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):


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

  1. Pingback: What’s in a refuge? Management tour of Turnbull NWR | Lichens of the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge

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