September 16, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Grand Canyon Still an Unsolved Puzzle

Arguably the best-known geological landmark on the planet, Grand Canyon has been scrutinized and “geologized” for well over a century, yet remains an enigma, according to the title of a new book by James Lawrence Powell, Grand Canyon: Solving Earth’s Grandest Puzzle (Pi Press, 2005).  The book was reviewed by John C. Schmidt (Utah State) in Science.1  Powell (same surname, interestingly, as the famous John Wesley Powell whose intrepid band of explorers made the first boat trip through the canyon in 1869) is a geologist now directing the National Physical Science Consortium.
    Overall, Schmidt liked the book and its historical glimpses: “While Darwin was developing his explanation of evolution, geologists were debunking the notion that a Great Flood formed Earth’s topography a few thousand years ago” (emphasis added in all quotes).  Yet despite his optimism, Schmidt’s review sounds only a weak overtone of confidence above a fundamental tone of uncertainty regarding geological theories and their volatility.  Some examples:

  • Depending on what guide book we read or what ranger talk we listen to, we might learn that the Colorado River is perhaps 30 million years old…
  • The author moves on to describe the observations of later generations of geologists, including the observations and reasoning that completely revised the early explanations of how the Grand Canyon formed.
  • The evidence is scattered and incompletely preserved, and geologists today are still unclear about details of the Colorado River’s development.  But these gaps are relatively minor—a few million years of missing evidence here or there…
  • He also offers readers a taste of modern speculation and the uncertainties surrounding these generally accepted notions.
  • Until a time machine is invented, we will never know for sure how the Grand Canyon formed.  Nonetheless, we do know that the rocks forming the canyon walls are of immense age and that the cliffs and slopes exposing those rocks are features of the last instants of their history.

Despite these uncertainties, Schmidt took a swipe at those who disagree with these “generally accepted notions.”  He ended,

In telling the Canyon’s story, Powell provides an honest and open description of geological detective work and the rethinking of ideas.  At a time when the National Park Service sells a book describing a creationist explanation of the Grand Canyon’s formation little different than the ideas from which modern geology emerged more than 150 years ago, the book reminds us of the timeless contrast between the methods of modern natural science and the power of myth.


1John C. Schmidt, “The Grand Question,” Science, Vol 309, Issue 5742, 1818-1819, 16 September 2005, [DOI: 10.1126/science.1116363].

The book to which he refers as “myth” is, of course, Tom Vail’s Grand Canyon: A Different View that became the center of controversy when geologists found it in the bookstores and tried to censor it (see 01/08/2004 and 10/14/2005 entries).  This attractive book, filled with beautiful photographs, also contains entries by 15 PhD scientists, many of them geologists, who disagree with the “generally accepted notions.”  With a sweep of the hand, Schmidt dismissed their opinions as “myth” while assuming all the paradigm shifts and uncertainties of modern geology constitute “science” – even though he confessed that, without a time machine, we could never know for sure how the canyon formed.  There are many good reasons, however, for doubting the “immense age” of the canyon walls and the canyon itself.  Here is a short, but not exhaustive, review:

