NH Notes: Inverted Valleys – A Question of Age

Inverted valleys formed from lava “rivers” and ancient stream beds are one of many unusual geological phenomena found in Utah.  The rocks speak in Utah and they speak very clearly because they readily reveal so many clues about their origins since they are so visible to us.   Some of the most powerful testimonies of just how long and complex the geological history of the earth is don’t come from a single one of these features but result from an effort to place them into context with each other.  Context is key as I have been known to point out many times in past posts.

The St. George airport sits on a basalt-capped hill that is a class example of an inverted valley. The diagram below the image shows how that flat-topped hill could have formed.  Image from: http://www.geology.utah.gov/fieldtrip/small/Inverted_valleys.jpg

The St. George airport sits on a basalt-capped hill that is an example of an inverted valley. The diagram below the image shows how that flat-topped hill could have formed. Image from: http://www.geology.utah.gov/fieldtrip/small/Inverted_valleys.jpg

In my last NH Note I introduced you to flat-topped hills in the St. George Utah region (NH Notes: Ancient Lava Flows and Inverted Valleys in Utah).  I pointed out that the flat tops of these hills were in fact the remains of what had been valley bottoms that had filled with lava that flowed into them from the north long ago.  Before that I showed winding river bottoms that now form ridges further north near  Green River UT (NH Note:  The Exhumed Paleochannels of Utah and Mars) and that even Mars may have inverted valleys.   All of these inversions are a testimony to a series of historical events that have taken place over long periods of time.

For the St. George Utah region let us look at a short list of the geological features and the corresponding historical events that have taken place to produce the those features in the landscape that we see today:

1) 15,000 feet or more of layered fossil-bearing rock underlying the entire region:   St. George and the surrounding mountains sit on over 15,000 feet of fossil-bearing mostly horizontal deposited sedimentary rock.  Before there could be volcanic deposits on this rock or valleys carved into that rock those rocks had to be formed.

2)  Erosion of valleys into these rock layers:  St. George sits in a large valley eroded into what would have been thousands of feet into sedimentary rock.

3)  Volcanoes and lava-filled valleys:   At some point during the erosion of this area, volcanoes to the north spewed enough lava that it flowed 15 miles into the valleys present there at the time.   This filled the valleys with hardened basalt.  That landscape of hills and valleys would have sat hundreds of feet above where St. George is today.

4)  Erosion of the St. George area continues leaving the basalt-filled valleys as capped hills and ridges:   With the valleys full of basalt the softer sandstones of the hills erode faster and eventually streams around the edges of the basalt work they way down eroding the hills away to form valleys were the hills once stood.  The former valleys are left where they were and are now hundreds of feet or higher than the eroded landscape around them.

5)  Small volcanic eruption (Santa Clara Volcano) resulting in lava flow down into the Santa Clara river valley:  Only after this erosion of hundreds of feet of sediments occurred could the modern lava fields on the Santa Clara valley floor be formed (see images below).   A small volcano formed just north of St. George and lava flowed into the valley once again to form the lava beds that are present there today.

6) Erosion of that lava flow in canyons and partial burial of lava fields in the valley:   The lava fields on the valley floor have little vegetation but some are buried with sand.  These lava fields are thought to have several thousand to 20,000 years old in origin.

7) Occupation of the region by early Native Americans to present:  After the volcanoes went dormant people finally came to this are and Native Americans produced thousands of petroglyphs on the sandstone rocks at the edge of the Santa Clara river.   These petroglyphs are incised into desert varnish which itself takes thousands of years to form so even the boulders along the river must have been where they are today for thousands of years before the first people arrived.

Petroglyph at Petroglyph Park in St. George.  There are thousands of Anasazi petroglphys in the area attesting to the fact that the boulders and rocks in this area have barely eroded at all in the past couple thousand years.

