Washington’s Channeled Scablands: A talk by author John Soennichsen and then some musings on lichen and climate change adaptation

There are few things in this world that can explain, in brief and simple terms, concepts that have broad implications. Lichens are one that I’ve found, and another is the Ice Age Floods that carved out the landscape of the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge and much of Eastern Washington. Just as the lichen symbiosis can teach us that cooperation (not competition) is key for survival, the cataclysmic floods that created the awesome channeled scablands show us that our world can be drastically altered within just days due to relatively gradual changes in climate. (Note: Check out this blog in a couple weeks for my post about climate change in this region and how lichen can help us adapt).

Palouse River, looking south from Palouse Falls. Photo by Joe Miles, 2012.

Yes, the grand coulĂ©es, the prairie potholes, ripple marks, and giant fields of granite boulders of the inland northwest were created in a just a few short days, and only 18,000 years ago. A massive lake that was larger than Lake Erie and Lake Ontario combined had grown behind a huge ice dam that was half a mile high and over 23 miles long. And then one day the ice dam exploded. And a huge torrent of water ripped through the thick basalt bedrock that covered this once flat land. The topsoil was carried all the way out to the Willamette Valley in western Oregon. The water cut shears in the basalt creating cliffs that are in some cases more than 400 feet high and gouged deep shoreless waterways. This cataclysmic event formed what is considered the largest waterfall on earth – now called Dry Falls since no water flows through here anymore. The flood waters also created deep potholes, including Devils Well which extends all the way through the basalt. And the basalt here is deep, formed by fissures through which liquid basalt oozed over the landscape. Such deep potholes are not seen at the bottom of any large river known today. And the impacts of the flood cover an entire 2,000 square mile region: from the seemingly desert landscape of Eastern Washington that is oddly peppered with lush wetlands to the totally arid sagebrush steppe of central Washington.

The National Geological Ice Age Floods Trail. Map courtesy of the Ice Age Floods Institute.

This landscape is globally unique, but rather unknown and quite under-appreciated. But things are changing quickly these days. In 2009, the U.S. Congress gave authorization for the Ice Age Floods Trail, the first national geological trail, NOVA’s recently released documentary is bringing riveting cinematography of the area to international viewers (see embedded video below), and author John Soennichsen released last month his second book about the Ice Age Floods.

John Soennichsen, author of "Bretz's Flood" and "Washington's Channeled Scablands" giving talk at Eastern Washington University, April 26, 2012

In a talk Thursday night at Eastern Washington University, Soennichsen kicked off a major push by the Cheney chapter of the Ice Age Floods Institute to bring the floods and the awesome regional landscape further into the public dialogue. He is the author of Bretz’s Flood: The Remarkable Story of a Rebel Geologist and the World’s Greatest Flood (Sasquatch Books, 2008), five other books, and over 300 magazine articles. Last month his latest book went into print: Washington’s Channeled Scablands Guide (Mountaineers Books, 2012).

Soennichsen is the leading expert on the history of J. Harlen Bretz. He recounted that in 1923, when Bretz introduced the idea of a cataclysmic flood carving out the scablands, he was shunned like a scientific heretic. Geologists at the time were under the firm conviction of uniformitarianism: that all the major landscape features around us – the mountains, river valleys, plains — were created by gradual processes that take millenia, not quick processes reminiscent of those told in the biblical Genesis.

Dry Falls, 350ft tall remains of a waterfall with cliffs 3 miles wide. Photo courtesy of USGS.

