Monday, December 07, 2009

Tattered Remnants #021: J Harlan Bretz

(Read all about the Tattered Remnants by clicking {here}.)


Not all of the Tattered Remnant die heroic deaths. Sometimes they live the Death of a Thousand Cuts, as when their contributions or discoveries are mocked and derided by those having a vested interest in established orthodoxies.

As has become clear in recent days from the Climategate scandal, sometimes scientists fight very dirty in order to preserve established opinion, particularly when their income is dependent on their maintaining their world view. (As Upton Sinclair put it: "Nothing is harder than to make a man understand something when his job depends on his misunderstanding it.")

This entry is about a man who stood up to an entire scientific establishment and suffered exile and low regard for decades for daring to hold on to a theory against established opinion.

In Eastern Washington State there is a great, dramatic, dry, scraped area known as the Channeled Scablands. The Scablands contain some of North America's most astounding and mysterious land forms: a dry waterfall ten times the size of Niagara, potholes the size of stadiums, huge boulders made up of rocks having no local origin, stunning cliffs and dry valleys hundreds of miles from the nearest river or even glacier action.

For decades, scientists had absolutely no clue how any of these lands may have been formed.

There was no theory that made the slightest sense that would explain them. Under then-extant established theory, the Scablands would have to have been formed slowly, gradually, over thousands, millions or billions of years. It was clear that some sort of water action must have formed the Scablands, but ... what water? River water? The nearest river was 50 miles south of the extent of the Scablands and there was no evidence that the river had ever flowed through the regions.

There were some features suggesting glacial action, in particular the "Erratics"–huge granite boulders, some more than 100 tons, which would have been deposited by glaciers onto the landscape which had no granite in the ground locally. Problem here is that the Scablands are more than 200 miles south of where scientists were certain was the furthest southern reach of the Canadian glaciers in any of the most recent ice ages.

It made a pretty problem.

Enter J Harlan Bretz–the 'J' had no period behind it, and, Bretz being a famous curmudgeon, God help you if you added one and he found out about it.

Bretz started out as a high school biology teacher and semi-amateur geologist, eventually obtained a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Chicago. He spent thirty or forty years walking the Scablands taking measurements and samples, and it became clear to him that this huge geological region was formed through a particular catastrophe--a great megaflood--and not through long term erosion and a slow natural formation.

Unfortunately, the entire geological world at the time was married to a concept called gradualism--the idea that all geographical forms in the world, without exception, were formed through slow erosion and continental forces and not through fast, catastropic action, and particularly not through a flood! (How biblical! Which is to say, how unacceptable! - for scientists then as now tend to be so allergic to Biblical cosmology that they will go out of their way to suppress any theory that even smells of Biblical imagery.)

But back then, in 1927, the thought that a single catastrophe could form a huge geological feature was heretical. They called Bretz in to present his views at an open forum, where they deliberately lined up a half dozen high priests of gradualism to rub him out.

Bretz was relegated to the outer edges of science and for decades was thought of as a nutcase with discredited views. His appearance in Washington, DC in support of his theory in 1927 essentially cost him any chance of being hired by a major university or being taken the slightest bit seriously as a theorist.

The primary attack on his theory was that, at the time, Bretz offered no explanation as to where such a huge flood of water had come from. And a huge flood it was – imagine a great flow of water equal to half the water in Lake Michigan passing in a few days time from stem to stern, from the entry waters in the east to the Pacific Ocean to the west. Such a huge steam-roller of water, a wall of water a half mile high, could tear out everything in its path!

But where did that water come from? There were no rivers or streams with anything near the volume required; the Great Lakes were too far to the west, and there was no mechanism, even volcanic eruption, that could have melted that volume of water quickly enough for such devastation to occur. Bretz himself did not know, and when challenged, he simply pointed to the evidence that the flood had occurred, stating that that should have been enough. Finding the waters was not his task.

But there was one man who knew–an employee of the United States Geological Service, there at the conference to observe, but not to participate. But he leaned over and whispered to the man sitting next to him and said: "I know where Bretz's flood came from."

As it developed, this man - Joseph T. Pardee, or "J.T." as he was known - had the key to Bretz's mystery. For Pardee was the leading authority on "Glacial Lake Missoula."