Petroglyph at Petroglyph Park in St. George. There are thousands of Anasazi petroglyphs in the area attesting to the fact that the boulders and rocks in this area have barely eroded at all in the past couple thousand years.

How long did this take?  The original 15,000+ feet of sedimentary rock are thought to have taken 1/2 billion years to form.  Erosion of that rock continued for many millions of years to produce the valleys and hills at the time that volcanoes became active.   Conventional geological dating places the time of the large eruptions of lava from 1 to 2 million years ago.  It was during this time that the valleys were filled with lava.  The erosion of the hills around these lava flows to form the current valley were St. George sits is thought to have taken around 1 million years.  The Santa Clara volcano that gave rise to the lava fields on the floor of the current valley is thought to have been active from 5 to 20 thousand years ago. The lava fields from that volcano have clearly not eroded very much. However this volcano had likely fallen silent before any people were on the scene.  There are abundant Anasazi petroglyphs on the boulders along the Santa Clara river.  Those petroglyphs could be as old as 1000 BC up to about 1000 AD.  As I said above the petroglyphs are chiseled into desert varnish which itself takes thousands of years to form so it is very likely that the current valley where St. George sits has looked almost exactly as it does now for 10s of thousands of years.

Young earth creationists feel compelled to compress all of these events into the past 4500 years or so.  They would explain the 15,000 feet of fossil-bearing sediments as the result of a global flood but then the other historical events we have witness of would need to have occurred in post-flood times.    Why? because all these features could not have been produced simultaneously.  Geological features are the result of a series of events not a single event.   Valleys would have to be incised prior to volcanic eruptions.  The part that really is difficult to explain then becomes the erosion of hundreds of feet of sediments after these eruptions.   Young earth creationists usually want to explain vast amounts of erosion as the result of waters receding after the flood.  However, in this case they would have already used this explanation when they try to explain how there would have been valleys for the lava to fill in the first place.  How and when did the hills erode around these lava filled valleys in very short order with no significant water source? The St. George valley appears to have existed for thousands and thousands of years as it looks today, so how can all these other features be compressed between the end of a global flood and the arrival of the first people (within just hundreds of years by most YEC accounts) to this area?  Conventional geology provides a very plausible and scientifically testable set of theories for how this landscape could have evolved over long periods of time.  Young earth creationism provides nothing but ad-hoc explanations with no evidence to support them.

Below are some pictures of the most recent volcanic activity in the St. George area.  The flat-topped hills that are capped with Basalt look like very old worn basalts while these lava fields that sit hundreds of feet below them on the current valley floor look very young in comparison.

Santa Clara volcano north of St. George. From its source the lava flowed down into the valley and eventually formed the lava fields you can see as dark patches in the lower portion of the image.  Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google Inc and used with permission.

Santa Clara volcano north of St. George. From its source the lava flowed down into the valley and eventually formed the lava fields you can see as dark patches in the lower portion of the image. Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google Inc and used with permission.

Below is a Google map picture showing the “modern” lava fields just west of St. George that lie on the current St. George valley floor. Here a golf course and homes have been built amongst the lava.

A golf course among lava fields west of St. George UT.   Google is a registered trademark of Google Inc. and used with permission.

A golf course among lava fields west of St. George UT. Google is a registered trademark of Google Inc. and used with permission.

Just north of the lava fields above is this cinder cone which is presumed to be the source of the lava.  This site is much higher up and the lava would have run from here down into the valley. Notice that there isn’t a lot of worry about this volcano erupting again any time soon as homes have been built just several hundred feet from the volcano.

The ??? volcano north of St. George UT.  Google maps screenshot.  Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google Inc. and are used with permission.

The Santa Clara volcano north of St. George UT. Google maps screenshot. Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google Inc. and are used with permission.

lava-field-st-George-homes

Close-up of lava fields west of St. George Utah with homes built among the lava. Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google Inc and use here with permission.

Comments

  1. ashley haworth-roberts says:

    Sorry, but do you really mean ‘steam beds’ – and not ‘stream beds’?

