May 18, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Mt. St. Helens Recalls Overturned Paradigms

Thirty years ago this day, May 18, 1980, Mt. St. Helens blew up. The catastrophic eruption not only shocked the area around the mountain, it shocked scientists into a new realization of the power of catastrophist geology. The excitement of that eruption prompted a surge of young new geologists to enter the profession. One thing that is instructive on this anniversary is the difference in focus between creationists and evolutionists on the lessons of Mt. St. Helens.

Live Science provided the most coverage of the anniversary. For starters, Live Science posted a series of satellite images showing the vicinity of the mountain before and after the eruption, and how it looks now, 30 years later. The amount of vegetation that has recolonized the ground is striking. Live Science also provided an image gallery of pictures before and after the eruption. The first image shows the picturesque symmetrical cone of the mountain from Spirit Lake before the event; all that changed suddenly the morning of May 18, as the remaining pictures show. National Geographic soon followed with its own gallery; the first two photos are worth the price of admission. Karen Rowan answered the question “Why was Mt. St. Helens so destructive?” in another Live Science post.

Log mat in Spirit Lake as of 2012, Mt. St. Helens. Mt. Adams in distance.

Log mat in Spirit Lake as of 2012, Mt. St. Helens. Mt. Adams in distance.

Considering the ecological effects of the event, Andrea Thompson on Live Science provided a fairly lengthy inventory of the plants and animals in the blast zone with a record of how they have fared since the eruption. Jeremy Hsu wrote for Live Science that Mt. St. Helens remains a mystery still today. Finally, Remy Melina listed for Live Science the most dangerous U.S. volcanoes today.

Those acquainted with creation geology literature are undoubtedly familiar with the fact that Mt. St. Helens has become almost iconic of catastrophism as a support for rapid change during creation and the Flood. The work of geologist Dr. Stephen A. Austin in particular has had a large influence in creationist circles. Dr. Austin visited the mountain numerous times after the eruption, and even took a team scuba-diving in Spirit Lake to study the effects of waterlogged trees sinking in the peat sediments at the bottom. Some of the lessons from Mt. St. Helens for catastrophic flood geology were summarized in his 1986 monograph, “Mt. St. Helens and Catastrophism,” published by ICR. He also produced a video (see short clip on YouTube) and additional writings in creation journals.  His findings include:

  1. A mudflow produced a 1/40th scale model of the Grand Canyon in one day.
  2. This canyon included a relict river that obviously had not formed the canyon.
  3. The canyon included side canyons and other features similar to those of the Grand Canyon.
  4. Pyroclastic flows produced laminated sedimentary deposits in hours, not centuries or millennia.
  5. The sedimentary deposits showed sudden shifts in bedforms caused by flow rates and source materials, not by long ages.
  6. Badlands topography along the Toutle River was formed in days, not thousands of years.
  7. Logs uprooted by the blast were being planted in upright positions at the bottom of Spirit Lake, giving the appearance they had grown in that position.  This was reminiscent of the Yellowstone fossil forests.
  8. A layer of peat buried in Spirit Lake has the texture and appearance of a coal deposit forming.

Hikers explore a “mini-Grand Canyon” carved through solid rock within hours by a mudflow. Photos by David Coppedge.

Discoveries of this magnitude would seem to be paradigm-shifting to the whole field of geology – and indeed they may have been even in some secular circles. It’s not that his work can be dismissed outright, either, just because Austin is a creationist. He has a PhD in geology from a reputable institution, and his field work at the mountain was of the first order. But strangely, Nature News mentioned none of these things. Janet Fang wrote in her article, “Hot science from a volcanic crisis,” that “The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 left an indelible mark on the field of volcanology.” Indeed it did, but her focus was entirely on other lessons. She noted that volcanologists around the world stood up and took notice on May 18, 1980, and after the blast, there was an explosion in funding and a surge in research. Fang mentioned findings about predicting eruptions. She mentioned a new kind of hummocky deposit that was observed after the blast that shed light on similar deposits in Japan. She mentioned new theories about how magma rises to the surface through conduits, and new realizations of the power of landslides and lateral blasts during eruptions. But she said nothing about any of the points that Steve Austin found so interesting about Mt. St. Helens. Neither did the writers for Live Science or National Geographic.  Were they even looking at the same mountain?