Although Bretz was not supposing that God had created the massive flood, he didn’t know the source of the massive load of water that tore up the landscape, and thus Bretz’s idea was further shunned. But, as the years went by, geologists continued to explore the area and increasing amounts of evidence built for Bretz’s hypothesis. The sheared cliffs and other features showed that ancient rivers such as the Columbia could have not cut such formations in a gradual manner, nor could they have made the massive potholes and ripple marks found isolated in the arid badlands. And glaciers did not extend into the scablands, so glacial forces were ruled out. And the evidence of an ancient giant lake incompassing the city of Missoula, and much of Western Montana gave the source of the giant flood. In the 1950′s, a geologist who was out in the field in E. Washington doing surveys for the Columbia Water Project, sent a telegram to Bretz that said “we are now all catastrophics.” After 40 years Bretz’s theory was finally gaining validation. And today the only controversy that remains is the question of how many floods actually occurred – for the evidence supports that there was not just one flood, but repeated flood events of large magnitude.

Shoreline marks in the hills above Missoula, Montana. Photo courtesy of the USGS.

The floods are estimated to have occurred around 18,000-20,000 years ago, during the end of the Pleistocene era as the Earth was warming, and glaciers melting. And this is where the lessons for us, in our age of climate change. Whether or not you agree that industrial civilization has caused climate change, the evidence that our Earth’s climate is changing rapidly is abundant. And the Ice Age Floods that created our landscape show us the drastic effects that global warming can have.

Bitterroot Mountains and Lake Pend Oreille, where the ice dam broke. Photo courtesy of USGS.

A lot of folks, my grandma included, tell me, “I’m not worried about climate change, I won’t be here to see the effects.” Most folks are certain that the changes will be gradual. Coastal shorelines will gradually move inland, and we humans will gradually adapt. But the landscape of the channeled scablands suggests a different scenario. Indeed, climate change is gradually happening just like the water that grew the cracks in the ice dam over near Clark Fork, Idaho. But as the gradual changes accumulate, a critical mass is slowly built, and in a near instant an entire area can be completely transformed into an alien place.

Yes, it is a catastrophic scenario. And that’s what the geologists who dismissed Bretz for so long were reacting against, but the evidence is quite convincing that indeed it happened.

But this is not to say that we need to scramble and scream and panic. That will help nobody. But what we can do is examine our local situation and figure out how we can adapt to the coming changes. Like the Boy Scouts motto: “Be Prepared.”

Topographical map of the flood waters. Map courtesy of USGS.

And we can prepare, there’s evidence for that too. There were humans who lived here when the floods surged through this land – yes indeed. In order to survive these folks must have examined what was happening to the ice dam, predicted the flow of water, and moved their homes, horticulture projects, and foraging areas to upland sites. And that is what we can do – examine the local evidence of climate change, predict what is going to happen, and take the necessary steps to make sure that we humans, our communities, economies, and our ecosystems will successfully adapt to the coming changes.

That’s where lichens come in – they are one of the creatures with which we can see the metaphorical cracks in the ice dam. They are referred to as “canaries in the coal mine” because they can indicate changes in climate relatively rapidly, and they give us a measurement of how biological processes and our local biosphere are being affected by climate change.

Lichens on the columnar basalt clifss at Palouse Falls. Photo by Joe Miles.

Weather stations monitor air temperature, humidity, and precipitation at only a few sites, but lichens can help us translate that information into data that describes what is happening down on the ground, up in the trees, on the sides of both exposed and protected rocks, and this gives us a more accurate picture of what microclimates are actually changing, or not changing.

Lichens are also at the bottom of the food chain, and so can represent other organisms that are as well: if the base of the food chain decreases in size so does the structure above it, and the ecosystem can collapse rapidly like the ice dam or it can slowly adapt.

Lichens growing on trees in the Cheney wetlands. Photo by Jesse Taylor.

It is essential that our local ecosystems do not collapse, for the ecosystem supports our farmland, our waterways for fishing, our aquifer for drinking water, our forests for fuel and lumber.