    V. interesting article and I would love to see a DETAILED YEC response to it (the science not ‘how is this biblical?’ or ‘were you there?’). I was not previously aware of ‘inverted valleys’ – or if I was the term itself is new for me.

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  2. Dawson Lewis says:

    Nice article. For 30+ years I’ve been a Christian. As a new Christian and the son of two biology teachers I have spent much time looking into Creationism, hoping for something that would break into my parents world. In that time I’ve come to see that God has woven together the world more intricately than the most elaborate tapestry. Unfortunately, most YEC pull out one thread and claim to have the whole explanation. Thanks for these article.

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  3. “Geological features are the result of a series of events not a single event.”

    Joel,
    Another interesting post! The sentence above is, I think, the key to your argument. It is, however, a gross misunderstanding of what most creationists with any knowledge of geology would argue. There are, of course, popular misconceptions among creationists (as if there aren’t any in the evolutionary world that show up on the Discovery Channel, etc.), but those that have studied geology know that you can have a “single event” that is itself COMPLEX and consists of several subsidiary events. As I mentioned in my comments on your San Juan/Goosenecks post, a COMPLEX set of events is becoming more and more evident as more and more field work is done and at times, it staggers the imagination, no matter what one’s perspective happens to be.

    As far as Ashley’s comment desiring a “DETAILED YEC response”, I wouldn’t consider Joel’s initial post all that “detailed” itself. What he presents can, I think, easily be compressed into a relatively short, but immense, and again, COMPLEX, series of events. As many creationists continue to point out, the eruption of Mt. St. Helens and the formation of the Channeled Scablands are first order exhibits for a lot of work (much of it fairly COMPLEX) accomplished in a short amount of time.

    Andy W.

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    • Hi Andy, There is no doubt that some features of this world can be very complex and be the result of a single event. However, the fact that this is true does not necessitate that all complex features can be explained by single events or any a series of events in short order. Mt. St Helens did produce a wonderful display of fantastically complex erosional patterns. There is sorting of sediments and organic materials etc.. but one could also walk up to the side of stream there (I have visited the location quite a while back) and in all those layers it is not at all hard to image them being all being laid down in a short period of time. At the same time I could also see myself thinking that the layers might have taken quite a long time and been the result of many separate events. However,I could test those two hypotheses. For one things if I collected organic material from multiple layers I would find that the c14 dates are probably all very similar over a 30 foot depth section. If the layers were from separate floods over 100s of years I would predict to find a progression of younger to older dates. I might also notice that pollen sample taken from layers top to bottom in those Mt St. Helens deposits are all the same rather than showing any seasonal pattern. I am sure there are many other predictions about what we should find in those layers that we could test. As a result even thousands of years later when these layers become more cemented together we would likely be able to identify if these layers were the result of separate events or a single event.

      In the case of the the St. George area, there are multiple complex geological formations. Their complexity does not necessitate that they were formed through many separate events over long periods of time in of themselves but I would suggest that the scheme I laid out provides some of the minimal pieces of data that theory of origins must account for and viewing these features as occurring as discreet events over long periods of time makes the most sense of the evidence that we at hand. Just to take one example, if lava is produced in water it reacts with the water to from a chemically different form of basalt than if it is formed while exposed to the air. The basalt that makes up the table tops in the St. George area are definitely formed under air and not water. That isn’t proof against a global flood but it is evidence that must be accounted for by any model of the formation of these sites. Clearly even in a flood model these lava fields are post-flood events and so the ‘complexity” of this location cant’ be accounted for by a single event but must include at least some discrete post-flood events.
      Large events do happen and do cause features on this earth that can be identified as having been accomplished in a short period of time. It isn’t as if most modern geologist aren’t well aware of this or are afraid to admit that some geological features were formed very very quickly. But again, I would just emphasize that just because something can happen doesn’t mean that it is a reasonable explanation for all phenomena.
      Thanks for the stimulating feedback. Joel

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    • ashley haworth-roberts says:

      Andy
      Joel’s article seemed pretty detailed to me.

