by Trevor J. Major, M.Sc.



"The present is the key to the past" is a saying that has dominated

the science of geology for the last two hundred years. In the late

eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, men like James Hutton and

Charles Lyell promoted the idea that geological processes have operated

at the same rate and in the same way throughout all time. This

philosophy, called uniformitarianism, spilled over into other natural

sciences, and was embraced wholeheartedly by Charles Darwin.

It displaced catastrophism, the prevailing view that the world had

undergone many major upheavals, the final one representing the Great

Flood of Noah. Uniformitarianism denied the occurrence of

catastrophes, even on a regional scale.

That picture has changed in the last few years. Today, most

geologists would refuse to wear the uniformitarianist label. They still

maintain that processes have operated in the same way through time, but

admit that rates can vary on occasion. This new view, called actualism,

allows for an occasional global or regional catastrophe in Earth's

alleged 4.5 billion-year-old history. Of course, any suggestion that

God can intervene in the natural course of events is rejected out-of-


One reason geologists are starting to move away from

uniformitarianism is that nature continues to surprise them. Violent

forces like floods, volcanoes, and earthquakes shame man's efforts to

describe and control the world. Just when he thinks he understands

some geological phenomenon, the present gives him a key to a totally

different door, and beyond that door lies a past he didn't expect.

Regional catastrophes, subjected to the scrutiny of modern science,

have changed our view of the geological record. Nowhere is this more

evident than in studies of recent volcanic activity. This article will

present some lessons from volcanism, especially from the 1980 eruption

of Mount St. Helens. These lessons may help us better understand that

greatest of catastrophes, the Flood.

The Eruption of Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helens rises over eight thousand feet in the southwest

corner of Washington state. It is one of fifteen major volcanoes in the

Cascade Range which stretches from northern California to British


Beginning on March 20, 1980, geologists noticed a lot of earthquake

activity under the mountain. Over the next few weeks, they saw steam

explosions, a new crater, and earthquake faults. By April 12, a huge

bulge had developed on the northern flank, and continued to grow at the

rate of five feet a day. Finally, at 8:32 a.m. on May 18, 1980, Mount

St. Helens lost its head---literally. A magnitude 5.1 earthquake

transformed the bulge into a massive avalanche. More than 3.5 billion

cubic yards of rock and ice raced into Spirit Lake and the North Fork

of the Toutle River at up to 155 miles per hour. It laid down a deposit

13 miles long, half a mile to a mile wide, and as much as 500 feet


Somewhere beneath the mountain, gases had built up huge pressures

at the top of a "chamber" of molten rock. Suddenly, like taking the cap

off a shaken soda bottle, the avalanche allowed these pent-up gases to

shoot up and sideways through the new gap in the mountain. The lateral

blast fired a 500øF, debris-filled steam cloud at 60 to 250 miles per

hour. It travelled 17 miles, traversing four major ridges and

devastating 136,000 acres of forest to the northwest, north, and

northeast of the summit. Trees were charred up to 11 miles away.

Pyroclastic flows (composed of hot water, and pulverized rock and

pumice) poured out of the vent at up to 60 miles an hour.

For the next nine hours, an ash-laden column of old rock from the

mountain, and fresh rock from the magma chamber, erupted 60,000 feet

into the sky. Two hundred miles to the east, Ritzville, Washington was

dusted by almost three inches of ash having the consistency of talcum


In just a few seconds, the mountain shrunk 1,300 feet, and gained a

crater almost 2,500 feet deep. Decker and Decker (1981, 244[3]:68)

compared the sustained power output of that day to 27,000 Hiroshima-

size bombs exploding every second, or 100 times the generating capacity

of all U.S. electric power stations. Sixty-two people lost their

lives, and property losses were estimated at one billion dollars.

Smaller eruptions and pyroclastic flows followed until

mid-October. The monster is resting, for now. Yet---and this is no

comfort to people who have a volcano for a neighbor---the 1980 eruption

of Mount St. Helens pales in comparison to other eruptions in the last

two thousand years. On April 5, 1815, on the island of Sumbawa in what

is now Indonesia, the mountain of Tambora exploded. It ejected 150

times more ash and rock than Mount St. Helens. The blast killed 10,000

people; 82,000 more died of the famine and disease that followed.


In the days and years following the eruptions at Mount St. Helens,

scientists were able to study the effects with unprecedented attention

to detail. Now let us glean some lessons from those studies which

apply to the Flood, and to catastrophism in general.

Rapid Deposition

Perhaps the biggest surprise for geologists studying the volcano is

that so much work could be done in so little time. As mentioned

previously, deposits over 500 feet were laid down in just one day.

Subsequent eruptions added another hundred feet. This rapid deposition

is amazing, but the features of those deposits are challenging as well.

For instance, a common assumption is that one layer of ash represents

one eruption. Thus, many layers could represent many eruptions over

many years.

Similarly, it is assumed that sediments laid down in a catastrophe

would be deposited in a single, thick, consistent layer. However, some

deposits at Mount St. Helens had layers a fraction of an inch thick to

over three feet thick, each representing a few seconds to several

minutes of accumulation (Austin, 1986).