By looking at the distribution of lichen species, and other bioindicators including mosses, we can begin to assess what changes are occurring before the ecosystem really feels the effects, For an ecosystem is a dynamic entity that is rather flexible in response to climate changes: but at a certain point the whole system can unravel. Kinda like when we are dancing the limbo, we can lean back farther and farther as the pole gets lower, and although some of us are more flexible than others, there is a point at which we all just collapse onto the ground. But, if we prepare for the limbo dance by increasing our flexibility, we have a better chance of making it under that pole. And its the same thing with preparing for the effects of climate change, if we can anticipate what may happen we can work towards increasing the resilience of our ecosystems and communities before the metaphorical ice dam breaks and there is nothing that can be done to prepare for it.

And that is part of what this lichen project at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge is about – finding out how we can use lichens to monitor our local climate changes so that we, as a community, can create adaptation management plans with enough time to successfully implement and modify them.

Stay tuned, there’s so much to learn and respond to, and its all good: the coming years are not about horror, they’re about creative adaption and that is something our species is super good at.

Me and Carla catching some air time at Palouse Falls. Photo by Joe Miles.

Also, next week the local chapter of the Ice Age Floods will be sponsoring talks and a hike that will give us more of an understanding of the humans who were here during the time of the cataclysmic floods. Imagine watching the ice dam break from up in the Bitterroot mountains, relaxing while eating loaves of Bryoria lichen, roasted caribou meat… Wait, the food was totally different here at that time! What was growing out here back then? What did the people here eat… camels? Seriously, camels were out here? Let’s find out next week! Click here for more information on the schedule of events.

– Nastassja Noell


Ice Age Floods Institute – An educational non-profit that is dedicated to telling the story of the massive floods in our region and establishing the National Ice Age Floods Geological Trail. This website serves as the primary information hub for the media, the public, and all the chapters in Idaho, Montana, Washington, and Oregon.

USGS: Channelled Scablands – includes information about what the landscape was like prior to the floods (yes, there were camels here), and explains the formation of the basalt layer in our region.

Huge Floods – concerns the Ice Age Floods caused by ancient Lake Bonneville.

Explore the Scablands – PBS’s site with lots of information and multimedia presentations.

And here is Part 1 of NOVA’s awesome documentary, Mystery of the Megafloods (go to here for Part 2, here for Part 3, and here for Part 4):


How to identify a lichen: Part 1

Vulpicida canadensis: A funky neon yellow-green foliose lichen that grows in the forests of the Inland Northwest.

So you’re walking through the forest and you come across an amazing florescent green leafy thing – by golly, you say to yourself, this must be one of them lichen that girl in class is always talking about! Exactly. But how do identify it to species so you can impress that her and get her to go on a date with you? Identify that lichen, figure out its species name. Species names always gets the girls. But how do you figure out what the species of a lichen is? Read on fellow, read on.

Firstly, when you gather any lichen, be sure to note whether that lichen is growing on a rock, on a conifer or hardwood tree, or on a shrub. If it has fallen down from the canopy of a nearby tree it will be laying right dab in the center of your trail – those are my favorites.

Here's the 10x loupe I use for identifying lichen. I find it easier to carry everything I possibly may need on one lanyard around my neck.

Then, you’re going look at some of the macrofeatures of the lichen. If you got a 10x handlens, great, if not, you can still determine the major morphological group. A handlens is ideal for the steps in Part 2, a dissecting microscope for Part 3, and for Part 4 you’ll need a compound microscope with a 100x objective lens if possible, 40x at least.

But if you haven’t gotten your 10x loupe yet, and don’t have access to microscopes yet, you can at least figure out which major morphological group a lichen is, and knowing this is the critical first step towards identifying any lichen.

Parmelia sulcata. Is this Foliose or Fruticose? Hover your mouse over the photograph for the answer. Photo by James Lindsey.

Firstly, hold the lichen in your hand. Look at it. Ponder it. What does the thallus look like? (The thallus is the body of the lichen, and yes, as far as I know every lichen has a thallus.)

Does it have two sides, like a leaf? If yes, then it is a foliose lichen.

Or is it more like the branch of a tree, lacking any really distinction between sides? If yes, then it is a fruticose lichen.

