March 5, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Grand Canyon: How Do You Get a River Over a Mountain?

One would think that the Grand Canyon, one of earth’s most prominent geological features, studied by geologists for 140 years, would be well understood.  Wrong.  “The Colorado River’s integration off the Colorado Plateau remains a classic mystery in geology, despite its pivotal role in the cutting of Grand Canyon and the region’s landscape evolution.”  That’s how Joel Pederson (Utah State) began the cover article in GSA Today this month,1 a bimonthly journal of the Geological Society of America.  The mystery he investigated is how the Colorado River ran over a mountain: the Kaibab uplift.
    The Kaibab uplift is the broad southern end of the Colorado Plateau through which the Grand Canyon has been carved.  Rivers do not normally flow uphill.  The upper Colorado River, roaring from Rocky Mountain snow melt, faces this obstacle; yet here the Grand Canyon cuts right into the plateau at a steep monocline that extends north-south through Utah, and manages to run westward through the high province till emerging from the Grand Wash Cliffs at the west edge of the plateau.  There, at modern Lake Mead, the river suddenly enters the Basin and Range province of Nevada.  It flows onward to the southwest, emerging at the Gulf of California (a nice tour to take in Google Earth).
    Of the many theories to explain this phenomenon since John Wesley Powell ran the river for the first time in the 1870s, three have survived.  (Powell’s own idea that the river cut downward as the plateau raised upward did not last long, because of dating discrepancies: the plateau was thought to rise much earlier than the river.)  If there had been an antecedent river, where is the huge delta that should have formed at its terminus?  His own study showed that the Muddy Creek Formation (Google Earth, 36°42’45” N, 114°19’40” W) looks more like drainage from the ancestral Virgin River, not the Colorado.  If the early river had exited through the Little Colorado, why is there no evidence at that location?  The least-likely explanation had been the “precocious gully” theory of Charlie Hunt.  Beginning in 1956, Hunt imagined a southwestern river cutting headward into the plateau and joining up with the ancestral Colorado river.  “Hunt’s hypothesis (b), that the river arrived in the central-western Grand Canyon area and simply infiltrated and terminated, never gained traction—and was not well loved even by Hunt himself,” Pederson said.
    Surprisingly, that is exactly the theory Pederson tries to resurrect in this paper.  It’s not so much that it is a good hypothesis; it is just the best of the worst.  His last sentence makes that clear: “For now, Hunt’s dissipation and infiltration hypothesis is the last one left standing against the geologic evidence in the region.”  Pederson knows the problems with Hunt’s theory: “How could the head of a single drainage along a desert escarpment have the necessary stream power or mass-movement activity to erode headward and shift its divide hundreds of kilometers, when none of its neighbors could lengthen measurably at all?”  He tried to dress it up by suggesting that karst topography in the plateau (underground rivers and springs) made it easier for the precocious gully to work its way uphill, but his conclusion did not make it sound like he felt confident about it.
    Much of Pederson’s predicament seems to come from two factors: (1) dates for formations based on the standard geological column, and (2) processes assumed to be slow and gradual.  He did not reference Karlstrom’s paper in the November issue that came to a surprising conclusion (11/30/2007): the Grand Canyon is much younger than previously thought.  He also completely ignored the work of creationist geologists who have proposed catastrophic formation models for the canyon.
Update 03/07/2008: No sooner had this article gone to press when Science published a paper claiming the Grand Canyon is old again.2  Radiometric dates of cave formations in the Redwall limestone led a team to propose a new date of 16-20 million years, rather than 5-6 million as lately believed.  They also held to the precocious gully theory, “a fully integrated Colorado River that accelerated the headward erosion of the eastern Grand Canyon.”  They admitted, though, that “our interpretation assumes no structural or hydrologic complexities” – just a framework for dating the canyon.
    Tim Atkinson and Mike Leeder, in the same issue of Science,3 triumphantly announced that since Hutton’s first conception of “the immensity of geologic time” in 1788, “we now understand Earth’s sedimentary history in remarkable detail.”  They claim this new paper demonstrates the older age firmly for the first time.  It required, however, juggling incision rates with plateau erosion rates and tectonic uplift rates.  The authors noted a number of inconsistencies in their data.  They appealed to ad-hoc processes to explain them and hoped for answers in the future: e.g., “Structure, hydrology, or headward erosion history … might resolve these differences when additional data are available.”  Their method only offered “potential for a reconstruction of the canyon’s history” with all its complexities.  It seems presumptuous, therefore, for Atkinson and Leeder to say older age has been firmly demonstrated.
    Whether incision rates can be extrapolated backward in time depends on one’s assumptions  At Mt. St. Helens, for instance, a remnant stream flows through the bottom of a canyon system resembling Grand Canyon on a 1/40 scale.  A casual observer in 2008 might think the stream carved the canyon.  We know in this case, however, that the stream neither cut the canyon nor deposited the sediments.  Observers in 1980-81 watched the layers deposited catastrophically during three explosive episodes.  Later, the entire canyon system was carved in one day through the layers when a mudflow spilled out of the crater.

1.  Joel L. Pederson, “The mystery of the pre-Grand Canyon Colorado River—Results from the Muddy Creek Formation,” GSA Today Vol 18, Issue 3 (March 2008), pp. 4-10.
2.  Polyak, Hill and Asmerom, “Age and Evolution of the Grand Canyon Revealed by U-Pb Dating of Water Table-Type Speleothems,” Science, 7 March 2008: Vol. 319. no. 5868, pp. 1377-1380, DOI: 10.1126/science.1151248.
3.  Tim Atkinson and Mike Leeder, “Canyon Cutting on a Grand Time Scale,” Science, 7 March 2008: Vol. 319. no. 5868, pp. 1343-1344, DOI: 10.1126/science.1155286.

