29 May 2009

An interesting field trip at the Portland GSA

Posted by Jessica Ball

While I was at the Toronto AGU, I happend to be looking at GSA’s website for their annual meeting, which is going to be held in Portland this year. Naturally, I’m excited for the chance to get closer to some volcanoes (which are noticeably lacking in Toronto), and I was even entertaining the idea of going on a field trip. So when I saw this title, I perked up a bit:

425. Breached Dam Overlook at Mount St. Helens
Sat., 17 Oct. US$95 (L, R).

It’s even affordable for a poor grad student. Then I looked at the field trip leader:

Leader: Steven A. Austin, Austin Research Consulting.

Usually, I expect to see people from the USGS or local universities leading a field trip – although the name sounded strangely familiar. So I did a little research…and all the hits that came up were from creationism websites. Namely, the Institute for Creation Research.

It appears that Steven Austin has degrees in geology (they’re listed as B.S. Geology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA,1970; M.S. Geology, San Jose State University, San Jose, CA, 1971; Ph.D. Geology, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, 1979), but that he is also the person who introduced the Mount St. Helens/Grand Canyon/Flood and Mount St. Helens “old” lava dome dacite arguments for the Flood and a young Earth. (Links to the debunking of these arguments can be found here and here on the Talk Origins website.)

Stuff like this just makes me twitch. I can’t say whether or not Austin knows the recent geologic history well enough to lead a good trip. But what I do strenuously object to is the fact that the field trip description very carefully gives no indication that Austin works for the ICR, and that he has been very vocal in promoting what many geologists would consider to be extremely bad science.

Here’s the trip description:

This six-hour hike follows a 13-kilometer-round-trip route to an extraordinary geologic location called “Breached Dam Overlook” just seven kilometers north of the crater of Mount St. Helens. The trail leads us from the Johnston Ridge Observatory onto the largest landslide deposit to have accumulated during human history. This debris avalanche deposit of May 18, 1980, forms one of the earth’s newest landscapes of 45 square kilometers area within the headwaters of the North Fork of the Toutle River. The objectives of the field trip are (1) to identify, classify and name individual landforms within the upper North Fork Toutle River landscape, (2) to relate the landforms to the sequence of events and processes that have occurred next to the volcano, and (3) to ponder questions about how the landscape at a volcano changes through time. Landforms on the debris avalanche landscape are relicts that have been impacted significantly by geomorphic processes that exceed a certain minimum energy threshold. Following the debris avalanche of May 18, 1980, the most significant event was the mudflow of March 19, 1982. That mudflow event breached the natural debris dam, caused adjustment within the drainage basin, and derived the present landscape. Now that the power of geomorphic processes has diminished, finer sediment is what is being moved. Channels are incised and armored with coarser clasts, and valleys are now plugging with sediment. Hikers can observe the new landscape from two selected overlooks. Johnston Ridge Observatory on the west side of Mount St. Helens Volcano National Monument is the staging area this roundtrip hike of 13.6 kilometers (8.4 mi).

Knowing Austin’s background puts this into an entirely different light, and it’s not one that I like. I’d say the odds are pretty good that his Grand Canyon and argon arguements are going to pop up on the trip, and unless the attendees know what they’re getting into (and like to debate creationists for fun), people will probably be shocked and disappointed that they spent money and time only to be a captive audience for someone’s bad pet young Earth theories. It’s a pity; I would have liked to spend some time at St. Helens with a legitimate geologist (someone from the CVO, say; why aren’t they leading any MSH field trips?)

Bottom line? I’m kind of surprised that GSA is allowing someone who so blatantly goes against their position statement on evolution and creationism to lead a field trip. I don’t know what the vetting process is for field trip leaders, but if I were a GSA official, I wouldn’t allow someone like Austin to potentially use GSA as an avenue for promoting theories that directly contradict the geological science that GSA works so hard to promote. (Then again, this may be a recurring thing – does anyone know if Austin has led other GSA field trips? Perhaps GSA just doesn’t care.)

If you know of anyone who’s thinking of attending the Portland GSA, please let them know about the background of this particular trip leader before they sign up and fork over their money – if they don’t already recognize him.