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    • Jim Roberts says:

      You say that each stage of this can be explained by a short, but complex series of events. Can you give us that series of events?

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  4. Like one of the above posters, I’d never heard of inverted valleys before being referred to this site…and I am a science writer. The concept is nicely explained by your diagrams and I got it instantly. I’m now wondering if a lot of basalt caprock represents something similar . . . though I’m more familiar with Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, etc., and the flood basalts.

    Speaking of which you might take a look at Oregon’s Smith Rock. YEC might have a problem with that, too. I myself grew up being told that the Bible tells us what God did (create) but not how, but by the time I got to college, YECs seemed to be everywhere.

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  5. A small correction to this sentence in step 3: “At some point during the erosion of this area, volcanoes to the North spewed enough lava that it flowed 15 miles north into valleys present in the area in the past, filling the valley with hardened basalt.”

    I think that second “north” is supposed to be “south.” Also, I don’t see any reason why the first one is capitalized.

    Also, in a completely irrelevant aside, calling those two sprawling palaces in the last image “homes” strikes me as rather euphemistic. Those St. George lava fields must be considered prize real estate.

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    • Thanks for the corrections. I reworked that section. Yeah, the “homes” in that are are ridiculous. My wife looked at that house and said, who wants to just stare at black rock all day. I say its better than dry desert scrub as far as the eye can see but that got to be extra hot on those 110 degree days that they have there in St. George.

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  6. Joel,

    A couple questions. What evidence does the literature provide for a subaerial extrusion of the basalt? Also, does the literature explicitly say and/or provide evidence to show that the basalt-capped table west of St. George necessarily formed by flowing down a u-shaped trough? The photograph that is shown for an inverted valley here is actually from a road cut West of Hurricane, several miles removed from St. George. In the caption below the airport photo near St.George they say this: “Approximately 1.2 million years ago, lava flowed down a small valley or canyon, that today is the basalt-capped bluff of the St. George Municipal Airport.” In the caption below the photo of the road cut near Hurricane they say this: “The red sandstone and shale on the left and right of the photo contained a channel that filled with lava approximately 350,000 years ago.” Did they extrapolate from one to the other? The top of the bluff near the airport is flat, but the top of the basalt at the road cut is not. Again, the geology of the area is complex and I can only respond based on the evidence that is presented, so it helps to know what the actual observations are that have been recorded in the literature..

    Andy W.

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    • Hi Andy, I’m falling behind on the comments but I definitely wanted to get to yours. I’m familiar with the pictures you mention regarding the road cut near Hurricane. I considered using that image but decided it would elicit exactly your question:-) I’m certainly not expert on the area but it seems pretty clear that volcanism has been occurring in the area in different stages. Even those two flat topped hills east of St. George are likely not dated to the same age. The 1.2 million is a general age for two of the hills there but the third east of the airport site sits at least 500 feet higher. If you think about it for a minute those two flat topped hills don’t make sense if they were formed at the same time because two valleys (or just law areas between hills) probably wouldn’t be right next to each other like that. I don’t know the dates but I would predict that the basalt from the east hill is older representing a small valley filled with lava. Then the hill (or possibly even flat area next to the lava flow, eroded creating a new valley next to that basalt. A later eruptive period produced new lava that from from the North down into this new valley next to what is now a higher ridge of basalt. Then the area arround both of these continued to erode to the present. This relates to the Hurricane lava flow which is dated to be from a much later eruptive phase. Since this lava was laid out on different strata, may have had a different composition, and may have been subject to different erosive forces since its formation it looks fairly different from the other lava fields. That new lava field around the golf courses is a very lumpy jagged lava field but it much thinner than what caps the hills not far away. That lava comes from a different sources vent and so probably had different characteristics. As you say, the area is quite complex. Regarding the aerial formation of the lava. I don’t know of any specific study of the basalts but I would be fairly confident that a study of the basalts would be able to tell whether those layers were deposited under water or above ground. A quick search of some lit of other basalts considered to be even older in southern Utah all describe them as characteristic of sub-aerial deposits. I admit I doubt anyone working in the area would ever really consider the possibility but if a YEC scientists wanted to it would fairly east to test their hypothesis. The Hawaiian seamount literature would provide a good example since they were specifically testing the underwater seamounts to see if the volcanoes had been produced under the ocean or if the mountains had one time been above sea leval and formed primarily while exposed to the air. It was found that 5000 or more feet of the tops of the seamounts had basalt that is characteristic of being exposed to the air on formation and they had to drill very far down into the peaks to reach a point where the basalts exhibited exposure to ocean water in their formation.

