Megafloods: What They Leave Behind Essay

Submitted By 4hughesmelis
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South-central Idaho and the surface of Mars have an interesting geological feature in common: amphitheater-headed canyons. These U-shaped canyons with tall vertical headwalls are found near the Snake River in Idaho as well as on the surface of Mars, according to photographs taken by satellites. Various explanations for how these canyons formed have been offered -- some for Mars, some for Idaho, some for both -- but in a paper published the week of December 16 in the online issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Caltech professor of geology Michael P. Lamb, Benjamin Mackey, formerly a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech, and W. M. Keck Foundation Professor of Geochemistry Kenneth A. Farley offer a plausible account that all these canyons were created by enormous floods.


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Canyons in Malad Gorge State Park, Idaho, are carved into a relatively flat plain composed of a type of volcanic rock known as basalt. The basalt originated from a hotspot, located in what is now Yellowstone Park, which has been active for the last few million years. Two canyons in Malad Gorge, Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon, are characterized by tall vertical headwalls, roughly 150 feet high, that curve around to form an amphitheater. Other amphitheater-headed canyons can be found nearby, outside the Gorge -- Box Canyon, Blue Lakes Canyon, and Devil's Corral -- and also elsewhere on Earth, such as in Iceland. To figure out how they formed, Lamb and Mackey conducted field surveys and collected rock samples from Woody's Cove, Stubby Canyon, and a third canyon in Malad Gorge, known as Pointed Canyon. As its name indicates, Pointed Canyon ends not in an amphitheater but in a point, as it progressively narrows in the upstream direction toward the plateau at an average 7 percent grade. Through Pointed Canyon flows the Wood River, a tributary of the larger Snake River, which in turn empties into the Columbia River on its way to the Pacific Ocean. Geologists have a good understanding of how the rocks in Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon achieved their characteristic appearance. The lava flows that hardened into basalt were initially laid down in layers, some more than six feet thick. As the lava cooled, it contracted and cracked, just as mud does when it dries. This produced vertical cracks across the entire layer of lava-turned-basalt. As each additional sheet of lava covered the same land, it too cooled and cracked vertically, leaving a wall that, when exposed, looks like stacks of tall blocks, slightly offset from one another with each additional layer. This type of structure is called columnar basalt. While the formation of columnar basalt is well understood, it is not clear how, at Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon, the vertical walls became exposed or how they took on their curved shapes. The conventional explanation is that the canyons were formed via a process called "groundwater sapping," in which springs at the bottom of the canyon gradually carve tunnels at the base of the rock wall until this undercutting destabilizes the structure so much that blocks or columns of basalt fall off from above, creating the amphitheater below. This explanation has not been corroborated by the Caltech team's observations, for two reasons. First, there is no evidence of undercutting, even though there are existing springs at the base of Woody's Cove and Stubby Canyon. Second, undercutting should leave large boulders in place at the foot of the canyon, at least until they are dissolved or carried away by groundwater. "These blocks are too big to move by spring flow, and there's not enough time for the groundwater to have dissolved them away," Lamb explains, "which means that large floods are needed to move them out. To make a canyon, you have to erode the canyon headwall, and you also have to evacuate the material that…