Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Down the Rabbit Hole, part the first

It's October, which means the national meeting of the Geological Society of America (GSA) is almost here. I'll be presenting a bit of my dissertation coupled with some additional analyses I didn't have time to include with the PhD.

This years meeting is in Portland, Oregon. There were several scheduled field trips to Mount St. Helens. Having never been to an active volcano before, I figured that I was obligated to conduct my pilgrimage. I looked at two possible trips:

Field Trip #420: From Disaster to Recovery: The Hydrogeomorphic, Ecologic, and Biologic Responses to the 1980 Eruption of Mount St. Helens (cost: $75)
Leader: John Major
[abridged] Description: ...Within minutes to hours on May 18, 1980, hundreds of square kilometers of landscape were devastated by a massive debris avalanche, a directed volcanic blast, debris flows, pyroclastic flows, and extensive tephra fall...
...This field trip travels along the Toutle River valley examining the impacts of, and the hydrogeomorphic, biologic, and ecologic responses to, the 1980 eruption. We will visit engineering works designed to control downstream sediment movement, Johnston Ridge (8 km from the volcano’s crater) which bore the brunt of the directed blast, and hike a 4-km-long trail loop on the massive debris avalanche deposit.

This trip sounded interesting except for the study of the "engineering works" to mitigate the mass-wasting hazards of the volcaniclastic material. I didn't want to look at earthworks, I wanted to see the volcano and debris field. Compared to the other trip (below), I wasn't sure how much hiking we'd get to do (4 km compared to 13 km). The trip below was twenty bucks more expensive, but the description of the route sounded more interesting:

Field Trip #425: The Dynamic Landscape on the North Flank of Mount St. Helens (cost: $95)
Leader: Steven A. Austin
[abridged] Description: This six-hour hike follows a 13-kilometer-round-trip route to an extraordinary geologic location called “Breached Dam Overlook” just seven kilometers north of the crater of Mount St. Helens. The trail goes from the Johnston Ridge Observatory onto the largest landslide deposit to have accumulated during human history...
...The objectives of the trip are (1) to identify, classify and name individual landforms within the upper North Fork Toutle River landscape, (2) to relate the landforms to the sequence of events and processes that have occurred next to the volcano, and (3) to ponder questions about how the landscape at a volcano changes through time. Landforms on the debris avalanche landscape are relicts that have been impacted significantly by geomorphic processes that exceed a certain minimum energy threshold. Following the debris avalanche of May 18, 1980, the most significant event was the mudflow of March 19, 1982. That mudflow event breached the natural debris dam, caused adjustment within the drainage basin, and derived the present landscape. Now that the power of geomorphic processes has diminished, finer sediment is what is being moved. Channels are incised and armored with coarser clasts, and valleys are now plugging with sediment. Johnston Ridge Observatory on the west side of Mount St. Helens Volcano National Monument is the staging area this roundtrip hike.

The trip objectives: classifying/naming individual landforms, relating landforms to events, and "pondering questions" about landscape change over time sounded a little "fluffy." However, the hike description sounded more interesting and I felt this would get closer to the volcano itself. Therefore, I paid my registration fee and quickly turned my attention to other needs, like teaching and manuscript preparation.


A few days ago, I was preparing my itinerary. I was curious exactly where the "Breeched Dam Overlook" was, so I googled that phrase, which pulled up a link to a post several months ago by another geoblogger. So, the trip was being run by Dr. Steven Austin, a Young-Earth Creationist (YEC), with a dubious, published record of very poor science. Did I mention a lack of rigor?

Apparently I did not perform my "due diligence" in teasing out the motives behind the trip. Further research showed that the other listed leader, Dr. Timothy Clary. A search of his course objectives at Delta College (MI) turned up nothing out of the ordinary, save for somewhat "old-fashioned" syllabus objectives. A few google links lower yielded an article published by the Institute of Creation Research - never a good sign. I'll save analysis of his writing for a later post. Suffice to say, I was a bit dismayed that I had signed up for a trip that would, no doubt, be used as a stalking horse for YEC claims. That GSA would allow a trip like this was a little surprising, but the trip description was straightforward enough that I don't think the field trip committee would have found anything to object to. Dr. Clary has also published a few abstracts at GSA meetings (I've read a few, and while they focus largely on observations and do not discuss an old earth or evolution, they also do not deny these facts).

The form and weather note emailed to the field trip attendees also lists Dr. Kurt Wise, Dr. John Whitmore, and Dennis Bokovoy as assistants. A quick search of these individuals produced a consistent body of "work" designed to support a "Young-Earth" and Noachian Flood cause for the Grand Canyon. The plot thickens (thins?). This is also the point in the story where the reader, well-versed in the sophistry of YEC's, can envision the motives and sequence of events during and after the field trip.

The language of the field trip description is also easier to parse in this light. Particularly interesting is the line
ponder questions about how the landscape at a volcano changes through time

What I first took for flowery language appears to be a "set-up" to invite a discussion regarding the rapid landscape evolution of St. Helens. This "discussion" may have a foundation based on first principles of landscape geology, but also provide the YEC folks additional methods of arguing for a flood origin for the Grand Canyon.

And this line:
Landforms on the debris avalanche landscape are relicts that have been impacted significantly by geomorphic processes that exceed a certain minimum energy threshold.

Is curious - vague enough to be completely useless from a scientific standpoint, but very helpful for YEC sophistry.

I have no idea what they mean by "minimum energy threshold," but I suspect that it is intended to further detail some aspect of catastrophism being required and fully capable of dramatically changing the landscape (such as the Grand Canyon) in a short (i.e. 40 day flood) time frame. Note also the comments about "diminishing energy" and transportation of fines. Likely another mis-application of hydrodynamic sorting to support a single, global flood event.

I do not know who else has signed up for the trip. It may be filled with geologists far more clever than I at sussing the motives of the trip leaders, or it may be largely filled with people sympathetic to YEC claims. Either way, what I first thought was a trip to see a volcano and learn about the eruption and landscape processes has evolved into a trip to see a volcano and observe a YEC at work.

I will provide a thorough account of the trip this weekend. In the meantime, my regular readers (both of you), I will provide a little more background in the next few days.

Update: See the latest post regarding some thoughts about the trip and YEC.

Update2: Here's the latest preview.

Update3: Flash-forward to part four.

Update4: A brief discussion about young-Earthism at GSA


  1. Ooooh. Very curious to hear how it goes. We'll expect a full report at the pub on Monday night!

  2. If you're interested, here are some links to information on YEC claims regarding erosion at Mt. St. Helens v. the Grand Canyon:

    TalkOrigins: a brief summary of the YEC position and responses

    The Austin's article on "Mt. St. Helens and Catastrophism" from the ICR website: