Ontario Drumlins 

According to the glacial theory, vast continental ice sheets spread out from their centers in the Hudson Bay area radially in all directions. Ice eroded sedimentary rocks along the border of the Canadian Shield, and scoured pre-existing river valleys. This is supposed to have been the mechanism which produced the rock basins that are now occupied by the Great Lakes.  A radial pattern of ice flow is attributed to the ice sheets in many geology text books.

North of Lake Ontario, from Oshawa westward, and north of Lake Erie, in the Tavistock-Woodstock area, the orientation of  drumlins indicates they were formed by a flow towards the northwest. This is an enigma in the glacial theory, as former ice sheets must have spread from their centers where ice thickness was greatest. No force is available to drive ice back from its perimeter towards the northwest. Since ice was also flowing south and southwest from these lake basins, the cause of the northwesterly flow is a mystery.

A drumlin field containing about 300 drumlins with northwest orientation occurs in the area around Guelph, Ontario. The flow is believed to have come from out of the Lake Ontario Basin to the south. The orientation of a group of drumlins at Westover, between Guelph and Dundas, indicates a westerly flow direction. According to the glacial theory, the ice sheet must have flowed uphill, out of Lake Ontario, over the cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment, to form these drumlins. The drumlins and flutings of the drumlin field around Woodstock, north of Lake Erie, were also caused by a flow to northwest, out of the basin of Lake Erie. The trend of the drumlins in these areas seems anomalous. Ice is thought to have flowed southward from the Hudson Bay area, and excavated the basins of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. From these basins, flow occurred towards the south, southwest, west, and northwest. But why would ice have flowed in such diverse directions north and south of the basins of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario?

At Port Stanley, on the north shore of Lake Erie, there are bluffs of drift material with a series of layers, grey at the bottom, followed by a layer of light brown clay or silt, and a layer of clay at the top. The glacial theory says ice overrode layers of drift during successive periods when ice advanced and retreated. The Erie lobe of the ice sheet must have attacked the bedrock, excavating the lake basin, and ascended the northern shore of the lake. As it passed over the previously deposited drift, it failed to erode it, but instead deposited another layer of drift over it, which was shaped into drumlins.

Bluffs of drift at Port Stanley, Ontario

View of the bluffs of drift near Port Stanley, Ontario. There were few areas where the proposed ice sheet could access the bedrock, to derive source materials for manufacturing the later drift, once the earliest drift layers were deposited. Since drift composition tends to resemble that of the local bedrock, the source cannot be some distant location. Access to source materials consisting of suitable rock types is required for the manufacture of the pebbles and boulders contained in coarse gravels in the glacial environment. But the materials that ice apparently over-rode were often unsuitable for producing these gravels.  In many areas the ice must have over-rode silt, clay or sand, not dolomite or limestone bedrock. The bluffs at Port Stanley shown in the above photo illustrate this type of material. Boulders and pebbles of limestone and dolomite cannot be made from drift consisting of unconsolidated silt or clay. Access to suitable bedrock materials by the ice sheet would decline as more layers of drift were deposited.

The ice sheet apparently eroded bedrock in the basins of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario while depositing layers of drift over the areas north and south of the lakes. In many areas the drift surface was streamlined into drumlins and flutings. Meanwhile, other ice lobes advanced from Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, which opposed the flow directions of the Erie and Ontario lobes. These are called the Huron and Georgian Bay lobes. Each of these are thought to have caused drumlin fields where the trend of flow was southward, opposing the west or northwesterly trend of the ice from the basins of lakes Erie and Ontario. This direction of flow is indicated by the Woodstock and Guelph drumlin fields. Where were all these lobes flowing to? What was the force driving the lobes from the northwest, north, east and southeast? Glacialists invoke "oscillating" lobes of the ice sheet that deposited debris from various locations.

To attack the bedrock beneath the drift, the ice sheet must have excavated an enormous volume of rock material, that was subsequently deposited as drift, presumably under the ice or in proglacial lakes when the ice sheet melted. This drift exhibits distinctive layers or formations called tills, and their distributions are mapped on maps such as the Quaternary Geologic Map of the Lake Erie 4° x 6° Quadrangle, United States and Canada, by the USGS. Subsurface information on the various formations has been obtained from well logs. Most of the drift formations in the region north of Lake Erie are listed in the table below. The drift thickness varies from about 30 m - 90 m.

Relations of Drift formations in Southern Ontario

Rannoch Till (Huron Lobe) - silty clay, calcareous, overlies Tavistock Till.

Stratford Till (Huron - Georgian Bay Lobe) - sandy silt, calcareous, overlies Tavistock Till and Mornington Till.

Elma Till (Georgian Bay Lobe) - sandy silt and clayey silt, calcareous, overlies the Mornington Till.

Mornington Till  (Huron - Georgian Bay Lobe) - type section: Conestogo Dam. A brown or dark grey silty clay till, overlies Tavistock Till.

Tavistock Till  (Huron - Georgian Bay Lobe) - silty clay, coarse grained, coarsening towards Woodstock, calcareous, overlies Port Stanley Till, Stirton Till and Maryhill Till.  

