bill it as the greatest story left untold. It is the story of
the earth's power, scientific discovery, and human nature. This
is the tale of how the Northwest was once changed by geologic
catastrophe on a biblical scale."1
These words are the introduction
to the KSPS Public Television program titled, "Sculpted
by Floods: the Northwest's Ice Age Legacy," narrated by
investigative reporter Alison Kartevold. Her documentary report
tells the story of the Ice Age Floods, Washington's Channeled
Scablands, and the geologists who sought to discover their origins.
"The region is unique,"
wrote geologist J. Harlen Bretz. "Let the observer take
the wings of the morning to the uttermost parts of the earth;
he will find nowhere its likeness."2
In this report, we will look
at just a part of this flood-damaged region. We will focus on
the visible evidence of a flood in Franklin County, in the Columbia
Basin Region of Eastern Washington.
II. EVIDENCES OF A FLOOD
As I travel
from place to place in Franklin County, I often marvel at the
variety of geological features I see: deep canyons and coulees,
gravel mounds, a beautiful waterfall, basalt rock outcroppings,
river valleys, and flat, fertile farmlands. These interesting
and sometimes unusual features have raised questions in my mind.
I like to ask, "How did that rock get there?" or, "What
kind of force made that valley with such steep sides?" These
questions have led me to investigate the geology of Franklin
In this report, I would like
to describe some of the unusual features found in Franklin County,
look at the currently accepted theory of their origins, and then
briefly evaluate that geological theory in light of the evidence
My interest in the local geology
was first aroused when traveling in the area around Connell,
Washington. I lived in Connell for five years, so I became very
familiar with the landscape in that area. Thus we will begin
our study in Connell.
Coulees. Whether approaching Connell from the north, south,
east, or west, it is necessary to descend a long slope. All of
the surrounding land is at 1000 to 1100 feet elevation,3
but Connell lies in the bottom of a gully at 850 to 900 feet.
This gully is the intersection of three coulees - Providence
Coulee to the north, Washtucna Coulee to the east, and Esquatzel
Coulee to the south.4 Providence Coulee is deep and
narrow, with V-shaped, hilly sides. Washtucna Coulee is deep
and about a mile wide, with grassy rangeland at the bottom and
steeply sloping, somewhat rounded basalt cliffs at the sides.
Esquatzel Coulee is very deep, with bare basalt cliffs at the
Providence Coulee has a small stream
at the bottom. It flows through the middle of Connell, enters
Esquatzel Coulee to the south, and continues on until it reaches
Pasco. This small stream is a home for cattails and frogs. Farther
down the coulee, it provides water for grazing cattle. Just before
reaching Pasco, the water is drawn off into the
Diversion Channel and carried to the Columbia River. The coulee
itself loses its impressive basalt walls when it reaches Eltopia,
then becomes just a small gully until the land around it flattens
out into a plain just north of the Pasco Airport.
Highway 260 runs along the southern
lip of Washtucna Coulee on its way to Kahlotus. This widest of
the three coulees doesn't have a stream running in it, but it
does have two lakes that are gradually drying out, called
Lake and Lake Kahlotus. Lake Kahlotus is 865 feet above sea level.
I've spoken to residents of Kahlotus who said that Lake Kahlotus
has shrunk in the past 30 years. It once was a good fishing spot,
but now it hardly has enough water for a fish to live in. At
first I asked, "Where did all the water go?" But then,
upon further thought, I had to ask, "Where did the water
come from in the first place?" There is no apparent stream
or other source.
Bars. Also found in Washtucna Coulee are several very large
gravel bars.5 Some of these have ripple marks along
their tops. How did that gravel get there?
Devil's Canyon. Just south of
Kahlotus, Highway 263 enters Devil's Canyon. This is a steep-sided,
V-shaped canyon that descends 400 feet in four miles. Its sides
are made of basalt rock, with much talus, or broken rock, covering
the slopes. Devil's Canyon ends at the Snake River. The Snake
River above Lower Monumental Dam has an elevation of 540 feet.
