Death Valley: Extreme Testimony

 

Change is inevitable, unavoidable, and unstoppable.  It is constantly happening and can be measured from moment to moment.  Like an hourglass, with the movement of every sand particle, whether by water or wind, change is occurring.  The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that all things are subject to "entropy" and are moving towards a lower state of energy ... the sand particle dropping to the bottom of the hourglass.  But does change require millions of years or can it be observed over a relatively short time?  Take a trip with me to Death Valley - a land of extremes, to observe an extremely large hourglass of changing geology.

Does the evidence seen in Death Valley add up to millions of years or a much shorter timespan?

Death Valley provides three evidences that support the events described in the Bible:

  1. A changed environment

  2. Erosion of large alluvial sediment deposits

  3. Salt and wind erosion

Evidence #1: A Changed Environment

 

Global flood waters trapped on land from the uplift of mountain ranges formed lakes throughout the western United States.  The ice age that followed the Genesis flood also fed these inland lakes not only with glacial melt from the surrounding mountain ranges, but also from the increased precipitation from oceans warmed by volcanic activity during the global flood.  As weather patterns moderated and glacial melt dissipated, the influent into these inland lakes greatly diminished.  As a result, the lakes evaporated.  The evaporation process concentrated minerals and salts leaving evaporites which are water-soluble sedimentary mineral deposits that result from concentration and crystallization by evaporation.

Although today the dry lake beds seem to be separated by large mountain ranges, when water inflow was at its greatest, Lake Manley (Death Valley) was approximately 600 feet deep and Lake Panamint was approximately 900 feet deep.  These lakes reached levels that allowed them to interconnect over the mountain passes. 

Click to Zoom in on the Map of Death Valley

Today, these lakes are referred to as ephemeral (meaning short-lived) or pluvial lakes, which are bodies of water that accumulate in low basins when there is greater available moisture and runoff.  In Death Valley, occasionally some water will accumulate in the lake beds from unusually wet winters.  However, the ponded water will quickly evaporate and, once again, leave a dry lake bed; sometimes referred to as a playa.

The Bad Water Basin in Death Valley is the lowest place in North America at an elevation 282 feet below sea level.  The location of Death Valley also makes it one of the driest places in the United States. High mountain ranges often create a "rainshadow".  The tall peaks break up storm energy and clouds, and result in very little rain occurring on the downwind side of the range.  This happens with the Sierra Nevadas.  The west side of the Sierras is much more lush and green than the arid east side.  Not only is Death Valley on the east side of the Sierras, but it has another significant mountain range - the Panamint Range bordering it on the west side. Altogether, four mountain ranges lie between Death Valley and the Pacific Ocean and allow very little precipitation to get by them.  Death Valley receives on average less than 2 inches per year of rainfall. 

The low elevation, rain shadow, and lack of clouds give Death Valley another extreme distinction - it is the hottest place on earth!  The hottest air temperature ever recorded was 134°F on July 10, 1913.  In the summer of 2001, it gained another world record with the greatest number of consecutive days with a maximum temperature of 100° F or above for a total of 154 days.

One of Death Valley's most convincing testimonies is the changed environment.  Death Valley looked very different in the past with deep lakes and an abundant water source.  Obviously, that has changed.  Very little water is found in this National Park  But, what has not changed?  The mountain ranges are the same, the weather patterns (i.e., jet stream and on-shore flow from the Pacific) are most likely similar, the elevation and geology remain very similar.  Only the abundant source of water is no longer present.  The global flood described in Genesis 6 - 8 and the subsequent ice age triggered by the aftermath of the flood provided an ample mechanism to create the historic lakes that eventually dried up not only in Death Valley but all over the western United States.

Evidence #2: Erosion of Large Alluvial Sediment Deposits

 

Even the casual visitor to Death Valley cannot help but notice the large fans of deposited sediment.  The sediment is called alluvium and is derived from the mountains and canyons above the fan.  Erosion occurs on slopes where water runoff velocity is high.  Sedimentation happens when slopes flatten and velocities slow down allowing particles to fall out.  Larger particles will settle out first and smaller particles will travel farther.  Because of the loss of slope, the flow will typically spread out in all directions which creates the alluvial fan.  In Death Valley, alluvial fans can be huge, sometimes exceeding a width of 5 miles and a length of 3 miles and have several hundred feet of deposited sediment.  They tend to be highest in the middle and to taper in depth in all directions.

