Natural Wonders: Rock of ages' roiling tale
Seattle Times staff reporter
FRENCHMAN COULEE, Grant County — He bumped along in a Dodge Four sedan packed with bedrolls and his family, marveling at the arid landscape spilling out before him: Steely straight basalt pillars ringed sagebrush plains in great walls, like the remaining pieces of a long-gone coliseum.
"Like giant scars marring the otherwise fair face of the plateau are these elongated tracts of bare or nearly bare black rock carved into mazes of buttes and canyons," wrote onetime Seattle school teacher and geologist J Harlen Bretz more than a half-century ago.
The story behind the pocked and fissured Columbia Plateau is one of geology's most dramatic — and controversial — tales. The man credited with explaining it is among science's most admired detectives.
The landscape itself is among the most striking on Earth.
From Grand Coulee and Dry Falls, and from Palouse Falls to Frenchman Coulee, basalt columns rise from parched grasses to tower over horseshoe-shaped canyons, some with valleys so expansive they could hide entire cities. Circular gouges in the soil form massive desert potholes — divots in the earth so large ranchers once hid cattle there from rustlers.
Single volcanic columns stand like lone sentinels amid flowering grasses. Crumbled blocks of rock lay in heaps as if tumbled by gods.
Mystified by the forces that could have exposed such massive features, Bretz set out in the early 1920s to solve the riddle. He returned with a hypothesis that was dismissed as near lunacy: in a region that sees less moisture in a year than Seattle gets in a month, Bretz concluded the entire landscape was carved by water.
Bretz, according to some reports, was quickly isolated as a crank, while his critics' theories continued to make it into textbooks. Fifty years later, Bretz was hailed as a hero, and in 1979, at age 96, given geology's highest honor — the Penrose Medal, which rewards one researcher each year for exceptional contributions to geology.
Two years later, he passed away. Lately, however, some scientists have begun to wonder if another, quieter geologist might actually have figured it out first.
The Michigan native had honeymooned in Seattle and taught at Franklin High School before becoming intrigued with lands east of the Columbia River.
He decided giant potholes could only have been carved by roiling water. But prevailing scientific wisdom suggested most land forms were created slowly, over eons, by forces still in action today.
Stubborn and unshakable in his belief that geologists belonged in the field, Bretz set about seeking a source for the carnage.
"No one with an eye for land forms can cross Eastern Washington in daylight without encountering and being impressed with the scablands," Bretz wrote. "The scablands are wounds only partially healed — great wounds in the epidermis of soil with which nature protects the underlying rock."
In papers in 1923 and at a meeting of noted geologists four years later in Washington, D.C., Bretz presented a theory of epic upheaval, claiming "huge, violent rivers of glacial melt water" must have contoured these lands. Unsure of the water's source, but certain he was right, Bretz, without the aid of photographic evidence, worked through his arguments before an unimpressed crowd.
Leading New England geologists immediately turned up their noses, dismissing an idea that eventually would reframe the pursuit of geology.
W.C. Alden, Pleistocene geology chief at the U.S. Geological Survey, told Bretz his ideas were curious "if you could only show where all the water came from in so short a time," said University of Arizona geologist Vic Baker, a Bretz authority.
Some 15 million years ago, hot magma spewed from the Earth's seams, spilling onto the surface where it coated the landscape like mud. Sometimes 90 feet or more thick, these flows took hundreds of years to cool, then harden and crack, forming densely packed hexagonal- or octagonal-shaped columns.
Eruption after eruption dumped molten rock onto hardened flows, until hundreds of distinct basalt layers wrapped the landscape in a blanket of rock more than a mile thick.
What happened next is almost too astonishing to imagine. About 12,000 or more years ago, during the last Ice Age, the toe of a massive Canadian glacier blocked a glacial lake in northwest Montana. The dam broke and spilled 520 cubic miles of water — the equivalent of lakes Erie and Ontario combined.
The rushing plume pulsed with more water than all of the world's rivers combined, screaming across the Columbia Basin at more than 60 mph. It exploded and crumbled basalt columns and ground some to sand. Torrential waterfalls etched out cliffs, and swirling currents drilled potholes.
Channeled by hills and the granite spires of the Cascades, the plume rose at times 3 feet per minute, carting off boulders of granite lodged in the ice. When the waters crashed into the Columbia River's Wallula Gap, the constriction forced the Snake River to run backward.
U.S. Geological Survey geologist Richard Waitt recently surveyed the wreckage from a perch on the rim of Frenchman Coulee — a scratch-dry, U-shaped cliff east of Vantage, Kittitas County. He was the first scientist in recent decades to show such floods likely happened over and over, as the moving glacier dammed and redammed the great Montana lake.
"It seems so obvious when you look at it," Waitt said. "Bretz looked at it again and again. His critics did not."
In 1927, many leading scientists were still studying maps — not photographs. Then came the Great Depression, World War II and gas rationing, and few East Coast-based geologists ventured west.
The other man
For 13 years, Bretz stood publicly alone, refusing even to attend other geologic society gatherings.
In 1940, at a Seattle meeting, another scientist, J.T. Pardee, finally offered a source for the floods: Ripple marks on the land proved huge amounts of water had been released from a huge Montana lake.
Later, one of Bretz's chief critics visited Palouse Falls and quipped, "How could anyone have been so wrong?" It would be decades before the last were convinced.
In years since, Bretz has been deified, said Waitt, his struggle cast "as a contest of ideas between Bretz and a platoon of diehards — an image Bretz himself promoted." He's the subject of books, his name etched on plaques.
Yet a recent review of Bretz's correspondence convinced some that Pardee may have contemplated a similar theory before Bretz's storied 1927 meeting.
In 1925, Pardee, who had discovered glacial Lake Missoula 15 years earlier, asked Bretz if he'd "considered the possibility of the sudden draining of a glacial lake. ... "
Today, it's unclear if Pardee had the idea first, but scientists suggest the two men quietly competed, and their different personalities may have helped shape history.
"I'm sure Bretz thought Pardee had the idea first," said Baker, the University of Arizona geologist. "He thought Pardee was dissuaded from presenting it because the idea was too radical."
Whatever the reason, "Pardee did not take the flak for standing up and saying this when other people clearly weren't eager to hear it," Baker said. "It was a personality thing. From what I've seen from people who knew Pardee, he was a dreadful speaker and an extremely quiet and reserved person. He wasn't an in-your-face person.
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or email@example.com