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  7. A godly reading of Genesis makes the immense age of the earth perfectly clear (and supports evolution, too). It is folly to parley with Satan. Young Earth Creationists are liars about God’s word and will burn in the pit. Do not attempt to set them straight for in their pride they will not listen.

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  8. ashley haworth-roberts says:

    It looks like Andy cannot answer Jim’s question. Also I am puzzled by Christian’s statement “A godly reading of Genesis makes the immense age of the earth perfectly clear (and supports evolution, too)”. I agree with him that many – probably not all – YECs shamelessly lie about science or uncritically repeat lies about science claiming that they are facts presumably because other YECs say so and ‘evolutionists’ disagree.

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    • Ashley,

      Like Joel, I too have been getting behind on the comments. In response to Jim’s question:

      Sediments deposited
      Valley eroded
      Tidal action removes water
      Basalts flow into valley
      Water again transgresses and erodes around basalts

      I’m not persuaded, however, that the basalts on top of the airport mesa and the surrounding table features were deposited in the open air. But even if they were, the scheme above could account for them. On a side note, at least one study that I have seen of Icelandic basalts shows that there is a fine line between a basalt laid down in a subearial environment and one laid down in a submarine environment, at least when relying on sulfur content as an indicator.

      Andy W.

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      • ashley haworth-roberts says:

        Andy

        As Joel wrote above: “Conventional geology provides a very plausible and scientifically testable set of theories for how this landscape could have evolved over long periods of time. Young earth creationism provides nothing but ad-hoc explanations with no evidence to support them.”

        I suggest that – as is the wont of young earth creationists everywhere – you play with words by suggesting or at least implying that one ‘complex’ short-term event or ‘set’ of events could achieve the same geological ‘outcome’ in the particular landscape Joel describes as a series of well separated and long-term events over billions then millions then thousands of years. From reading the information that has been presented here I strongly disagree (or are you saying God performed a ‘miracle’ ie something not scientifically testable or falsifiable).

        You have now answered Jim’s question. However, the way I read your reply is that you are trying to claim that in the space of around one year ‘Noah’s Flood’ laid down thousands of feet of fossil bearing rock, eroded valleys, temporarily abated through some unspecified form of ‘tidal action’ so that basalt lava could then fill the valleys, then the waters returned again and eroded the softer neighbouring sandstone rocks leaving the former valleys as the highest points in the landscape.

        I think your ‘explanation’ of how one ‘complex’ (you can say that again) event could achieve all that is utterly preposterous.

        And what about Joel’s stages 5, 6 and 7?

        Young Earth creationism is anti-scientific religious apologetics pure and simple.

        But I’m no geologist of course. I would be very interested to read any comment by Joel to the effect that he thinks your response accounts for ANYTHING. But I would not bet on reading any such comment.

        Ashley

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  1. […] ideology with the patient application of evidence, facts and your own two eyes. His post on “Inverted Valleys: A Question of Age” is effective not just because he shows how these flat-topped hills in Utah demonstrate that […]

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