The lesson of J Harlen Bretz has not been learned by the secular anti-creationist, uniformitarian geological community represented by the GSA.  Bretz was ridiculed and ignored for nearly 50 years when he proposed a catastrophic origin for the Channeled Scablands of east Washington (see quote, top right of this page).  Fortunately for him, he was eventually vindicated.
    The secular geologists are trapped in their old-age, uniformitarian box and cannot think outside it.  What if that is where the solutions are?  Creationist geologists and scientists like Walt Brown and Steve Austin have done extensive work, both hands-on field work and mathematical modeling, showing how the Grand Canyon can be explained by a catastrophic dam-breach event from impounded lakes northeast of the canyon that remained after the Flood.  These models explain why the river cut through the Colorado Plateau but left no delta in Nevada (most of the erosional load went all the way to California and the ocean).  They explain many details of the canyon’s structure, such as the vast sheet erosion of sediments above the canyon with its remnants at Cedar Mountain and Red Butte (for an excellent short article on this topic, see Bill Hoesch’s March entry in ICR’s ’s Acts and Facts newsletter).  Brown first suggested the dam breach theory and has traveled throughout Arizona and Utah, finding firsthand evidence for a vast upstream lake system that could have cut the entire canyon (just like the Scablands flood), in a matter of days.  Austin found a 1/40th scale model canyon system that formed at Mt. St. Helens when a mudflow breached a dam.  There is both a large-scale, real-time exemplar for the catastrophist model and a good deal of on-site fieldwork throughout the Colorado Plateau to support it.  (Incidentally, Austin, PhD in geology from Penn State, discusses the “precocious gully” theory and the other gradualist theories in his richly-informed book, Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe.)
    The secular geologists completely ignore all this.  It’s not that Pederson and the GSA crowd are smarter or more knowledgeable about geology and science in general than the creationists.  They are a clique.  When the science of geology was young, the majority of influential persons, who were theologically liberal and philosophically progressivist in outlook, made a decision: they would not consider the Bible as a historical source.  They would go the route of Comte du Buffon and James Hutton and would trust their own opinions within a paradigm of vast ages of time.  This decision was cemented in the 1830s.  Prior to any examination of evidence, and in spite of evidence for youth and catastrophism, this was the paradigm into which all evidence would be molded.  The trend was strongly denounced by a vocal minority of “scriptural geologists” some of whom were highly learned and knowledgeable (documented in Terry Mortenson’s book, The Great Turning Point), but the progressivists won the day.  Their views fed perfectly into Charles Darwin’s gradualist, progressivist views.
    The secular geological crowd has clung to their paradigm with a vengeance ever since.  And we mean vengeance.  J Harlen Bretz got a taste of it, but he didn’t propose a young earth or suggest that the Bible might contain some trustworthy historical records that could inform geology.  Try that point of view and you will not believe the denunciations and ostracism you will get – even though the father of geology, Nicolas Steno, was a creationist.
    So we are left with a steep divide in geology – a grand canyon – between two paradigms.  The majority secularists, possessing most of the prestige and money, are scratching their heads over the most prominent geological feature on earth with only a best-of-the-worst explanation for it (see 09/16/2005, for instance).  On the other hand, the creationist geologists feel very confident they have a reasonable catastrophic model for the Grand Canyon that fits the evidence from all angles.  The secular crowd completely ignores them.  If Pederson had referenced Steve Austin’s Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe or Walt Brown’s In the Beginning, or even mentioned these with intent to refute them, it would have been a one-way ticket to GSA Purgatory.  Before the evidence and arguments would have even been considered on their merits, Pederson would have been condemned, ostracized, marginalized and disfellowshiped for life for even bringing heretics into the discussion.  One could imagine the same reaction occurring even if Pederson had “independently” proposed a Bretz-like dam-breach theory, without any theological baggage at all.  This would certainly be possible.  The dam-breach theory stands entirely on well-known physical processes.  It contains no necessary links to the Biblical Flood (other than that the Flood is the most reasonable explanation for the vast inland lakes and for the strata themselves).  No matter.  Sounding too much like a creationist is reason enough for condemnation.  The creation geologists, by contrast, freely examine and reference the GSA literature in addition to their own field work and have no hesitation going to GSA meetings (when they can) and discussing their views.
    If you think modern geology is done by an unbiased, neutral, open-minded community that will cheerfully follow the evidence wherever it leads, get over it.  If you think geological theories distil the best thinking from all quarters, get a life.  (Check out this list of examples of suppression of new ideas and innovation by scientists and self-proclaimed experts.)  Many individual geologists are honest people doing the best work they can within their paradigm.  By honest, we mean that they are not intentionally lying, but they are so brainwashed to think only in terms of the Standard Geological Column and all of its reified evolution-based dating schemes that alternative points of view never enter their thinking.  With few exceptions, they have been trained like Pavlov’s dogs to bark “religious fundamentalist alert!” when a creationist appears on the scene.  Some GSA types are brave enough to be mavericks, within limits; but this is like moving away from the crowd inside a corner of the box – never thinking outside of it.
    How about an outside-the-box look at the evidence with your own eyes?  Creation Safaris leads 3-day rafting trips down the Grand Canyon in conjunction with Canyon Ministries.  On these fun and educational adventures, you can witness huge features that make perfect sense in terms of a global flood and catastrophic formation of the canyon – features that present major problems for slow, gradualistic theories.  This year’s trip is sold out, unfortunately, but you can send a message to the Feedback line to tell us you are interested in a future opportunity.

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