Once in ages past, certain rivers in Montana - some 250 miles to the east of the Scablands - had formed with the early melting of the last glaciers. Their runoff, however, was blocked by the glaciers themselves–great ice plugs prevented the rivers from draining naturally. The waters backed up, forming what geologists now call Glacial Lake Missoula, an immense lake that rose a thousand feet above the current surface. What is now a medium sized city in the middle of Montana was then the bottom of a huge lake, deeper than Lake Superior and with a volume of water of some 5 billion cubic meters.

And one day that ice dam broke.

It is now known that the region was formed exactly how Bretz thought: a megaflood caused by the draining of the lake in the course of a very few hours and days, scraping and gouging the plains of eastern Washington, taking everything with it, dumping it into the Pacific: a crush of water equal to one hundred times of all the river flows of all the world combined.

But while Pardee knew of this, he was limited to what he could tell to Bretz, as he was not an academic, but an employee of the United States Geological Survey: giving information to Bretz was the job of his supervisors, not him, and his supervisors were present at that very meeting making very clear that his, Bretz's, views were rawest heresy.

And so Bretz returned home from the conference where his work was derided and rejected by a committee of high priests of 'gradualism.' But he persisted, in spite of having his work derided, and he continued in darkness for years.

Time passed, technology advanced. Aircraft were made available to researchers, and the first arial photography of the area again and again bore out both that Glacial Lake Missoula had indeed existed, that the dam had given way, and that the flood into Eastern Washington State had occurred in exactly the way that Bretz described.

Only when satellite imagery and further research confirmed both the floodlike nature of the scablands from orbit and the existence of Galacial Lake Massoula did his work become validated.

Bretz was a lively and independent man; he fought his solo fight against geological orthodoxy for forty years. It was not until the early 1960s that his theories on the Scablands became generally accepted in the scientific community; it was not until 1970 when LANDSAT - the first geological photography satellite, using photographic technologies previously restricted to military use - first surveyed the Scablands from space, finally giving scientists the proof that they needed to establish that Bretz had been right all along.

His vision was, in the end, universally recognized. He was awarded geology's highest award in 1980, when he was 98 years old; he groused that it was a little late to benefit him as all of his enemies were dead. But he has now the highest scientific honor: J Harlan Bretz is now the father of planetary geology, and his discoveries are applicable to current research on the presence and absence of water on Mars.

If one of the attributes of the Tattered Remnant is the absolute commitment to stick to one's guns, no matter how much fire is received, then J Harlan Bretz surely qualifies for admission to the club, for his persistence in the face of, shall we say, the "inconvenient truths" of conventional scientific opinion.


The physics of the failure of the ice dam, however, are of particular interest to us before we move on to our next section.

The ice dam was the leading edge of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet, an immense glacier that covered most of what is now western Canada; as it moved forward, it cut off the flow of the Clark Fork river. The river backed up and, in the face of the immensity of the ice plug, grew deeper and deeper, reaching one point a thousand feet above what is now the city of Missoula, Montana. The ice plug itself reached a height of over 2000 feet at its highest point.

The excellent PBS series NOVA examined the mystery in an episode entitled "Mystery of the Megaflood." The ice dam, however, was not shattered by the melting action of the sun or of warmth, but through causes rooted in some of the more esoteric laws of physics.

As is well known, water has a unique physical property in that it expands as it freezes, which as it developed had a dramatic effect on the ice dam. As the water in the lake grew deeper, pressure on the lower depths became greater and greater. The water in close proximity with the ice grew cooler; indeed, it dropped below freezing temperature, but could not form ice as the great pressure of the waters behind it prevented the necessary expansion into crystalline form.

This water, flowing into every nook and crack of the ice, eventually wore away the ice within the cracks, making them wider and wider. Eventually the supercooled water burst through the dam, causing its eventual sudden and catastrophic collapse.

In short, small amounts of free flowing water that was not physically capable of becoming ordered ice destroyed the structure that held it back, shattering the dam and releasing the water to freely flow again.

As it turns out, it is not merely ice dams that are broken this way...whereby hangs our next entry.

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