The June 12 eruption of Mount St. Helens produced a twenty-five

foot thick deposit of ash with several layers. In the `Nova' television

documentary about the mountain's new activities, one geologist

confessed that such features caused him to reconsider all his

assumptions about volcanic eruptions in the geological record.

Rapid Erosion

Almost as soon as the deposits were laid down, destructive forces

sculpted them into new forms. Steam blasts, landslides, water waves,

pyroclastic flows, and mudflows scoured the soft ash and mud. Fast-

moving remnants of the mountain produced waves up to 850 feet high on

the north shore of Spirit Lake (Coffin, 1983). Masses of water incised

the new surface, forming deep gullies as the channels widened. A

mudflow on March 19, 1982, eroded a gully over a hundred feet deep in

the North Fork of the Toutle River. Older lava flows of hard rock were

not immune, being eroded to depths of tens of feet in some places.

Geologists often envision such landscapes evolving over hundreds or

thousands of years. However, Mount St. Helens has shown that if there

is a great deal of energy available, valleys, hills, and many other

features can form very quickly.

As creationist geologist Steve Austin notes,

"What conventional geomorphic theory says takes thousands

of years may, instead, be accomplished within a few years.

Geomorphologists have learned that the time scale they have

been trained to attach to landform development may be

misleading" (1984, 11:98).

Analogies to the Grand Canyon

Such rapid deposition and erosion may provide some analogies to the

development of the Grand Canyon (see Austin, in press). For the first

half of this century, uniformitarian geologists explained the Grand

Canyon by the "antecedent river" theory. In their view, the Colorado

River existed before, or antecedent to, the uplift of the surrounding

countryside. As the river cut down into the rock, the land was forced

up at the same rate. The canyon formed slowly over 50 to 70 million

years. Two major problems arise: (a) sediments eroded over this long

period of time should have been deposited somewhere to the west of the

Grand Canyon, but they have not been found; and, (b) if the upper

Colorado River has been eroding at current rates for millions of years,

the average depth of erosion in its watershed should be about seven

miles, but it is less than a mile.

The antecedent view has been eclipsed by the "stream capture" or

"precocious gully" theory. This idea begins with an "ancestral"

Colorado River flowing north-south, and a "Hualapai stream" flowing

east-west. Around five million years ago, erosion at the head of the

Hualapai \reached the Colorado River. The stream, being at a lower

elevation, "captured" the river, causing it to change its course into

the current east-west drainage system. Austin offers four objections:

(a) it is unlikely that the stream head would erode in this way; (b)

the timing of the capture is not consistent with the location and

nature of geological formations in the area; (c) like the antecedent

theory, the capture theory requires deep erosion in the upper plateau

regions, but this does not exist; and, (d) there is no evidence for the

existence of an ancient north-south river.

As an alternative, Austin suggests a "breached dam" theory. This

idea proposes that the Grand Canyon was formed by a catastrophic

drainage of water held in massive lakes behind what is known as the

Kaibab Upwarp. This area could have contained 3,000 cubic miles of

water---more than three times the volume of water in Lake Michigan.

Sometime after the Flood of Noah, this water spilled over a low point

in the Kaibab Upwarp. The tremendous quantity of water, with its high

velocities, was sufficient to erode through sediments and bedrock to

great depths. Analogies from natural and man-made dam failures,

including rapid gully formation on the North Fork of the Toutle River,

provide evidences of the catastrophic processes and their resulting


Peat Formation

According to prevailing theories of coal formation, the organic

matter which makes up coal originally collected in a swamp over many

millions of years. However, the forces at work in the Mount St. Helens

eruption show that peat can accumulate rapidly. The blast left millions

of uprooted trees in Spirit Lake. Most formed a dense log mat over the

surface, and many were partially buried in the lake sediments. Bark and

branches from these logs fell to the bottom of the lake forming a layer

of peat. According to Austin (1986, pp iii,iv),

The Spirit Lake peat resembles, both compositionally and

texturally, certain coal beds of the eastern United States,

which also are dominated by tree bark and appear to have

accumulated beneath floating log mats.... All that is

needed is burial and slight heating to transform the Spirit

Lake peat into coal. Further, upright tree stumps in many

coal beds are assumed to be in "growth position." This is

meant to prove that the peat collected in the same place

the trees were growing. In Spirit Lake, however, logs with

an attached root system were found floating in an upright

position. This shows that peat can be transported in a

flood or similar disaster, and still contain upright

stumps (see also, Major, 1991, pp 9-11).

Petrified Forests

Petrified forests represent the remains of forests buried and

preserved in ancient sediments. In some places, like Yellowstone

National Park, there are many layers of sediments and stumps.

Supposedly, each layer represents the growth and burial of a forest

over many hundreds of years.