Alectoria sarmentosa; is this foliose or fruticose? (Hover your mouse over it for the answer). Photo by Jason Hollinger.

But what if it is so small that it just looks like paint? Then it’s a crustose lichen.

And what about those ones that have fairy cup like things – what are those? Ah, now thats a tricky question – those lichen have two thalli: the primary thallus is the little tiny leaves that are close to the substrate (those are described as squamulose – a.k.a. tiny foliose) and then there is the secondary thallus which is the fairy cup (podetia) or matchstick (pseudopodetia) or christmas-wreath-like projection (also pseudopodetia).

Cladonia pyxidata: Squamules make up the primary thallus, the secondary thallus is a podetia.

Congratulations! You just figured out the most important distinction between different lichen: foliose, fruticose, crustose, or squamulose. What’s next? Read on to part 2.

Lecanora rupicola, a crustose lichen. Photo by Jason Hollinger.

Trial run of study at the Cheney wetlands

Letharia vulpina

Letharia vulpina: Note the isidia covering the skin (cortex) making it look quite stubbly. Photo by Jason Hollinger.

On Wednesday, Therese and I headed out to the Cheney wetlands to do a practice run on our procedures, and to test out the lichen collection card. We went over some of the basics of collection, such as how to see the difference between two species that look alot alike at first glance. such as Letharia columbiana and Letharia vulpina.

Letharia columbiana: Note the lack of isidia or soredia, and the smoother skin (cortex). Photo by Jason Hollinger.

We also discussed some of the difficulties with the abundance portion of the lichen collection card, since rating abundance in our study is a bit trickier than the Forest Service’s protocols because the FS’s substrates are limited to trees, while ours include all possible substrates including shrubs, soil, rocks, the base of trees, and rotting logs.

Lichen abundance rating as set by the U.S.F.S. Lichen program

So we decided that we will rate the abundance of a lichen species found on a substrate throughout the plot, since most lichen will be limited to that substrate anyways. In the case that a lichen species does have numerous substrates, we will jot that down and rate its abundance on these other substrates.

So the process now is as follows: first we collect the lichen paying particular attention to choose specimens that have reproductive parts, if possible. We jot down the GPS coordinates, elevation, height (height above soil line if on rock or tree), position (on top of or underneath a branch, top or side of rock, facing wetlands, etc), aspect (N,E,S,W). In order to rate abundance, after we collect the lichen we will do a walk around the plot to determine its abundance. We then will move onto the next lichen species. We are going to be working in tandem at least in the beginning, but perhaps we will continue to do this in the future for all the field work.

Lichen collection card, adapted from the U.S.F.S. lichen collecting protocols for 2011.

We also decided to include on our cards the number of different species found within a variable range around the lichen collected, such as within 6 inch radius on a rock. As we learn more of the crustose lichen, we will be able to jot down their names too, and that will be exciting.

As far as our collections at the Cheney wetlands, we made some great findings!

Firstly, we found an Evernia prunastri that is totally devastated by eutrophic air pollution, which is sad, but definately indicates that lichen may be very useful in helping to monitor the restoration of air quality in our area.

Devastated Evernia prunastri

The completely sorediated Evernia prunastri from the Cheney wetlands. Eutrophic air pollution is the most likely source causing the abundance of soredia (powdery balls that are asexual propagules of the lichen).

A healthy Evernia prunastri from a non-polluted area. Note how much smoother the skin is, the lack of soredia or isidia.

Since our study locations include sites that are along polluted and unpolluted inflows, we will be able to see the difference in air quality described by the lichen thallus of species such as Evernia prunastri. There are other species that also look odd, including a harder-than-usual-to-identify Hypogymnia. Morphological changes associated with eutrophic air pollution will comprise more of my readings this week to prepare myself for field and lab work, because if I had not serendipitously opened McCune and Geiser’s Macrolichens of the Pacific Northwest (Second Edition) to a page showing a morphological changes associated with eutrophic air pollution right as I was attempting to key this out, I would have had quite a tough time.