As I drove down the canyon one
day, I wondered if it could have been made by running water.
The problem is, there was no apparent source of water. From Kahlotus,
elevation 865 feet, the road climbs to 1000 feet before descending
into Devil's Canyon. That means that the canyon has a barrier
at its upper end. How could the water rise 135 feet in order
to enter the canyon?
You may have noticed that we
just moved from a coulee to a canyon. Actually, both words mean
the same thing. When the French-Canadian fur traders were exploring
the Columbia Basin, they noticed that there were many dry gullies
with steep sides. They called these gullies "coulees,"
and the French name became commonly used in Eastern Washington.
"Canyon," on the other hand, is a Spanish word meaning
"a narrow chasm with steep cliff walls, formed by running
water; a gorge."6 This word became a familiar
word in the English language because of the many canyons in our
nation's Southwest, where Spanish missionaries and Mexican settlers
named the geographic features.
Although "canyon" and
"coulee" mean almost the same thing, there are some
very noticeable differences between Devil's Canyon and Washtucna
Coulee. Devil's Canyon is V-shaped, and the canyon floor descends
rapidly (roughly 100 feet per mile). Washtucna Coulee is box-shaped,
with vertical sides and flat bottom. It descends only about 200
feet in 32 miles (roughly 6 feet per mile).
Let's continue heading northeastward
from Kahlotus up Washtucna Coulee. Eventually we would reach
Washtucna, at the upper end of the coulee. There the elevation
is 1014 feet. But Washtucna is about a mile north of the Franklin
County border, so we won't discuss it in this report. I would,
however, like to describe another fascinating geological feature
near that town.
Palouse Falls. If we were to
turn east onto Highway 26 at Washtucna, we would soon be driving
alongside the Palouse River. The Palouse River flows out of Idaho,
passes through the towns of Palouse and Colfax, and meanders
through the Palouse Hills. It forms a part of the border between
Whitman and Adams Counties. Then, about 3½ miles east
of Washtucna, at the very eastern border of Franklin County,
this lazy, meandering river makes a sharp turn southward and
flows in a straight line over rapids and falls for four miles.
it makes a 185-foot plunge over Palouse Falls.7 Here
the basalt walls are vertical cliffs. You can clearly see the
various layers of basalt, with their colonnades and entablatures.
When I see a sudden change in
the earth's features, I like to ask why. Why did a lazy, meandering
river suddenly become a rushing rapids flowing as straight as
a stick for four miles? And what made that river suddenly fall
185 feet, then again meander calmly down to the Snake River?
The basalt cliffs near Palouse
Falls have a curious tendency to make sharp, 90° turns.8
There is a deep canyon that cuts a perpendicular line across
the river gorge just south of the falls.9 What geologic
force has cut those canyons so straight and at such remarkable
Ringold Basin. About 18 miles
to the southwest of Connell is the town of Basin City. Basin
City is located in Ringold Basin - a U-shaped depression with
steep slopes on both sides. These steep hillsides are over 100
feet high and covered with desert vegetation. In places the hillside
is breaking off and sliding away. The slopes begin about 5 miles
south of Othello and run southward past Basin City to Ringold
and the Columbia River, a distance of about 15 miles. The slopes
make me think of a dike alongside a river. But the only water
in sight is a small stream.
The Erratics. Basin City is built
on gravel beds. Local farmers sometimes find huge boulders in
their fields - not just the basalt rock that we would expect
in this area, but granite and metamorphic rock as well. These
unusual rocks must have come from far away in the mountains.
Geologists can trace them to their source in the Okanogan Highlands
or even the Rocky Mountains. Since these rocks are out of place
here in the Pasco Basin, they are called erratics. How did such
large boulders move here from so far away?
The Upland Flats. Now
let's look at some rather unremarkable features in Franklin County.
It took me years to notice them, because they seem so ordinary.
