The Grand Canyon as a Creationist Clock
By Ryan McGillivray
When asked to imagine the biggest, deepest, longest canyon one can imagine, an image of the Grand Canyon will often pop into a person's mind. The Grand Canyon is a site of almost unfathomable grandeur, which inspires awe in anyone who sees it. Lately, however, the canyon has also inspired controversy, specifically over its origins. It is generally held by the scientific community that the Grand Canyon formed by the slow erosion of the Colorado River over millions of years. Dr. Steve Austin, however, has proposed an entirely different theory on the age and formation of the canyon and wrote a book explaining his theories titled Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe. Dr. Austin believes that the canyon was formed extremely rapidly during the period immediately following the global flood of Noah in the biblical book of Genesis. Dr. Austin proposed that the canyon is thousands, not millions of years old. This fits into the larger field of Creation Science, in which people try to prove with scientific evidence that the world is only 6,000 years old. This paper will summarize Dr. Austin's claims and delve into the evidence he uses to support them by examining his book. Dr. Austin supports his claim with theories of rapid erosion and Flood deposition of fossils. He also addresses issues like radiometric dating, in which he attempts to cast doubt on established scientific methods of dating Earth's features. Austin's findings became one basis for the RATE project, a creation science team aimed at proving the pitfalls and inadequacies of radiometric dating techniques. Dr. Austin offers an interesting view of the origins of the canyon, some of which can be scrutinized and critiqued by his opponents, but in order to critique a theory, one must first know and understand it.
Dr. Austin not only holds a differing view from established science on how the Grand Canyon was formed, but also on the formation of the very rocks through which the canyon is carved. According to Dr. Austin, there are five divisions of rock exposed in the Grand Canyon, and each one can be attributed to a specific time or event in the Genesis account. The first division, deep in the canyon's gorge, consists of igneous and metamorphic rock. Austin believes this rock is the remnant of the crust of the earth created during the first part of Creation Week. The second division of rock, which is the first division to show stratification, is highly faulted and tilted. Austin admits that this shows evidence of tectonic activity, and he attributes it to tectonic activity after Day 3 of Creation Week. He uses biblical interpretation to justify his conclusions on this specific division. Austin's third division consists of the flat-lying sedimentary layers that make up the bulk of Grand Canyon rocks, and he attributes these layers to sedimentation during the early part of Noah's Flood. The fourth division contains evidence of erosion and deposition, which Austin attributes to the final stages of the Flood as the waters were receding. The fifth, final, and youngest division of strata, according to Austin, includes all the rocks that were deposited by various processes after the flood. This includes lake sediments, landslide deposits, gravels, and lava flows, all of which occurred after the Flood (Austin 1994:57). These five divisions account for all of the rocks present in the canyon. Austin's rock divisions have the same temporal sequence as in mainstream geology; however, they vary enormously on the age of each event of deposition and erosion. Dr. Austin's aim in giving his dates is explicitly clear with the name of one of his chapters: "A Creationist View of Grand Canyon Strata".
After explaining how the rocks of the Grand Canyon were formed, Austin then presents his theory for how these rocks were eroded to create the canyon itself. Austin believes that a catastrophic flood originated north of the present canyon and rapidly carved the canyon in a relatively small amount of time. Austin addresses the question of how this might occur by introducing the breached dam theory. Austin states "Of various catastrophic flood models which can be proposed, the most fascinating is the theory of the catastrophic drainage of lakes" (Austin 1994:93). This theory states that a natural dam formed above the present canyon which would have filled the Colorado Plateau with water creating several large lakes. The alleged lakes would have covered an estimated 30,000 square miles, or roughly three times the size of present day Lake Michigan (Austin 1994:93-94). Austin explains that rapid erosion of bedrock can occur through the processes of cavitation bubbles, hydraulic plucking, and hydraulic vortexes, which can erode large amounts of relatively hard rock very quickly (Austin 1994:104).
Austin uses several examples of breached dams causing catastrophic flooding to support his claim. His most noted example is that of the Missoula Flood in western Montana, Idaho, and eastern Washington. Lake Missoula was a large lake located in western Montana held back by a glacial dam. When the dam failed, the flood cut deep valleys and scarred much of the terrain of eastern Washington. Austin cites Palouse Canyon, which was formed by this flood, to prove that such an event may have formed the Grand Canyon (Austin 1994:95-97). The picture of the canyon shows several similarities to the Grand Canyon, except it is significantly smaller.
As in the Grand Canyon, there is also a river running through Palouse Canyon, which proves to Austin that the Colorado River was actually a byproduct of Grand Canyon and was not the force that created it. Austin also cites several smaller canyons that are known to have formed relatively quickly to support his claim about the age of Grand Canyon, several of which are located around Mount St. Helens.
