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Famous Landscape Fun to Find

Famous Landscape Fun to Find


Not everyone appreciates desert landscapes, however most people will admit, when pressed, that there is an awesome grandeur to some dry lands. The scablands in the northeast section of the State of Washington, are a case in point. Does one like drama? Does one appreciate deserts? The State of Washington has it all.

One must admit that deserts are not the first thing which comes to mind when one considers Washington State. Coastal mountains with lush forests, as well as seascapes, are popular attractions there. Should one proceed inland however, for example along interstate Highway 90 from Seattle, one comes to tiny Vantage on the Columbia River. There is a small state park here featuring numerous petrified logs preserved in basalt rock. Geologist Harold Coffin suggests in his book Origin by Design (1983) that the volcanism began during the Flood, and continued for hundreds of years after. The basalt was at first extremely fluid in consistency and spread rapidly. The assortment of petrified trees found near Vantage, may well not have grown there or even all together. Rather they may have accumulated in one place as a result of water transport (a veritable rafted forest). Among the buried petrified trunks there are remains of yew, Douglas fir, coast redwood, bald cypress, beech, oak, black walnut, etc. The most famous and rarest wood there is that of the ginkgo. No trees have been found in growth position.

The Vantage artifacts are merely an introduction to more remarkable scenes further east. The map gives no hint for example, that the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge is anything other than desert shrubs harbouring assorted animals. Lo and behold, however, from a viewpoint one finds displayed below some of the most dramatic scenes of disaster in North America. This rugged jumble of cliffs, canyons and lakes, carved into the basalt rock, is part of Washington’s Channelled Scablands. In 1986 this area was designated a National Natural Landmark and rightly so. It has a fascinating history to communicate.The Columbia Plateau consists of dense crystalline basalt up to 3000 m thick, which covers more than 256,000 square km in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

Towards the end of the ice age some centuries after the flood, a large lake accumulated in Montana probably from meltwaters flowing from the ice pack farther north. Something, presumably ice, blocked the outlet of the lake towards the west. This lake grew to ominous proportions. Scientists now estimate that the lake was 600 m deep, more than twice the depth of Lake Superior. Eventually, flowing water eroded the dam.

The ensuing disaster changed this landscape forever. As the dam burst, a deep torrent crashed across the landscape at about 30 m per second. With nowhere else to go, the water proceeded across the basalt flats, carving interlocking and diverging canyons and plunge pools in the hard lava rock. It left behind monstrous gravel bars and huge erratics (boulders from far away). At that rate of spillage, the lake may well have emptied in a couple of days. Signage at the Wildlife Refuge declares that the outflow was ten times the combined outflow of all rivers now on Earth! The torrent eroded 200 cubic km of hard lava leaving scenery that from the air looks like a braided stream (only it is 160 km wide).

J. Harlan Bretz was the first geologist to attribute this strange landscape to a cataclysmic flood. For forty years, until the 1960s, he met with incredible hostility from geological colleagues who did not approve of the use of catastrophe in scientific explanations. Finally in 1980 most geologists conceded that Bretz was right all along. Since then geologists have attributed the devastation to a series of scary floods with the last being the worst. Most recently however, some geologists have again supported the idea of one unique Spokane (or Lake Missoula) flood.

Whatever they call it, the Washington scablands are testimony to the devastating effects of fast flowing torrents. This region is well worth a visit. Go see for yourself!

Margaret Helder
July 2005

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