McCune and Geiser's book showing morphological changes associated with eutrophic air pollution.

Secondly, as far as great findings this past week: we collected only 12 samples, but (if my identifications are correct) we’ve already found two species that are not on the current Turnbull lichen inventory list! So we’ll be looking for these while we’re at the refuge. These include: Physcia tenella and Cladonia pocillum. I only had my phone camera the other day at the lab, so I’ll have to upload the Physcia and Cladonia up later, cause they were far too tiny to capture adequately with a tiny lens. But here are a few of the other macrolichen species we found over at the Cheney wetlands: Vulpicida canadensis, Cetraria chlorophylla, and Usnea hirta.

Usnea hirta: a fruticose lichen found at the Cheney wetlands.

Vulpicida canadensis, a foliose lichen collected at the Cheney wetlands.

Cetraria chlorophylla, also from the Cheney wetlands. (Its the dark brown foliose lichen near the center-top of the branch)

All in all, last week was great working in Dr. O’Quinn’s lab. Finding two species that are not on the current inventory for the refuge is promising. Such results from a brief trial support our hypothesis that we will be able to add many more species to the refuge’s lichen inventory by performing targeted surveys, and I’m excited to see what we find out when we plug our data into the U.S. Forest Service’s lichen community gradient models.

For those readers interested in lists of macro lichen found in surrounding forested areas, check out the lichen species list the U.S.F.S. has created for the Colville National Forest here.



Picking locations

Sites chosen for the lichen flora study

The process of picking targeted site locations for the flora survey has been a bit difficult — after all it is the sites, and the lichen found there-in, that have one of the greatest impacts on the data we will be gathering (the other greatest impact is the collectors abilities’). After realizing that the sites can be fine tuned at a later date, I plugged ahead and chose sites according to the following goals:

1) Habitat and Ecotones: The Turnbull NWR rests in an ecotone (the boundary between two habitats or ecosystems) between the Columbia Plateau and the Northern Rocky Mountains. At a finer grade the refuge is composed of habitats, and the boundaries between these habitats (also called ecotones), and we are targeting these habitats and their ecotones for our study. These habitats include: vernal pools, mima mounds, Aspen community, meadow grassland steppe community, Ponderosa pine forest, basalt outcroppings, and wetlands.

Watersheds at the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge

2) Pollution vectors: Lichen are extremely sensitive to air pollution, and much of the air pollutants entering the refuge come from the creeks carrying agricultural wastes from nearby cattle ranches. Mike Rule, the refuge’s amazing hardworking wildlife biologist, outlined some of the most clean and dirty watersheds in our last meeting in late February. Kaegle watershed is one of the cleanest, and polluted inflows include the Company watershed and the Phillips watershed. So I picked locations in all the major watersheds found on the refuge, including a site in a Ponderosa Pine forest along Phillips creek, which drains directly from nearby cattle ranches, sure to carry lots of nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorous.

3) Previous studies: Back in 1990-1991 a USGS study was done on evapo-transpiration rates at two sites at the TNWR (Tomlinson 1995). Considering that this study may be repeated again at points in the future to quantify local climate change I think it would be interesting to track lichen community changes along with changes in evapo-transpiration rates. Tomlinson’s study include a marsh site and a meadow site, we will be collecting lichen at these sites.

Sites from the 1990-1991 Evapotranspiration study at the refuge

Further Considerations: 1) Soil types As some of the study will be focusing on cryptogamic soil crusts, finding areas of meadow steppe with different soil types would be most beneficial. NRCS has this data. 2) Enclosements Until 1993 cattle were allowed to graze throughout the refuge except in the “enclosure areas” finding cryptogamic soil crust in the enclosure areas and the post-grazing areas will shed a little bit of light on the composition of older and newer cryptogamic crusts, and possibly the succession stages of crusts in our region.