These are the upland "flats." We will begin in Pasco
and travel northward.
When you turn north off of I-82
onto Road 68, the road is straight and level for 2½ miles.
the road forks at Douglas Fruits, you veer off to the right onto
Taylor Flats Road. For 2½ more miles, the road winds back
and forth, passing through some undisturbed sagebrush and undulating,
wavy hills. For the next 4 miles, the road goes gently up and
down, crossing hills and gullies and slowly rising in elevation.
Between Sagemoor Road and Cypress Drive, the road climbs steeply.
Finally, at the top of the hill,
the land flattens out. At night I can see headlights appear two
miles away and know that a car has just passed Elm Road. The
road is flat and straight for those two miles, not varying more
than 20 feet in elevation. But beyond the small hump at Elm Road,
the "flats" go on for another four miles, until Taylor
Flats Road ends at Eltopia-Ringold Road. These upland flats are
not the Taylor Flats, which are found alongside the Columbia
River, but I call them the "flats" because of their
similarity to the Paradise Flats between Connell and Othello.
You may be asking, "What
is so unusual about a flat area?" At first I saw nothing
unusual about this area, until I began to see others like it.
The Taylor Flats plateau has an elevation of almost exactly 900
feet. When you drive on Highway 395 northeastward toward Mesa,
you will see that Mesa is at the bottom of Esquatzel Coulee.
Its elevation is 675 feet. But up above Mesa are steep hillsides.
If you look around the horizon, you will see that the land above
Mesa flattens out into a plateau. Its elevation is 930 feet.
Continuing farther to the northeast
on Highway 395, we come again to Connell. The road to Connell
is lined with basalt outcroppings and deep gullies.
you look through the gullies toward the west, you can see that
they empty into the Esquatzel Coulee. The far walls of the coulee
are visible from the road in some places, but the floor of the
coulee is far below and out of sight. (The walls are roughly
200 feet high.) It seems that these gullies must be washouts,
draining the water from the nearby fields into the Coulee. But
there is no water in sight. The gullies are dry. This is an example
of channeled scablands.
As you approach Connell, you
can actually see the town from several miles away. There is a
flat spot on Highway 395, and it lines up with Esquatzel Coulee
so that you can see Connell down in its gully.
I have noticed an unusual feature
in the topography of Connell - there are two "shelves."
Above the floor of the coulee, there is a hill, and then a shelf.
Connell High School sits on this shelf. Its elevation is 900
feet - the same elevation as the "flats" above Pasco.
Then there is another hillside above the high school, so steep
that nothing is built or grown on it. Above this upper hillside,
the land flattens out, and once again, the horizon looks flat.
This area is at approximately 1000-1100 feet and is called Paradise
It seems that the land levels
out above Connell on each side. Across Esquatzel Coulee to the
west, the land looks to be the same elevation as Paradise Flats
to the north. Across Washtucna Coulee to the northeast, it seems
to be flat and on the same level as Paradise Flats. There seems
to be a pattern here - and again I must ask, "Why?"
III. THE GEOLOGISTS EXPLAIN
at what the geologists say. "In a sense, geologists are
much like detectives: Although they were not present when an
event occurred, they must collect and piece together physical
evidence and must fit this evidence into a logical and 'most
likely' scenario of what occurred at the scene. They must then
convince their peers that their theory is the most believable
one among several possibly conflicting theories."11
Bretz Floods. A geologist named J. Harlen Bretz explored
the dry coulees of Eastern Washington beginning in 1919. As he
wondered at the geological marvels of Dry Falls, Grand Coulee,
and the Potholes, it seemed to him that these features had to
have been made by enormous volumes of water flowing across the
land in the distant past.12 Although at first he didn't
know where the water could have come from, he published a scientific
paper in which he proposed his theory of widespread flooding
in the Columbia Basin. Other geologists did not immediately accept
his theory, but Bretz continued his explorations throughout the
next several decades, gradually accumulating enough data to convince
the scientific community that his theory was accurate.
