other pieces.

In the end, it’s not something I’m likely to use in a story but it is fun to come across an alien, exotic setting in a science book. As for the book itself, I’ve yet to finish it. It is quite fascinating but the writing is a bit on the dry-side. I wouldn’t run out and buy this unless you really like science literature and have a stomach for a brilliant but not terribly engaging author.

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2 thoughts on “Stagnant Ice: an Exotic Fantasy Setting

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