I am in the state of Washington to film part of a 90-minute documentary that we are nominally calling “Is Genesis History?”
We already filmed one of numerous segments in the dinosaur digs at Hanson Ranch in Wyoming and now we are looking at the incredible destruction and geological formations created rapidly by the volcanic eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980.
On May 18 at 8:32 am, an avalanche caused 3.3 billion tons of earth that had been bulging on the side of the mountain to slide away, exposing the forces pent up beneath it. The 1700-degreee magna, which had been pushing up for months, had a layer of “super-critical” water between it and the surface. When that surface fell away, the water exploded in a steam blast with the force of 20 million tons of TNT, destroying about 150 square mile, 57 lives, trees, wildlife and anything else in its path.
This was followed by mud and pyroclastic flows which reshaped the surrounding features of what used to be a vast, lush forest. The forces at Mt. St. Helens that were on display for us to witness and record, have introduced evidence that the standard geological story that I was taught and most likely you were taught, has to be revisited.
I’ll try to give you a picture of that evidence over the several days that we are here.
I took this picture from Johnson Ridge. It is named after the geologist who was killed in the Mt. St. Helen’s eruption. He was alternating every other day with another geologist taking turns being flown in by helicopter to monitor the mountain. On May 18, 1980, it was his turn and it was to be his last. When the mountain erupted, he radioed his final words: “…this is it.”
In the foreground, you will see a lot of geological formations. What you don’t see is the original lush forest that was obliterated in the initial blast. That forest would have been about 600 feet below the current surface. The debris from the avalanche, the ash, the mudflows, the pyroclastic flows…all filled it in. An eruption two years later sent a mudflow that carved the huge “Steps Canyon” that is visible just left of the center of the picture at the base of the mountain cone. All the other canyons around and below it were also carved out in a matter of hours as well.
What happened at Mt. St. Helens is changing the way an increasingly number of geologists look at the world around us. For nearly 200 years, the notion of a very old earth was precipitated primarily by how geologists began to think that “the present is the key to the past”. This meant that one was supposed to interpret geological formations by extrapolating backwards into time using the processes that we see in operation today. The problem is that most all of the geological formations that we see today were not caused by present processes but were caused by catastrophic events. The old “uniformitarianism” thinking is what led many to believe that the Grand Canyon, for example, was carved out by the Colorado River over millions of years. Most people probably still believe that to be true because that was what they were taught. In reality, the evidence there and the evidence seen at Mt. St. Helens has caused most geologists to now embrace a catastrophic event for the carving of the Grand Canyon. This is an encouraging change because the key to the geological past is not the present, but the key to the geological past is found in catastrophic events.
Although Mt. St. Helens is quite minor in comparison to other catastrophic events, including other North American eruptions, it was one that was fully observed and has been studied extensively. Those studies are now beginning to cause many to question the old geological story that you and I were taught in school.
This is a picture from inside “Little Grand Canyon” at the base of Mt. St. Helens. The obvious is the film crew, Tom, Michael, Thomas, and Ian. Dr. Steven Austin, an incredibly smart geologist, is there as well (in blue).
The other obvious things are the layered canyon walls and the stream.
Here’s what is not obvious.
Even though it might look really old, like a lot of the geological formations you might see around the world, all of these are younger than I am.
Prior to the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens, none of this existed.
The various debris, ash, mud and pyroclastic flows filled the lower areas and created instant layers, perfectly sorted. In some places, large sections of glacier ice from the mountain were trapped beneath the hot flows. The ice turned to steam and was venting for days. It created a surreal landscape. When the steam built up too much pressure, they exploded and created “explosion pits” that resembled craters on the moon. Those pits were later filled in by more mud flows and then, on March 19, 1982, almost two years after the initial eruption, a mud flow cut through a breach and back cut what is now called the Little Grand Canyon.
The standard geological story would look at a canyon like this and, using “the present is the key to the past”, calculate how much material is currently being removed by the little creek and give us a very old age. Several rocks there have actually been dated from 350,000 years old to over 2 million years. If we hadn’t witnessed this event, we would accept the standard story that this canyon was formed a long, long time ago.
It is actually younger than my first two children.