  • Gaps: The gaps are much larger than Schmidt admits; one gap is 10 million, another 60 million, and another 100 million.  Above the Great Unconformity is a gap of over a billion years, with no soil between it and the overlying sedimentary layers.  These gaps give no evidence of large passages of time between the one below and the one above, suggesting the gaps are fictional: no long ages did elapse.  The ages claimed for the layers come not from the onsite observations, but from the a priori belief that they must be fitted into a pre-existing construct, a model constructed and later Darwinized in England: the Geologic Column.
  • Flat contacts: The contacts between many layers are knife-edge thin and straight for hundreds of square miles, with no evidence of erosion between.
  • Flat layers: The “generally accepted notions” expect us to believe that the Colorado Plateau rose and sank above and below sea level repeatedly, yet kept the layers flat and undisturbed, a preposterous notion.
  • Gravity: The Grand Canyon traverses the Kaibab Plateau, a mile higher in elevation than the river upstream.  Clearly, rivers do not flow over mountains.  Something caused the canyon to scour through this region after a catastrophic period of sheet erosion and rapid downcutting.
  • Source of material: secular geologists don’t know where all the sedimentary material came from.  Some have speculated that it was transported somehow over long distances, from as far as Appalachia (09/15/2003).  On the other hand, a flood could have scoured and pulverized great quantities of lime mud and sand, and deposited it rapidly underwater.  The characteristic layers could represent material brought in from different directions as the currents changed.  (This could also imply that the similarities to Appalachian sediments indicate that similar processes were occurring there also).
  • No evolution: Squirrels on the north rim are subspecies of those on the south rim, with smooth gradations of varieties in between (CRS).  They differ mainly in fur color.  If these species were geographically isolated for at least five million years, why did they not evolve further apart?  In that same length of time, evolutionists claim that humans evolved from ape-like ancestors.
  • No evolution II: Investigations of organisms inhabiting the forests of Shiva Temple, a forested butte isolated from the north rim, found no differences between species on the rim, even though they, too, should have been geographically isolated for millions of years.  (CRS.)
  • Downstream: no large river-delta deposits can be found downstream that would be expected if the Colorado River carved the canyon over a long time.
  • Upstream: large basins that could have held enough water to carve the canyon by a dam breach can be discerned upstream.  Also, portions of the canyon (Marble Canyon, inner gorge) are convincing secular geologists that it was carved quickly (see 07/22/2002) entry).
  • Tectonics: faults intersect the canyon all the way from top to bottom at multiple points, but not part way up.  This indicates the layers were deposited rapidly, then faulted together as units.
  • Folding: The layers fold together as if they were still soft and unconsolidated at the time.  Some folds, such as in Carbon Canyon, show more than 90° fold with no evidence of cracking or crumbling.
  • Volcanos: Volcanic dikes and cones poke up through all the layers from bottom to top, but not part way up, casting doubt that millions of years transpired during sedimentation.
  • Fluting: The inner gorge rocks are only fluted at river level, indicating the river has not been cutting downward through the igneous rocks for long.
  • Sheet erosion: Vast quantities of rock above the canyon were swept away by sheet erosion before the canyon itself was carved.  Evidence for this can be seen at Cedar Mountain and other buttes which protrude above the canyon, displaying remnants of the thousands of vertical feet of sediments that had been swept away before the downcutting of the canyon began.
  • Sand Dunes, Not: The Coconino Sandstone, long claimed to be sand dunes turned to rock, are too fine-grained to be aeolian (wind-blown) sands, and cover too a vast an area (much of the Southwest: 100,000 square miles, with a volume 10,000 cubic miles) for this scenario to be plausible.  The crossbedding could have been laid down as sand waves by deep ocean currents.  The fossil trackways could have been made in shallow water and would have had to be buried suddenly to be preserved.  All other layers in the canyon are indisputably water-deposited.  To believe the Coconino was wind-deposited, the entire region would have had to be lifted above sea level without cracking or folding, yet the contact with the water-deposited Hermit Shale below it is flat and smooth.  This indicates that deposition of the Coconino in the Grand Canyon began immediately after the Hermit formation, without 10 million years between them.
  • Monsoons: a type of 3-D crossbedding called hummocky cross-stratification, visible in numerous places in the canyon, gives evidence of gigantic cyclonic storms on scales larger than anything observed today.
  • Sapping: The Redwall shows evidence of sapping (rock fall occasioned by springs weakening the rock above).  The large amphitheater-shaped alcoves characteristic of the Redwall suggest that the layers were still soft and unconsolidated and impregnated with water when they formed.
  • Dam Break Redux: Large lava dams that formed in the lower canyon are known to have backed up the Colorado River into a huge lake since the canyon formed, yet broke and catastrophically drained quickly, perhaps multiple times.  Why not suggest the same mechanism for formation of the canyon itself?  In recent years, this idea – first proposed by creationists – has become popular among secular geologists (05/31/2002).  Why have they not given the creationists credit?
  • Lava Dates: Radioactive dates from the lowest lavas in the canyon (underneath all the sedimentary layers) show up “younger” than those on the top at Vulcan’s Throne, indicating that radioactive dating methods that yield millions of years cannot be trusted.  Another falsification is that different radiometric methods applied within the same formation yield widely divergent dates.  In addition, carbon-14 has been found in coal seams around the Grand Canyon.  Since the half-life of carbon-14 is 5,700 years, none should remain if the coal were really millions of years old, as claimed.
  • (For more detail on these evidences, see Tom Vail’s book, ICR’s Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe, and Walt Brown’s analysis.)

You will notice that this list contains only scientific evidences – no references to the Genesis Flood.  Any similarities with the Flood account have nothing to do with the point that the observational evidences suggest a very different story than the “generally accepted notions” of modern (i.e., secular, Bible-discrediting) geology.  Science is not supposed to consist of “generally accepted notions” (see 12/27/2003 entry), nor indeed “notions” at all, but rather proofs rigorously demonstrated based on observation and experiment.  Based on the observations listed above, it would seem more scientifically justifiable to place upper limits on the age of the canyon and its walls than to extrapolate today’s slow processes recklessly into the past by many orders of magnitude, and to introduce ad hoc scenarios when the story doesn’t fit the observations.
    Schmidt arrogantly applied the word myth to the creationist view, but what is the “power of myth,” if not speculating about unobservable millions of years that left no trace?  If it were not that the creationist interpretation discredits uniformitarianism and hurts the feelings of the moyboys*, most of the other books in the Grand Canyon bookstore would similarly be following the evidence where it leads.
*Moyboys, n. pl.: secular scientists who toss around the phrases “millions of years, billions of years” with reckless abandon, simply because Charlie & Charlie** needed the time.
**Lyell, Darwin.

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