For Austin’s latest views on the lessons from the blast, see his article this month on ICR, “Supervolcanoes and the Mount St. Helens Eruption.”  Creation Wiki has a response to criticisms of his claim about the “mini-Grand Canyon” at the volcano, with additional images of the canyon.

The complete silence about Steven Austin’s research at Mt. St. Helens by the secular media is stunning. Is it because his credentials are lacking? No; he has a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. Is it because his field work was unexceptional? No; he was the only one to don scuba gear and dive to the bottom of Spirit Lake, and use sonar to map the lake bottom. Is it because his findings with the canyons and stratification lacked significance? No; they were revolutionary and explanatorily rich. They have been well received in creationist audiences around the world, but completely passed over by the secular journals, although Austin has a number of colleagues in the Geological Society of America that have taken interest in his work and spoken well of it. So much of this phenomenon is political. If you are an overt creationist, as Austin is, it doesn’t matter how good your credentials and field work are. You will be shunned by The Guild, but welcomed by millions of people who appreciate honest science that is willing to criticize Darwin and Lyell.

Your commentator remembers visiting Yellowstone in the 1970s and early 1980s and seeing the interpretive signs at the Lamar River fossil forests. They spoke of 27 layers of forests that grew on top of one another over at least 20 thousand years. According to some estimates, it took 50 thousand years, maybe 100 thousand for each layer to develop: a soil to form, small plants to invade, trees to grow, a mature forest to develop, then a volcanic eruption to bury the forest and the cycle to repeat again. Large sequoia stumps are visible in some of the layers. The standard scientific interpretation was that here was clear evidence of a long passage of a time–much longer than the book of Genesis could allow. You recall that it was this evidence that caused young Ronald Numbers in college to stumble and lose his creationist beliefs (01/12/2007). Theistic evolutionists also used the Yellowstone fossil forests to mock the young-earth creationists and insist there was no way to fit earth history into a six-day creation. Look: the evidence was right there – tens of thousands of years to form those 27 layers of forests.

Your commentator also remembers re-visiting Yellowstone in 1994 and finding those interpretive signs gone. Puzzled, he asked three different park rangers about them. “Oh, we don’t believe that any more,” was the typical response. “Ever since Mt. St. Helens, we’ve come to believe that lava flows rafted the trees in from some distance away.” Then, your commentator picked up a book in the visitor center, Roadside Geology of the Yellowstone Country by William J. Fritz (Mountain Press, 1985). Sure enough, he said the same thing:

When I visited the Mount St. Helens area shortly after the eruption, it was just like Yellowstone! I found many horizontal logs all lined up by the streams and mudflows and some upright stumps that had been moved by the flows propped upon the stubs of their roots. I found that about 10 percent of the transported trees remain as upright stumps, the rest as horizontal logs. The mudflows also buried many standing trees where they grew along the edges of stream channels. Thus, in Yellowstone when you find concentrations of over 10 percent upright stumps, some were preserved where they grew alongside stream channels. A few million years from now when the Mount St. Helens sediments have hardened into rock and the trees have petrified they will be almost like those in the Yellowstone Country. Both the mudflows and the appearance of the trees is identical.

Current sign at Yellowstone's Petrified Tree exhibit (9/06/15)

Newer sign at Yellowstone’s Petrified Tree exhibit (9/06/15) has Mt. St. Helens debris as a backdrop.

Aside from the fact that Dr. Fritz just made some reckless drafts on the bank of time, and that petrification does not require millions of years (01/24/2005), he recognized that a paradigm shift occurred – the Yellowstone fossil forests did not require successive ages. A catastrophic event is a better explanation. Now we have eyewitness observations to show how. You can hike the trails up into the Lamar forests and find both upright and horizontal logs that are analogous to what were seen at Mt. St. Helens.  The stumps have their roots sheared off, and no evidence that they grew in soils. A good analysis of the evidence can be found in geologist Harold Coffin’s book Origin by Design (Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1983), ch. 11. The theistic evolutionists were wrong; you can fit the evidence at Yellowstone in to a lot less time than the secular geologists claimed. Does it prove a Biblical time frame? No, but it doesn’t rule it out, either. Ron Numbers lost his faith over bad science, and 30 years after Mt. St. Helens, the secular geological community have turned a blind eye to some of the most exciting lessons from the famous eruption.

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