For almost 150 years, scientists have been studying how alluvial fans formed.  It is obvious that they formed in the past, but for the most part, they are not observed to be forming today.  Dr. Scott A. Lecce, an expert in fluvial geomorphology, called this the Alluvial Fan Problem, which relates to the difficulty in formulating a general model of alluvial fan development.  Geologists John McPherson and TC Blair, in their paper Processes and Forms of Alluvial Fans, reference primary and secondary processes observed on alluvial fans.  Primary processes are those that transport sediment from the "catchment" (typically mountain canyons) to the alluvial plain where it forms the fan.

Secondary processes occur after the original placement of alluvial fan material and mostly modify the sediment previously deposited.  This secondary modification includes changes to the fan surface due to water and wind erosion, weathering and salt degradation of rock, and bioturbation (caused by plants and burrowing insects and animals).  Many fans have a main "incised" channel that extends from the opening of the canyon at the fan apex; but these channels are more likely related to the primary process of the fan development.  Erosion and the formation of rills and gullies are evident in these deep incised channels, but no recent water event comes even close to the volume needed to cut these channels. 

Alluvial fans are only a problem for those who do not recognize the past occurrence of a global flood and the catastrophic geomorphic changes that resulted from the flood including volcanism, seismic activity, and heavy precipitation during the subsequent ice age caused by oceans warmed by the global flood.  All of this created ideal conditions for significant erosional events (the primary process) that deposited the alluvial fans onto the Death Valley floor approximately 3,500 years ago.  The reason we do not observe these primary alluvial fan generating processes occurring today is because the unique weather and seismic conditions triggered by the aftermath of the global flood no longer exist, at least to the extent that they once did.  The environment has been going into equilibrium ever since the end of the global flood.

While alluvial fans are not observed to be forming in recent history, they are observed to be deteriorating on a daily basis due to the forces of erosion.  This provides evidence not only that the fans formed during unique circumstances, but it also provides evidence that they are relatively young.  Otherwise, if the erosion happening today was occurring for millions of years, there would be no fan left to observe, because it would have completely eroded away with sediments deposited in the lower Death Valley basins.

Incised channel at the mouth of Mosaic Canyon
Copper Canyon Google  Earth Measurement.jpg

We can apply the Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation (RUSLE) to estimate soil loss from an alluvial fan.  
               
A = R x K x LS x C x P
Soil loss "A" is expressed in average annual soil loss per acre measured in tons.  R is the annual erosivity value, K is the soil erodibility factor, LS is a function of the sheet flow length and steepness of slope, C is the cover factor, and P is the practice factor.  According to the USEPA Erosivity Calculator, the annual R value for the Copper Canyon Alluvial Fan is 4.39.  Alluvial soils tend to be predominately coarse sand particles (>85%), therefore, the erodibility "K" factor would be approximately 0.1.  Assuming a sheet flow length of 1,000 feet and a 5% slope typical of alluvial fans, the LS factor would be 2.55.  Most landscapes in Death Valley are devoid of vegetation and that is certainly true of alluvial fans near Bad Water Basin, therefore, the C factor could be assumed to be 1.  No soil conservation practices are present on the fan, so the P factor would also be 1.  Plugging these values into the RUSLE equation, we get an annual soil loss "A" value of 1.12 tons/acre, or measured in volume is 22.4 ft3/acre.  However, RUSLE only measures soil loss due to sheet and rill erosion but does not include soil loss due to gully and mass wasting erosion processes.  Gullies are prevalent on the surfaces of these fans, therefore, the annual soil loss is probably considerably more than the RUSLE value.

There are approximately 4 billion cubic feet of alluvium in the Copper Canyon fan.   At a soil loss rate of 22.4 ft3/year,  the entire fan would disappear in approximately 100,000 years.  Of course some of the soil loss is being replenished by the deposition of eroded material from the watershed above the alluvial fan.   But, as noted by John McPherson and TC Blair, the primary process of alluvial fan building is not observed to be occurring.  However, the secondary process of the erosion of alluvial fans is readily observed.  These observations would validate the geomorphology model of the fans being deposited by a catastrophic erosional event in the relatively recent history - a time scale consistent with the Biblical narrative.

