Monday, October 13, 2014

Dr. Bretz and the Scablands of Washington state...

Dr. Bretz and the Scablands of Washington state...  I first heard about this story on a trip with my dad, about twenty years ago.  Today (and in '94) geologists generally agree that the “scablands” were formed by a series of massive floods from the prehistoric Lake Missoula that used to cover large chunks of Idaho and Montana, and parts of northeastern Washington and Canada.  The lake was formed by a massive ice dam near the present-day Sandpoint, Idaho; the breakup of that ice dam caused the lake to drain, flooding a huge area downstream of it with almost unimaginably huge intermittent flows.

Scott Johnson has a piece in ars technica (with lots of photos) that discusses this in layman's terms, but in substantial detail.  It's an excellent piece, and well worth a half-hour or so of your time to read it, and to see the photos of the area if you're unfamiliar with it.

We once owned some land not far from Sandpoint, and in our travels to the region became quite familiar with it.  Parts of western Idaho (near Moscow) benefited from the flood that formed the scablands, as huge quantities of the scoured soil ended up there.  This forms a large area of extraordinarily rich farmland today.

Reading this piece brought back a fond memory of that trip with my dad.  We were driving through one of the coulees described in the article, and my dad was excitedly pointing out the evidence of the flood (a large notch with no stream today, and a bed of huge “ripples” – evidence that he had only read about before, not seen.  As we drove, he told me the outlines of the story of Dr. Bretz's research, and in particular the resistance the geology world had to Dr. Bretz's notion that the scablands were formed by a catastrophic flood.  My dad loved the way that Dr. Bretz slowly, persistently whittled away at all the objections to his theory – and eventually, after 40 years, lived to see his theory generally accepted.  He also won the Penrose Medal (the most prestigious award in geology) in 1979.  My dad loved this sort of story – the expert who proves to be right after years of the “experts” laughing at him.  Geology, for some reason, is a rich source of such stories, and my dad knew quite a few of them.  I think Dr. Bretz and his catastrophic flood was one of his favorites, though.

Oh, I miss him so...

No comments:

Post a Comment