Battelle geologist continues Ice Age floods series

By Eric Degerman, Tri-City HeraldJuly 12, 2012 

RICHLAND, Wash. -- Battelle geologist Bruce Bjornstad, one of the leaders in the study of Ice Age floods, continues in the footsteps of the late J Harlen Bretz.

And Bjornstad's latest book -- On The Trail of the Ice Age Floods: The Northern Reaches -- serves as a guide to the remarkable remnants of the cataclysmic Ice Age events in the upper Columbia Basin and Idaho Panhandle.

It's a natural follow-up to the Richland scientist's 2006 solo work On The Trail of the Ice Age Floods: A Geological Field Guide to the Mid-Columbia Basin.

The Eastern Washington University graduate co-wrote it with one of his mentors, Eugene Kiver, EWU professor emeritus of geology.

"This new book doesn't deal with the Tri-Cities, but it's all connected," Bjornstad told the Herald. "The first book centered on the Tri-Cities, which is where I live, so it was easy for me to do the reconnaissance. This starts where the other book left off -- all that water that came through the northern reaches came through here eventually, then Wallula Gap and finally the Pacific Ocean."

Smithsonian magazine recently named the Ice Age Floods Trail among "the 10 most spectacular geologic sites in the continental U.S," and this book offers a studious look beyond the sagebrush and basalt, taking the reader farther up the Columbia River and into the Channeled Scablands.

The book also shows why the Columbia Basin continues to fascinate geologists, and anyone who picks it up won't view Eastern Washington and North Idaho quite the same way.

For example, my folks live in the Idaho Panhandle on a golf course about 500 yards from Twin Lakes. Until I began reading The Northern Reaches, I was ignorant to the major geological significance of the Rathdrum Prairie, immediately east of Highway 41.

Other nuggets in The Northern Reaches include the estimated speed of the Glacial Lake Missoula outbursts (65 mph) and that the estimated levels of the Earth's oceans was 460 feet lower than modern times because so much of the water on our planet was in the form of ice on the continents.

The 50 color images near the back of the book give life to the features described in the earlier pages, starting with Glacial Lake Missoula, Lake Pend Oreille and the Channeled Scabland of the Columbia Basin.

Work on The Northern Reaches began soon after the first book was published, said Bjornstad, who spent three years on the fieldwork and two years on writing.

"It's a much bigger area to cover, and there's a lot more information to deal with," he said. "This book is about a third longer, which is why it's more expensive."

And collaborating with Kiver was natural, Bjornstad said.

"He was on my thesis committee at Eastern Washington, which I did in 1980, and was one of the people who introduced me to the floods," Bjornstad said. "We've always been friends, and I have a lot of respect for him, and he's one of the experts on that area. I hadn't worked that area nearly as much as he has. Plus, he's in very good shape and still goes out on hikes all over the place. He contributed to a lot of the trails described in the book."

Sun, heat and exposed basalt combine to make for dangerous hiking in the Channeled Scabland during the summer, so it makes more sense to use spring and autumn to go on the 39 self-guided walking and biking tours suggested in the book.

"Spring is actually the best because the vegetation is just getting started," he said. "In the fall, the grasses and shrubs are taller, so there's more scratchy vegetation."

However, The Northern Reaches also lists five driving tours and suggests two detailed aerial tours.

The most dramatic regions in the book are within a three-hour drive of the Tri-Cities -- the stretch along highways 17 and 155 from Soap Lake to Grand Coulee Dam. The two centerpieces are Dry Falls and Banks Lake's Steamboat Rock, but Bjornstad said Moses Coulee, north of the Beezley Hills west of Ephrata, should not be overlooked.

"Moses Coulee is a pretty spectacular feature that most people don't know about," Bjornstad said. "It's about the same depth and length as Grand Coulee."

At some point, Bjornstad and his colleagues hope Congress will fund and promote the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail, legislation Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Doc Hastings collaborated on in 2009.

"It's signed into law, but so far no money has been appropriated, and who knows when there will be?" Bjornstad said. "Only a modest initial investment is needed to get the trail going with a small annual maintenance budget after that.

"(The National Geologic Trail) was a big accomplishment, the first of its kind," Bjornstad continued. "There's not another one in the Park Service or anywhere in the U.S. The work is getting done in other ways, though. A lot of people are putting in their own time."

Bjornstad seems to enjoy leading the effort.

"I'm getting a little return in terms of royalties on the book," he said. "It's not nearly equal to the amount of time and effort, but I didn't do it for the money. I did it to share the knowledge with people and to blow our horn for some of the special things that we have here in our back yard."

Early on, the book points out a strange dichotomy among geologists as they struggle with the conservation, research and economic development.

In Chapter 1, Bjornstad and Kiver write, "Perhaps, as more roads and excavations expose fresh outcrops of flood deposits, new evidence for old floods will be uncovered to help work out the chronology for earlier Ice Age floods."

On the other hand, Bjornstad admits, "I hate to see a lot of these flood bars removed by sand and gravel companies, so that is a contradiction. As a geologist, I like to see as much exposure (of soil) as possible in order to do the interpretation and tell the stories behind what we're seeing."

Some have said they would give up a chunk of their savings or years of their life to be able to witness an Ice Age outburst from a safe distance. Bjornstad, a senior research scientist for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is more conservative.

"Life is pretty precious," he said. "I don't know, I would give up maybe a year. I'm 60 now, so I don't have that many more good years left. Besides, I can visualize it pretty well without having to see it."

According to Bjornstad, evidence of the last Glacial Lake Missoula flooding indicates it took place about 14,000 years ago -- about 5,000 years prior to Kennewick Man.

"There's no physical evidence of humans in the area at the time of the floods, but the American Indians have legends. Laliik, their name for Rattlesnake Mountain, translates to 'land above the water,' Bjornstad said. "There is other evidence to suggest there could have been man in the Northwest, but were they here to witness? We don't know for sure."

These days, trilogies seem to be the norm in the entertainment industry, which prompts Bjornstad's fans to wonder if there's a third volume.

"I get that question a lot, but not as long as I'm working full time," he said. "It's basically like working two jobs. Maybe after I retire in a few years. The natural place to go would be the Columbia Gorge. I haven't made that commitment yet, and someone else might pick up the ball and do something like my first two books. It doesn't have to be me."

Last month, Bjornstad joined Kiver at EWU in Cheney for the book's public unveiling.

Bjornstad's seven-city book tour resumes July 16 with his first Tri-City signing event for The Northern Reaches. It is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in PNNL's Battelle Auditorium, 902 Battelle Blvd., Richland.

He also is scheduled to give a presentation Aug. 8 at the Kennewick REI. There is no charge to attend the event, which begins at 7:15 p.m., but it is limited to the first 75 who register. That is available at

* On The Trail of the Ice Age Floods: The Northern Reaches, $26, 480 pages, is published by Keokee Books in Sandpoint, Idaho.

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