Halton Till ((Erie - Ontario Lobe) - silt, overlies Wentworth Till.

Wentworth Till  (Erie Lobe) - overlies Port Stanley Till.

Port Stanley Till (Erie Lobe) - clayey to silty clay, calcareous. It is thought to have been deposited over a period that spans all the above named tills. It occurs at the surface in the area of the Guelph drumlin field. Overlies Maryhill Till.  

Maryhill Till  (Erie Lobe) - clay-rich, with sand and gravel. Type section, banks of the Grand River at Homer Watson Park. Overlies Catfish Creek Till.

Stirton Till (Huron - Georgian Bay Lobe) - overlies Catfish Creek Till.

Catfish Creek Till (Huron Lobe - southwest ice flow) - coarse grained, silty to sandy till, stony in some areas, compact, calcareous. Widespread in southwestern Ontario.

Canning Till (Ontario or Erie Ice Lobe) - a reddish, fine textured till. The red color is attributed to its derivation from the Queenston Formation east of the Niagara Escarpment.

Each till in the list is associated with one or two glacial 'lobes'. The flow patterns of these lobes are determined from studies of the orientation of the drumlins, and lithology. The Quaternary Geology map below, produced with data from the Government of Ontario LIO site, shows the regions where the various drift units are exposed in Southwestern Ontario. (Some colors are missing from the legend. The light brown, orange, and cream colors indicate glaciofluvial deposits, and purple areas, e.g. on the Niagara Peninsula, indicate glaciolacustarine silt and clay deposits. Note that the order is inverted, later tills are those with higher numbers. For full details see the LIO site.)

Map showing exposures of the drift formations in Southern OntarioKey to the map

Ice lobes are thought to have retreated from the Waterloo region towards their respective lake basins. Most of the tills shown overlie a series of other tills, and evidently very little bedrock was exposed, once the lower layers had been deposited. As more data from well logs accumulates, the extent of buried drift units is mapped in more detail over greater areas. The earlier units, such as Catfish Creek Till, are reported to be widely distributed over Southern Ontario, so the ice lobes must have had limited areas of exposed bedrock to act upon in order to derive the pebbles and boulders that occur in the gravels associated with glacofluvial deposits overlying those units. Many reports state that most of the boulders and pebbles in these layers were derived from local bedrock. How was the local bedrock extracted by the ice if bedrock was buried beneath the previously deposited layers of drift?

Ontario bedrock map

Locations of Paleozoic bedrock formations below the drift in Southern Ontario. Map prepared using data from the Government of Ontario LIO site.

As the hypothetical ice lobes oscillated over the Southern Ontario peninsula, they over-rode the previously deposited layers of drift, but they apparently did so without disturbing them, as in most areas the patterns of cross-strata in unconsolidated silt and sandy drift remain intact. Meanwhile the same ice sheet, which was so gentle when passing over stratified drift of drumlins, is thought to have been excavating bedrock in the lake basins.

Map showing the supposed directions of ice flow from the Lake Erie basin.The map at right, from the USGS Quaternary Geologic Map of the Lake Erie area, shows ice lobes from Lake Huron, Lake Erie, Georgian Bay, and Lake Ontario flowing out of their basins, in various directions. Even more complex flow patterns are proposed for ice lobes of earlier periods. Note that the southern limit of the drift is only a little way south of the eastern end of Lake Erie. The force that caused the northward flow of the ice lobes out of lakes Erie and Ontario is mysterious. Why would the ice have flowed both northwest and southeast out of Lake Erie?

Image credit: U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior/USGS

The reason for the curious patterns of flow that caused the drumlin fields in the areas north of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario is not well explained in the glacial theory. These problems can resolved by the writer's in situ disintegration theory, which assumes powerful currents swept the area of the Great Lakes, and excavated the lake basins, and streamlined the area. Currents were generated by tectonic uplift when the land was submerged. A series of tectonic uplifts raised the Canadian Shield above the sea. The currents generated as the submerged crust was raised eroded the Paleozoic sediments that were once present over much of the Shield. The sedimentary formations that are now terminated at the Niagara Escarpment once extended further east, over the Canadian Shield, but these rocks were eroded as the earth's crust was raised.

Fast currents excavated the basins of the Great Lakes and thousands of other lake basins along the perimeter of the Shield. Erosion of overburden was accompanied by a process of disintegration of the newly exposed rock, which formed the mantle of drift. Erosion of deep lake basins and formation of escarpments was aided by the process of  disintegration. The Great Lakes basins are evidence of former fast currents, which removed most of the disintegrated sediment and deposited it in distant regions. Drumlin fields in northwestern New York, and lake basins such as the Finger Lakes, and drumlin fields in Southern Ontario and other regions, and the Great Lakes, all show the streamlining and erosional effects of powerful currents, such as those generated by a series of uplifts centered in the Canadian Shield, when the continent was submerged. The uplift of the Shield spilled overlying waters towards the south and southeast. Vortices which developed in the currents caused the formation of the drumlin fields.

