Dropping Like Stones

Gray Stanback

If you’ve ever driven around suburban North Carolina, you’ve probably noticed the occasional large, smooth boulder resting in the middle of a field or a forest clearing. These rocks didn’t get where they are now with the help of humans. Instead, they’re the result of a process known as “glacial dropstones,” in which a glacier melts as it enters warmer climates, and in doing so releases whatever debris was embedded in the ice.  Often this debris can be quite large, as is the case with these boulders.

Dropstones are like time machines; they show us what the chemical and geological composition of the Earth was like hundreds of thousands of years ago when they formed.   As such, they are extremely valuable from a scientific perspective.

Unfortunately, as is the case with animals and plants, time is running out for dropstones. Most people, unaware of these objects’ remarkable history, often see them as no more than ordinary rocks and therefore expendable when it comes to suburban development. We may not think of dropstones as “natural wonders” the way we think of such things as the Grand Canyon or the Great Barrier Reef, but their history and their scientific significance make them worthy of preservation for their own sake nevertheless.

What can be done to preserve dropstones? A good starting point, of course, would be to simply not destroy them whenever a suburban development project intrudes into an area where they are present. Instead they should merely be moved, while still intact, or better yet built around and incorporated into the developed landscape. I personally have witnessed several suburban developments which have managed to incorporate these freestanding rocks into their landscape with great success.

If dropstones are wantonly destroyed by developers, then people living nearby will lose a beautiful and unique natural phenomenon, and scientists will lose a valuable insight into the geological processes on Earth in ancient times.