Once again, Mount St. Helens shows that this sort of thinking is

not necessarily true. The tree stumps in Spirit Lake were left at many

different levels in the lake. Some were buried in sediments, while

others settled over time. Side-scan sonar surveys of the lake bottom

suggest a submerged forest of 19,500 erect trees (Coffin, 1983). Yet,

these layers of sediments and stumps were formed in a single

catastrophic event.

Rapid Recovery

The Washington Department of Game estimates that 11,000 fish,

27,000 grouse, 11,000 hares, 6,000 black-tailed deer, 5,200 elk, 1,400

coyotes, 300 bobcats, 200 black bears, and 15 mountain lions perished

in the 1980 eruption (Mohlenbrock, 1990). Many burrowing animals

survived in their subterranean shelters, and many representatives of

former species moved back into the area very quickly. According to

Michael Tennesen (1986), the Roosevelt elk moved in 400 years ahead of

schedule. By 1982, 70% of the plants in the devastated area were

regenerating from buds buried underground. Within seven years, 10% of

the forest had grown back (Witteman, 1987).

Such rapid recovery may have analogies to the expected repopulation

of the world after the Flood. There are some obvious differences. The

Flood covered every portion of the Earth to great depths (Genesis 7:18-

20), and all land-dwelling, air-breathing animals lost their lives,

except those in the ark (Genesis 6:17; 7:21-23). However, plants and

aquatic creatures which were not on the ark may have recovered quickly

after the land appeared. And, as the animals left the ark, it is

possible that they were able to recolonize the devastated land in a

relatively short time.

Analogies to Surtsey

Geologists have been surprised by other eruptions in recent

history. Sometime in early November, 1963, a volcano began to erupt

under the sea off Iceland's southern coast. By November 16, the new

island of Surtsey was born, measuring 140 feet high and 1,800 feet

long. In the next eighteen months, lava and ash built up a permanent

island over 500 feet high and covering over 600 acres. In the respites

between eruptions, and certainly after the eruptions ceased, life took

hold where it could. Insects, birds, and plants established themselves

very quickly.

In his pictorial chronicle of Surtsey, Icelandic geologist Sigurdur

Thorarinsson stressed his wonderment at the speed of the island's

creation. Within a few months he found hills, beaches, cliffs, hollows,

glens, and undulating plains. "On Surtsey," he wrote, "only a few

months sufficed for a landscape to be created which was so varied and

mature that it was almost beyond belief" (1967, p 39). On that same

page, Thorarinsson offers the following revelation:

An Icelander who has studied geology and geomorphology

at foreign universities is later taught by experience

in his own homeland that the time scale he had been

trained to attach to geological developments is

misleading when assessments are made of the forces---

constructive and destructive---which have molded and

are still molding the face of Iceland. What elsewhere

may take thousands of years may be accomplished here in

one century. All the same he is amazed whenever he comes

to Surtsey, because the same development may take weeks

or even a few days here.


The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens shows that thick, complex

sequences of sediments can be laid down in a short period of time. It

shows that erosion can occur quickly, cutting impressive channels in

rocks and sediments, and that varied landforms can arise within a few

days. Such rapid deposition and erosion provide important clues for the

post-Flood development of features like the Grand Canyon. It shows that

thick peat deposits and layers of tree stumps can form in a single

event. This challenges uniformitarian assumptions about the formation

of coal, and of petrified forest sequences. It shows that life can

recover quickly after devastation, which may provide clues to the post

Flood recolonization of the Earth.

Using a single, global Flood to explain much of the world around us

seems an absurd idea to any geologist with a deeply-engrained

uniformitarian mind-set. Yet, with its lessons on catastrophes, the

eruption of Mount St. Helens teaches us to have more trust in God's

Word. We could not, and would not, wish for a better case study.


Austin, Steven A. (1984), "Rapid Erosion at Mount St.

Helens," `Origins', 11:90-98.

Austin, Steven A. (1986), "Mount St. Helens and

Catastrophism," `Impact', No. 157.

Austin, Steven A. (in press), `Grand Canyon: Monument to Catas-

trophe' (El Cajon, CA: Institute for Creation Research).

Coffin, H.G. (1983), "Mount St. Helens and Spirit Lake,"

`Origins', 10:9-17.

Decker, Robert and Barbara Decker (1981), "The Eruptions of

Mount St. Helens," `Scientific American', 244[3]:68-80.

Major, Trevor J. (1991), `Genesis and the Origin of Coal &

Oil', Creation-Science Monograph #1 (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics


Mohlenbrock, Robert H. (1990), "Mount St. Helens, Washing-

ton," `Natural History', June, pp 26-29.

Tennesen, Michael (1986), "Rising from the Ashes,"

`National Wildlife', 24[6]:34-39.

Thorarinsson, Sigurdur (1967) `Surtsey: The New Island in the

North Atlantic' (New York: Viking Press).

Witteman, Paul A. (1987), "New Life Under the Volcano,"

`Time', June 15, p 63.

(C) 1991 Apologetics Press, Inc All Rights Reserved

Apologetics Press

230 Landmark Drive

Montgomery, AL 36117-2752

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