In comparing the Grand Canyon with certain parts of eastern Washington, Austin fails to address the vast differences between the regions. Austin is quick to point out several similarities between the two sites, yet he completely neglects the far larger number of differences. As Dr. Timothy Heaton pointed out in critiquing Austin's parallel between the two areas, there are vast differences between the Grand Canyon and most of the flood evidence in Washington. These two areas are so different that they could almost be considered opposites of each other. Dr. Heaton summed up this point when he explained "The narrow inner gorge of the Grand Canyon and its equilibrium tributaries are the antithesis of the broad floodplain. of the Channeled Scablands" (Heaton 1995:36). Closer examination of the regions as a whole reveals these immense differences between Grand Canyon and the Scablands. While it is true that certain areas of the Lake Missoula flood plain resemble certain parts of the Grand Canyon, on a whole, the two regions are incredibly different.
In supporting his theory, Austin tries to discredit evidence used by those with opposing views. One way he does this is by pointing out the discrepancies in Radiometric dating, specifically of Grand Canyon rocks. He begins by suggesting that Radiometric dating has many flaws and does not make a good clock because the initial conditions are not known and the rate of decay may not be constant (Austin 1994: 129, 2005). He compares the method to telling time with an hourglass because you don't necessarily know how much sand was in the top of the hourglass to begin with. Austin then devotes an entire chapter to explaining this "failed" clock very intricately. He also gives many examples of discordant dates yielded by radiometric dating of rocks in the canyon. Austin eventually concludes that discordant dates, incorrect assumptions, and incoherent data involving rock stratification all prove that radiometric dating is not a viable method for dating the Grand Canyon. Dr. Austin's conclusions on radiometric dating became the foundation for the creation science group RATE and their subsequent research. The RATE team was assembled to test different rock samples, many from Grand Canyon with radiometric dating methods. To summarize their vast amounts of data and calculations, the RATE team concluded that radiometric dating proved to be unreliable as a clock to date rocks (Austin 2005).
Ultimately, Dr. Austin provides a plethora of information to support his claim. Whether or not he is right is a topic of hot debate, which inspires public controversy. One recent controversy caused by this theory developed when Grand Canyon gift shops began selling the book Grand Canyon, a Different View (Vail 2003). This book is a compilation of creationist thought which includes the work of Austin and his creationist colleagues along with many photographs, poems, and scriptural passages. The book begins with the following statement: "It [The Grand Canyon] is a solemn witness to the mighty power of God, who is not only the omnipotent Creator of all things, but also the avenging Defender of His holiness" (Vail 2003). Park Superintendent Joe Alston attempted to block the sale of the book in the park in summer of 2003. This action caused many creationists to protest, which in turn spurred several scientific organizations to join the fight on the side of Alston. Eventually the Bush administration approved the book to be sold in the park, despite several requests for review by the Park Service. Whether or not it is a loss for the side of old earth proponents, the book can now be purchased inside the park (U.S. Gov Info 2004).
Austin's argument is more scientific than most creation claims before him. Austin presents a claim, then supports it through observation, drawing parallels, and a certain degree of scientific inquiry. His findings are not true science, however. What hinders this scientific inquiry, however, is the ever present, overriding subject of faith. Austin used the Bible as a basis for his claims, and he conducted his research to support the conclusion he already drew before even starting research. This bias may completely invalidate his work because it presents itself as the antithesis to proper scientific research. To some, however, faith is much more powerful than science. To these people, the tool of faith trumps science whenever they come in conflict. Religious conclusions are very rarely subject to scientific testing. Austin's model of the Grand Canyon is, at its foundation, nothing but a religious claim dressed as science.
- Austin, Steven A. 1994. Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe. Santee, California: Institute for Creation Research.
- Austin, Steven A. 2005. Do radioisotopic clocks need repair? Testing the assumptions of isochron dating using K-Ar, Rb-Sr, Sm-Nd, and Pb-Pb isotopes. Chapter 5 (pp. 325-392) in L. Vardiman, A. A. Snelling, and E. F. Chaffin (eds.) Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth, Volume II: Results of a Young-Earth Creationist Research Initiative, Institute for Creation Research, El Cajon, California, 818 p.
- Heaton, Timothy. 1995. A Young Grand Canyon? Skeptical Inquirer. vol. 19, no. 3, pp.33-36.
- Vail, Tom. 2003. Grand Canyon, a different view. Green Forest, AR. Master Books.
- U.S. Gov Info/Resources. Parks Service Sticks with Biblical Explanation of Grand Canyon. http://usgovinfo.about.com/od/rightsandfreedoms/a/canyonflood.htm. Last Updated: October 19, 2004. Accessed Dec. 4, 2005.