Missoula. It remained for other geologists to find the source
of the waters that caused the flooding and devastation in the
Columbia Basin. The current theory is that a lobe of glacial
ice blocked the flow of the Clark Fork River in western Montana
about 12,000 years ago. The dammed-up river then filled all of
the valleys behind it to a depth of 2,000 feet.13
This vast reservoir of water, named Lake Missoula by the geology
"detectives," then suddenly broke through the ice dam
and emptied out within a matter of days. Such a tremendous release
of water had a devastating effect downstream on the landscape
of Idaho and Eastern Washington. It scoured away the topsoil
and then carved deep channels into the bedrock. The deluge eventually
drained away down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. Geologist
Bretz coined the term "channeled scablands" to describe
this flood-scoured landscape.
Rock Features. And how did the water cut through solid rock?
Much of Eastern Washington is underlain by extensive basalt flows
- volcanic lava that spilled out of fissures of the earth in
the distant past and flowed like syrup to fill the Columbia Basin.
When basalt lava cools, it hardens and cracks into a column-shaped
rock. The many cracks form a natural weakness in the rock structure.
When rapidly moving water flows in abundance over these rocks,
the water actually separates the rocks at their weakest points
and lifts them into its stream. When the loosened rocks are propelled
in the current, they can become a battering ram capable of smashing
other rocks apart.
Velocities. The Ice Age Floods are estimated to have had
velocities in some places of as much as 75 feet per second (50
miles per hour). "If the velocity of a stream is doubled,
its ability to move material along the bottom increases up to
64 times."14 Geologists estimate that the glacial
floodwaters reached a height of 1000 feet above the rock surface
in some places. This volume and velocity of water could move
huge boulders for hundreds of miles.
Geologists believe that the waters
of Lake Missoula divided into several channels. One of these
channels flowed southward from Cheney toward Pasco, crossing
over Palouse Falls and eventually reaching the Snake River. They
believe that Washtucna Coulee was once the channel of the Palouse
River, flowing from east to west. But when the glacial floods
flowed southward across the area, they cut a new channel for
the Palouse River, a shortcut to the Snake River. This forever
altered the course of the Palouse. That's why the Palouse River
turns suddenly southward near Washtucna and flows over Palouse
Falls on its way to the Snake River.
A smaller channel of the glacial floods flowed south-southwest
through Providence Coulee. There it met the Palouse River at
Connell and flowed down Esquatzel Coulee to Pasco.
Channels. During the height of the flood, Washtucna Coulee
was filled to overflowing. There was so much water that it spilled
over the top at Kahlotus and ran rapidly down the slope to the
Snake River, forming Devil's Canyon. This overflow, however,
didn't cut all the way through the rock at the side of Washtucna
Coulee, so the entrance to Devil's Canyon is still approximately
135 feet above the floor of the coulee.
A much larger flow of glacial waters made its way south past
Othello, scooped out the Ringold Basin, and joined the waters
of the Columbia. It left huge gravel deposits at Basin City and
the Ringold area.
IV. EVALUATION OF THE FLOOD THEORY
The evidence of a flood is irrefutable.
Dry coulees, huge gravel bars, giant ripple marks, and erratic
boulders all point to enormous volumes of water flowing at great
speeds. But I have a few unanswered questions that beg for an
answer. The main question I will deal with in this report is
"What created the flatlands?"
Flatlands Question. The coulees were formed by the raging
floodwaters of Lake Missoula. The floods washed out Ringold Basin.
Many gullies visible above the Columbia River were formed by
water drainage off the plateau farmlands. There's a pattern here
- running water causes gullies and depressions.
Geologists say that the Palouse Hills
to the east of Franklin County are rolling hills made of "loess."
Loess is wind-blown silt. The Juniper Dunes northeast of Pasco
are sand dunes, caused by the gradual movement of wind-blown
sand.15 There's a pattern here, too - when the landscape
is dominated by wind-blown materials, it is hilly.