Evidence #3: Salt and Wind Erosion

 

Does erosion occur in places where there is not rain?  Absolutely!  Especially in Death Valley - the land of extremes.  The definition of erosion is when particles become detached.  Water is not the only mechanism for detaching soil and rock particles.  Salt and wind are powerful erosion agents.  They can break down even very durable igneous and metamorphic boulders.  In Death Valley, these erosion processes are observed in various stages of progression.  Under the right conditions, rocks are broken down quickly as shown in the photos displayed here. 

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Salt erosion or salt wasting is very much like freeze / thaw erosion but instead of ice crystals it erodes materials with salt crystals.  Saline water will flow into cracks, crevices, and between lamination layers in rock.  Many times, especially in Death Valley, salt will erode rock from the bottom where it comes into contact with the soil. Capillary action moves saline groundwater to the ground surface.  The hot arid environment quickly evaporates the water leaving salt crystals behind.  Since salt crystals require more space, as they expand, they exert pressure on the rock and slowly cause it to break apart.

Not only does salt cause erosion when it is not raining, but so does wind.  When sand and wind are combined, the erosional effect is dramatically increased.  That is why sand blasting is used to remove paint or corrosion from metals.  If you have ever been to the beach or visited sand dunes on a windy day, you probably experienced the stinging effect of wind propelled sand, especially if you were wearing shorts.  Utility companies have learned that wooden power poles located in areas susceptible to sand storms need to have a metal shroud wrapped around the bottom portion of the pole to protect them from being eaten away by the sand.  A decade or two left exposed will result in the pole being completely whittled away by the sand.

When it comes to wind erosion, there are actually three different forms.  I like to call them the 3 S's of Wind Erosion.  Suspension is the one most people think about, it is the visible dust cloud that sometimes can be driven by the wind for miles.  It typically consists of smaller eroded soil particles like silts, clays, or fine grain sands.  The other two S's, however, are not only eroded particles, but are also the agents of further erosion.  Soil creep is the particle that scoots across the ground, and as it does so it comes into contact with other soil particles and causes them to become detached.  Saltation is the "jumping" particle.  It is small enough for the wind to get it airborne, typically up to 3 or 4 feet aboveground, but the force of gravity combined with the wind causes it to strike (sand blast) the surface of another rock.  This wind erosion feature is what forms the ventifacts in Death Valley. 

In Death Valley, across from the turnoff to the popular Artist Drive, is a ridge comprised of igneous basalt boulders and sand that extends out into the basin.  Winds move with regularity up and down Death Valley north to south and south to north.  The ridge catches the brunt of the wind; and rock and boulders resting on the ridge are in the direct line of fire for saltation particles.  Ventifacts (which means 'wind made') are formed by the sand blasting process.  Basalt (having a Mohs Scale of 6 - a fairly hard durable rock) is whittled away by jumping sand particles.  Being an igneous rock, Basalt has gas bubbles or vesicles from its molten state.  The sand blasting exposes them to reveal flutes.  The wind erosion causes the rock to be shaped with sharp angular sides called Kanters, almost as a jeweler will cut a gem.

On the lee (down wind) side of the ventifact, you will typically notice a pile of sand.  Since this side of the rock is somewhat wind sheltered, the heavier sand particles will settle out there.  The side of the rock with the largest pile of sand, tells the story of from where the wind last originated.  Because the wind can come from either the north or the south, most ventifacts will have pitting and fluting on both sides of the rock.  The sides of the rock will also be scarred with the 'side swiping' action of the sand particles.  A careful examination of the color of the sand particles reveals the source of the sand.  The color of the sand matches the color palette of the rocks on Ventifact Ridge with black, white, pink, gray, and coral colors.

With every eroded particle on Ventifact Ridge, from an alluvial fan, or anywhere else in Death Valley, God's hour glass is marking time.  But what is the hour glass telling us about time?  By the fact that there is still a Ventifact Ridge standing which is being eroded away with every wind gust, or that boulders are still in the process of being eroded by salt, it would indicate that time has been relatively short (geologically speaking) since these erodible features were first formed.  Does this prove the Bible's timeline and geologic narrative?  No, but it does collaborate well with the Bible's claims of an earth that is less than 10,000 years old and a worldwide cataclysmic flood that altered geology 4,500 years ago.  Intellectually, for me, it is harder to accept these Death Valley geologic and erosional features as being millions of years old.  Whether it is extreme weather, dryness, sedimentation, or erosion, Death Valley presents an extremely powerful testimony to the truths in God's Word.