Dr. Austin calls the Mt. St. Helens event “the Rosetta Stone" for deciphering global catastrophic processes that the Bible says formed the earth.
Standing in the bottom of that canyon, looking at the steep canyon walls, the layers, the complex geological formations, I was struck by how this looked just like all the other exposed layers around the world…layers that I had been taught required millions of years to deposit and then erode.
However, when you come face to face with the facts from the past, it can radically change your perspective of the present.
This is a picture of “Step Canyon”. It is just below the current dome of Mt. St. Helens.
In March of 1982, another explosive eruption melted a thick snow and ice pack that had built up in the crater since the 1980 events. The resulting water and mudflow cut through the bedrock at the edge of the crater. In a matter of hours, as if it were a hot knife going through butter, the mudflow cut out 600 feet of solid rock and left this canyon, with its spectacular waterfalls. Prior to this event, the melting snowpack had been flowing out of Loowit Canyon, just to the east, which had been cut out during the 1980 eruption.
As we mentioned yesterday, it was the 1982 mudflow that also cut out the Little Grand Canyon as well as other significant erosions above and below it.
Keep in mind, when you look at this picture, that prior to 1980, the entire frame would have been filled with a massive green forest covering the smooth north slope of Mt. St. Helens. You may have just seen the beginning of the tree line towards the top. It would have been a fairly boring picture with little character. Now it is filled with complex geological features, laid down with rapid deposition and cut out by rapid erosion. The entire landscape was transformed by a catastrophic event of unimaginable power...yet it was actually quite small compared to the power unleashed in other catastrophic events of the past.
But there is one more event that occurred at Mt. St. Helens that we haven’t yet covered, and it may be the most amazing and most eye opening of them all.
That is for our last day.
This is a picture of Spirit Lake. It may not look like a lake, but it is. What you see in most of the foreground is a huge log mass that has been floating for over 35 years. But there are several things that you don’t see. One is that before the 1980 eruption Spirit Lake was 800 feet lower. Another is the scoured condition of the mountain slopes around the lake and, most importantly, what is now on the bottom.
Here is what happened:
When the earthquake dislodged the 3.3 billion tons of debris on the north side of Mt. St. Helens, one fourth of that debris avalanche, travelling at over 150 mph, poured into Spirit Lake. This displaced the entire volume of water and “splashed” it (like no other splash you can imagine) up onto the opposite mountainside. Water is a powerful agent, as we mentioned yesterday in how it carved out 600 feet of bedrock like soft butter to form Step Canyon. The lake water did the same to the mountain. It “scoured” it of everything; carving gullies and literally wiping the surface clean, including all of the trees. The water and the material and the trees all flowed back onto its new bed of avalanche debris, creating a new, larger lake on a much higher bottom. When a pilot flew over the area after the eruption, he reported, “Spirit Lake is gone”. He was wrong, but that is understandable because all he saw was a solid mass of downed trees…though they were actually floating and covering the entire surface of the lake.
But the most interesting part of all of this is what happened in the short years that followed.
As the trees floated, the wind and the waves caused them rub against each other, scraping off the bark. As the trees continued to roll and churn, this “milling” process produced a huge mass of floating bark and other material that eventually became waterlogged and sank, creating what is now a three-foot layer of “peat” on the bottom of the lake.
Dr. Steve Austin, who is an expert in coal formation, has dived to the bottom of Spirit Lake to examine this layer. He has found that the composition and texture of material is exactly what one would find in a coal bed. The only thing missing at this point is another mudflow to bury it. Once buried, the water would be pressed out of the peat and the heat of compression would complete the process of coal formation. And since we have now successfully created coal in the laboratory, we know that it can form quickly.
So, the recent eruptions at Mt. St. Helens have shown us that catastrophic events can create complex geological features, rapid deposition of sedimentary layers and rapid and deep erosion. It has also shown us a process by which the peat layers for coal beds can form much more quickly than the standard story has presented to us.
All of this is why Dr. Austin says that the events here have provided us with a Rosetta Stone for understanding the similar geological formations and features that we see all over the world.
The key to the past isn’t the present. The past is better explained by catastrophe…especially a huge one recorded for us in the ancient document of Genesis when all the fountains of the deep burst forth and the earth was destroyed in a catastrophic event beyond imagination.