But what causes flatlands? Is
it reasonable to assume that they were "caused" by
a geological force, just as the hills and the gullies were caused
by known forces?
Although I haven't found any
explanation written by a geologist, I think I can guess what
causes flatlands. It appears to me that the upper flatlands have
some of the best, most fertile soil. It seems that moving air
or water doesn't flatten the land, but tends to "rough up"
the land. The silty soil that is so common in the Pasco area
is easily moved by running water. Ripple marks, whether on the
beach or in the gravels of Washtucna Coulee, are made by running
water. Therefore, I would guess that the flatlands were formed
by sediments settling out of calm waters.
Immediately, my hypothesis raises
a big question. There are flatlands at 900 feet elevation just
14 miles north of Pasco. Across Ringold Basin, about 20 miles
north of Pasco, there are flatlands on the Wahluke Slope, also
at 900 feet elevation. Above Mesa there are flatlands at 930
feet elevation. Above Connell, 35 miles northeast of Pasco, there
are flatlands at 1000 to 1100 feet elevation. All of these areas
are separated by coulees and basins said to be cut out by the
Missoula Floods. If this is true, then all of the areas I've
mentioned must have been connected before the floods. That's
a huge amount of real estate, very flat, gently sloping from
north to south, and all at 900 to 1100 feet of elevation. Could
there have been a body of water big enough to cover that extensive
area? The geologists say yes.
Lewis. About 12 miles south of Pasco, the Columbia River
flows through a narrow gap in the Horse Heaven Hills. This opening
is called Wallula Gap. The geologists say that during the Ice
Age Floods, the floodwaters reached the Horse Heaven Hills and
began to back up behind Wallula Gap, because the water couldn't
drain through the gap quickly enough. They say that a temporary
lake, called Lake Lewis, was formed as the waters backed up and
then drained through the constriction. Lake Lewis was supposed
to have risen up to 1250 feet elevation at the peak of the floods,
and then drained out within a week or two.16
That sounds like a lot of moving
water. On the beach, when a gently flowing stream or a wave washes
across the sand, it leaves ripples. There are no ripples on the
upland "flats" I've mentioned. How could the waters
of the Ice Age Floods have overflowed these flat areas and left
them still flat? It seems to me that a vast, high, calm lake
must have made the "flats".
I attended a geology lecture
and field at Columbia Basin College in Pasco, Washington. The
lecturer, a geologist at Battelle Pacific Northwest National
Laboratories in Richland, Washington, made some interesting comments.
After explaining a geologist's interpretation of the Columbia
Basin's natural features, he asked the students, "Do you
believe that?" I think he was inviting us to question the
geological detective work. He also told us at the end of the
lecture, "In ten years, they'll teach all of this different."
When a geologist "reads the rocks" and "pieces
together the evidence," he or she forms a hypothesis to
explain the evidence. Sometimes the pieces don't all fit together.
Sometimes there are questions left unanswered.
who studies science approaches it with some preconceived notions.
Geologist J. Harlen Bretz was severely criticized and rejected
by his colleagues when he postulated a cataclysmic flood.17
The idea of "Catastrophism" had been thrown out and
ridiculed in the 100 years since James Hutton first proposed
his theory of Uniformitarianism. Before Hutton, the general consensus
in the Western Hemisphere was that the Bible was true and fully
reliable. But Hutton challenged the authority of the Bible and
tried to make people doubt its credibility. It took over a hundred
years, but with the help of many like-minded intellectuals over
the next century, Hutton's theory gained acceptance.
So the geologists of Bretz' day
were shocked and offended to hear that their colleague had the
audacity to believe that a vast flood had rapidly changed the
face of the earth. It was unthinkable! It was unacceptable! Their
predecessors had worked hard to root out the common people's
belief in a worldwide flood. By the early 1900's, most geologists
had rejected the idea of a biblical flood. They weren't prepared
to tolerate a new flood theory.
