January 7, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Geology Theories Are Not Set in Stone

To be a geologist, you have to have a big imagination and always be ready to have your favorite theory overturned.

Rapid recovery: Geologists and ecologists were surprised at how rapidly a river system recovered after a dam was removed in Washington. Science Daily says the response of the ecosystem was “incredible” and “faster than some experts expected.” Christopher Tonra, ecologist at Ohio State, “watched reservoir beds that looked like moonscapes return to vibrant, rich habitat and cascades emerge where none had been, at least for the last century.” Today, songbirds sing in the trees, river dippers hunt in the waters, and salmon are well on the road to recovery—all in one generation. That must have been shocking to geologists accustomed to thinking of slow and gradual change over millions of years. “The areas previously depleted of salmon are on a fast track to recovery in a shorter time than he ever expected after the dam removal, Tonra said.” His paper was published in Biological Conservation last month.

“This was very surprising to us” (PhysOrg): A long, straight scarp in the Wabash River Valley in Illinois is being reinterpreted. Geologists had thought it was formed tectonically, by earthquakes. Instead, new evidence suggests it was gouged out by flood water released by the collapse of ice age dams holding glacial meltwater.

Along the western edge of the Wabash River Valley lies a scarp, or short cliff, about 10 to 20 feet high and running in a nearly straight line for about 6 miles. The Meadow Bank scarp runs nearly perfectly parallel to a fault zone 1 mile to the west. Geologists suspected the Meadow Bank was formed by some past seismic activity along the fault, perhaps an earthquake that caused the scarp to shear upwards.

In an effort to assess earthquake hazard, the ISGS researchers set out to probe the relationship between the fault and the scarp and instead found a deeper mystery: There was no relationship at all.

“This was very surprising to us,” said Larson. “You look at it, you see how parallel it is to the fault. We know that historically there were earthquakes in the area. It just begs to be related. But it turns out it’s not possible.”

Further investigation led to a completely different theory. The scarp was carved by a “quick, strong force – such as a flood surge from a melting glacier.” This recalls the reluctant reinterpretation of the Channeled Scablands in Washington State (see “Did Lyell Lie a Little?,” 7/25/08).

Tortoise races up the Andes (PhysOrg): A fossil turtle is upsetting a race about how fast the Andes rose. A researcher from Case Western Reserve University found the specimen at a level that he says indicates the mountains were only a kilometer or less in height 13 million years ago—a half or a third the height previously thought. Turtles of this type don’t usually live above 500 meters, he says.

The remains are the first records of fossil turtles from the Miocene epoch in Bolivia, and their presence challenges a recent isotope-based study that estimated the massive plateau, called the Altiplano, near what is now the town of Quebrada Honda, was 2 to 3.2 kilometers high at that time.

The new height limit requires speeding up the subsequent rise of the Andes to get them as tall as they are today. Additionally, the scientist says the five-foot-long tortoise, which is in the same genus as the Galapagos tortoise, indicates the climate was much wetter back then. So what evidence are geologists going to trust, the isotopes or the turtles? Being off by 200 to 300 percent is apparently OK in geological science.

Megatsunami? I’m unconvinced (National Geographic): Dallas Abbott is having a hard time convincing some of her geological colleagues that a megatsunami formed chevron-shaped features on Madagascar. She posits a meteor strike left a gaping crater near Australia that sent a huge tsunami blasting African coastlines. The water wave would have reached 300 feet, three times higher than the record tsunami that struck the Indian Ocean in 2004. Other geologists suspect megatsunamis almost three times bigger than that (885′) deposited huge boulders onto Santiago island. Their skeptics are “unconvinced” that catastrophic causes are needed. They think local sand could explain the dunes Abbott claims were washed up by the huge water waves. “In fact, none of the new results require any kind of catastrophic event or extraterrestrial intervention,” one critic says. “Just wind blowing over the beach.” Abbott counters that microfossils she says are 10,000 years old could not have survived wind transport; they would have been ground to dust. Her reaction to skeptics:

“Most of the people who are against [the megatsunami theory] are never going to be convinced no matter how much data I bring to the table. That is how it is in science.”

The four rivers flowing out of Idaho (Geology): You’re going to have to think big to swallow this theory. Geologists examined Cretaceous sandstones from Alaska to California and found a surprise: detrital zircons that are much, much older according to the standard geological timescale. How did they get there?

Upper Cretaceous sandstones from 17 localities from California to southeastern Alaska (United States) contain unexpectedly large populations of detrital zircons with Proterozoic U-Pb ages, with age peaks at 1800–1650 and 1380 Ma. These peaks are indicative of a sediment source region in the southern part of the Proterozoic Belt Supergoup basin in central Idaho, which hosts 1800–1650 Ma detrital zircons and which was intruded by rift-related 1380 Ma bimodal plutons and sills.

These zircons would have to be a billion and a half years older than the sandstones that contain them. To explain these anomalies, they propose that there were four rivers flowing out of central Idaho toward California, Washington, Wyoming and (indirectly) Alaska. They even give names to the mythical rivers: the Lemhi Pass-Hawley Creek system, the Kione River, the Swakane River, and the Yakutat River. But were those real rivers, or just rescue devices to preserve the age interpretations? Well, a geologist does what he has to do. “Recognition of a major source area in central Idaho for zircons with an uncommon age of 1380 Ma helps constrain the ca. 85–65 Ma paleogeography and paleotectonics of major sectors of the North American convergent margin orogen.”

We hope you enjoyed this episode of How Science Is Done These Days. Even in the hard-rock science of geology, it’s about story construction. Rocks don’t come with dates stamped on them. The departments of geology in the Big Science institutions require fitting everything into a slow-and-gradual, moyboy mentality. Catastrophes, they think, should be local and rare. Anything that happens fast they find “surprising.” Anyone proposing a catastrophic cause has to deal with skeptics who find the evidence unconvincing, no matter how much data they bring to the table.

This is why Genesis flood geologists have such a hard time breaking into the discussion, even though some of them are well trained in geology at the PhD level. Since the 1830s, geologists abandoned any consideration of a global flood in favor of Charlie Lyell’s preferred narrative of the slow, gradual accumulation of changes by material causes now in operation. Darwin loved that idea; it fit so well into his speculations about life without a Creator. But who could believe this new story about the four rivers out of Idaho? Are they really expecting critical thinkers to believe that mythical rivers flowed over thousands of miles in all directions, leaving zircons that somehow wound up inside of sandstones a billion and a half years younger? Talk about special pleading! Imagine the meteors, uplifts, subductions, and other changes that should have occurred in the interim.

You need a cause that can distribute these zircons over a vast area, so why not a global flood? (The dates, by the way, are questionable, as the story on the Andes indicates—isotopes contradicted the fossils). The downside of considering a global flood is that such a cause would be like a megatsunami slamming against their theories, washing away their whole geologic timetable. Since that’s too big a hit on their slow-and-gradual moyboy worldview, it’s likely they will forever remain unconvinced, no matter how much evidence creation geologists bring to the table. That is how it is in “science.”

 

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