DEM of drumlin field east of Peterborough, OntarioThe effects of longitudinal vortices in currents are especially evident north of Lake Ontario in the drumlin field around Peterborough, where thousands of drumlins show the streamlining effect of the currents. The image at right is a Digital Elevation Model (DEM) of part the drumlin field, in the area east of Peterborough including the northern end of Rice Lake. Some drumlins are islands in the lake. The current flow was toward the south.

Similar streamline effects occur in Northwestern New York. The erosion of the deep troughs of the Finger Lakes, in this environment of catastrophic flow, was aided by the contemporaneous disintegration of rock.  Uplift of the highlands in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio spilled flood water to the northwest, over Southern Ontario, forming the drumlin fields north of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, with orientations indicating flow towards the northwest. The radial patterns of drumlins in drumlin fields is characteristic of current flow generated by tectonic uplift. Other uplift events, centered in the Shield, spilled flood water towards the southwest. As the highlands of New York and Pennsylvania emerged from the water, southerly flow was deflected toward the southeast and toward the southwest, around the emerging land. Large drumlins were modified as the depth decreased, and flow was intensified, and several smaller ones formed on the same base. Deep valleys and spillways were formed as depth decreased and currents were concentrated in low areas.
Digital Elevation Model of the Niagara Escarpment around Hamilton, Ontario, with Westover drumlinsCurrents flowing towards the west-southwest, generated by uplift in the submerged Shield, excavated the basins of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Drumlins in the eastern basin of Lake Ontario record the trend of the current flow along the axis of the lake basin. Some of the drumlins along the southern shore of the lake were cut in half by this westerly current. Drumlins on the Niagara Peninsula indicate a westerly flow. A deep basin is present in the eastern part of Lake Erie that was probably scoured by these currents.

The DEM image to the right shows the Dundas Valley, the Niagara Escarpment, and the drumlins at Westover. The flow over the region was westward, over the escarpment. Disintegration penetrated the bedrock far below the surface in the Dundas Valley, where the depth to bedrock is more than 300 m. The buried valley terminates abruptly a few km west of Dundas. 

The disintegration theory explains the drift as the result of a chemical alteration and disintegration process in rocks as overburden was removed. Extensive layers of drift having various characteristics is expected in the disintegration interpretation, as the underlying bedrock was also layered, and consisted of a variety of rock types. There is no requirement that bedrock was excavated and then redeposited in the disintegration theory.  
Streamlined bluffs of the Niagara Escarpment, Bruce Peninsula, Ontario
The glacial theory says oscillating ice lobes gradually retreated into the basin of Lake Ontario and formed dams for the series of proglacial lakes that existed in the lake basins. As the ice lobes retreated, ice-contact moraines would tend to be concave towards the retreating ice, but in fact, the drift features interpreted as moraines in the areas north of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario where the drumlins indicate a northwest flow are concave in the wrong direction for a glacial interpretation. The shape of these ridges can be explained in the disintegration theory as due to expansion effects. Upon disintegration, extensive masses of drift expanded outwards from the thicker regions towards thinner areas. Frictional resistance to the lateral movement caused thickening of the drift at the perimeter of the expanding drift layer. The ridges of thicker drift formed in this manner were usually concave towards the thicker drift.

On the Bruce Peninsula the headlands of the Niagara Escarpmen are streamlined, and aligned with the drumlins as shown in the DEM image at right. These are streamlined bedrock features much greater in scale than the drumlins, and so must have been formed when the region was swept by currents with a greater depth than the currents which formed the drumlins. The catastrophic currents generated by uplift of the Canadian Shield was the environment in which the Great Lakes were excavated. The sediment excavated from the lake basins was removed from the area and transported to the continental shelves.

The process of in situ disintegration that formed the drift was active during the erosion of the lake basins by the catastrophic currents. This disintegration penetrated far deeper in the valleys between the headlands of the Niagara Escarpment than the excavation by currents. The Dundas buried valley at the western end of Lake Ontario is more than 300 m deep, but most of the drift in it was not eroded. Buried valleys are common under the drift in areas around the Great Lakes, but they don't support an interpretation that says they were formed by stream erosion. The Dundas valley extends to below sea level. There valley ends abruptly a few kilometers west of Dundas. The troughs at Wiarton and Owen Sound and several other similar troughs were probably once valleys buried in drift like the Dundas buried valley.  


Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. 1983. A Summary Report of the Earth Science Areas of Natural and Scientific Interest in Cambridge District. OMNR, Parks and Recreation Section, Central Region. 123 pp.

Karrow, P.F., 1974. Till Stratigraphy in Parts of Southwestern Ontario, Geological Society of America Bulletin: Vol. 85, No. 5, pp. 761–768.

Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Groundwater Monitoring Network Report

LIO Internet Map Browser System, Government of Ontario.

Quaternary Geologic Map of the Lake Erie 4° x 6° Quadrangle, United States and Canada

Copyright © 2006 by Douglas E. Cox
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