I wonder why those scientists
were so upset. Isn't "science" a search for truth?
If new evidence of a flood came to light, why were they so adamant
that it couldn't be possible? It seems that they weren't as interested
in a search for truth as in defending what they believed.
This report began with a thought-provoking
quotation from the video production "Sculpted by Floods:
The Northwest's Ice Age Legacy." It said, "This is
the tale of how the Northwest was once changed by geologic catastrophe
on a biblical scale." I like that thought. But let's keep
the record straight: the tale of the Missoula Floods isn't on
a biblical scale. When the Bible speaks of a great flood, it
says this:"The same day were all the fountains of the
great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.
And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights
the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth;
and the ark went upon the face of the waters. And the waters
prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills,
that were under the whole heaven, were covered. Fifteen cubits
upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered."
(Genesis 7:11-12, 18-20) In the biblical account, the floodwaters
covered the whole earth, including all the hills and mountains.
Is it possible that Lake Missoula could have been a remnant of
a flood that once covered the whole earth?
I invite you to consider the
possibility that the Bible may be true. We have no eyewitnesses
and no written records of the Ice Age Floods. But we do have
a written record of a worldwide flood. Before researching the
Missoula Floods, I had looked at the geologic features of Franklin
County and hypothesized that a great lake had once covered this
area - a calm lake. I thought that perhaps the lake existed before
Wallula Gap was carved out. Perhaps the biblical floodwaters
remained in the Columbia Basin until the pressure of such a vast
lake could carve through a weak spot in the Horse Heaven Hills.
This way, the waters would drain off slowly, leaving flat, undisturbed
plateaus of fertile, silty soils. Now, even after studying about
the Ice Age Floods theory, I think that my hypothesis fits the
observable facts. I admit that I have a bias - some preconceived
notions. Doesn't everyone? What you think? Your preconceived
notions will determine what you believe and how you live.
1). Kartevold, video.
2). Nisbet, p. 29.
3). All elevation figures in this report provided by the U. S.
Geological Survey maps via Microsoft TerraServer.
4). Washington Atlas and Gazetteer, p.54.
5). Mueller, pp. 89-91.
6). American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, p.198.
7). CREHST, p.11.
8). See Mueller, cover photo, 1997 printing.
9). Allen, p.68.
10). Washington Atlas and Gazetteer, p. 54.
11). Mueller, p. 21.
12). Allen, p. 21.
13). Mueller, p. 27.
14). Allen, p. 97-98.
15). Carson, pp. 26-28.
16). CREHST, p. 2.
17). Allen, pp. 42-44.
Allen, John E., Marjorie Burns, and Sam
C. Sargent, 1986. Cataclysms on the Columbia: A layman's guide
to the features produced by the catastrophic Bretz floods in
the Pacific Northwest. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.
AmericanHeritage Dictionary of the English
Language, 1969. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Carson, Robert J., and Kevin R. Pogue,
1996. Flood Basalts and Glacier Floods: Roadside Geology of Parts
of Walla Walla, Franklin, and Columbia Counties, Washington.
Washington Division of Geology and Earth Resources Information
Circular 90: Washington State Dept. of Natural Resources.
Columbia River Exhibition of History, Science,
and Technology, 2001. "Geologic Field Trip: Ice Age Floods
in the Mid-Columbia."
Kartevold, Alison, 2001. "Sculpted
by Floods: The Northwest's Ice Age Legacy." Spokane, Washington:
KSPS Public Television.
Mueller, Marge, and Ted, Mueller, 1997.
Fire, Faults, and Floods. Moscow, Idaho: Univ. of Idaho Press.
Nisbet, Jack, 1999. Singing Grass, Burning
Sage: Discovering Washington's Shrub-Steppe. Seattle, Wash.:
The Nature Conservancy of Washington.
S. Geological Survey topographic maps online. Microsoft TerraServer.
Washington Atlas and Gazetteer, 1995. Freeport,