26 October 2009

The “Breached Dam Overlook” Field Trip at GSA: perspectives from a participant

Posted by Jessica Ball

Apparently my post on the Steve Austin field trip at GSA caught the attention of quite a few people, although it was already an issue that had come to the attention of the GSA field trip organizers. I chose not to go on the trip myself (for monetary and scheduling reasons, mostly) but have heard from one geoblogger who did (Pascal of Research at a Snail’s Pace). He has kindly allowed me to repost his thoughts and observations on the trip, and I’ve included them below. He has also written several additional posts on the subject, with some thoughts on some interesting talks and posters that popped up at the meeting; you can read the whole collection here:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

And now, for those of you who wanted to see how the field trip actually turned out, on to the trip summary:


“First, let me talk about what this post is not:
It is not a discussion of Dr. Steven Austin’s character as a person. In fact, I found him to be very cheerful and enthusiastic despite the poor weather. The same could be said of all the people on the trip; people were generally quite upbeat and positive even if our boots still have not dried out completely.

“It is not a discussion/rant about religion – I find the parts of religious teachings that say we should be nicer to each other rather spiffy. There are plenty of other places to attempt some kind of cost/benefit analysis of belief/non-belief in any particular deity.

“My intention with this post is to describe the trip in terms of how it was laid out, where we went, what we saw, and what was said by the trip leaders as it pertained to the field trip. I will save posts related to implications of the trip and discussion of some of the abstracts submitted by other authors who were on the trip for the future.”

The Trip

“We boarded the bus at the convention center and started up I-5 towards MSH. Along the way, Steven described the general purpose for the trip and handed out a reprint of the Guidebook [published as part of the GSA meeting field trip guidebook – more on this later]. It appeared that at least half of the people on the trip were familiar with the leader or co-leaders [I am still not sure how many actual “co-leaders” there were – at least four]. One of my friends from grad school was also on the trip, but I did not know any one else aside from the background research I had done to familiarize myself with the writings of those involved in planning the trip.

“While we were making our way north, Steven described scuba diving in Spirit Lake, some of the work he had done for his dissertation at Penn State, and mentioned several times how the people attending this trip could learn from it and lead their own tours in the future. He described the eruption as a seven or eight step sequence of events from initial quake and landslide, to steam explosion and ashfall, finally ending with the breach of the new spirit lake and rapid outlet of the Toutle River once it overtopped the debris damming the valley two years later. A great deal of emphasis was put on the time of each event and the quantity of material removed from the mountain and depth of erosion from the Toutle River. Oddly, he described the basal movement of the mountain side as “laminar flow.”

“He spent some time describing “long-runout landslides” and the various mechanisms by which they can travel [there was nothing that seemed obviously wrong with his summary of primary concepts – although I have not double checked his reference yet]. He also spent some time describing hyperconcentrated mudflows along the Cowlitz River, which he described as turbulent, making bedforms. Traditional mudflows, he stated, had laminar flow and left massive, lacking bedforms/structures [which was confusing, since turbulence is largely a function of flow thickness, velocity, and bed interference, and even laminar flow can form sedimentary structures].

“He made some comment about these landforms being a result of “self-organized criticality,” but I’m still not sure to what he was exactly referring [the eruption, the landslide, the breaching of the dammed material?] We got out at JRO to spend some time in the center to look at the displays and look at the [really cool] topographic model of the area with fiber optic lights to show the extent and pattern of eruptive events on the mountain. [I should really talk about JRO and MSH itself in a separate post].

“The group was split into groups of four [to help ease congestion on the trail and stops]. We then proceeded to wind our way down Truman Trail and into the valley. That’s when it started to rain. Not a sprinkle or even a simple cloudburst, but sideways and nonstop for about four hours. This driving rain forced the trip leaders to postpone the first stop (on the ridge) to the return trip, so we continued on our trip. Down into the debris field, with Spirit Lake visible to the East, and the base of MSH occasionally visible. However, we didn’t have much opportunity to gaze at the vista, since it was raining so hard [very few photos, either, since I wanted to keep my lenses dry for a while].

“We continued down the trail, eventually reaching the bottom of the valley, where we veered off the trail and toward the new channel canyon. Steven had obtained an off-trail permit for our group, and we plodded through the rain-soaked clay, ash, and volcanic rock debris towards the overlook. I kept my hood over my face to try and keep the rain from draining down the inside of my jacket. By this time my pants, boots, and socks had become completely saturated. Because I was moving, I wasn’t feeling cold, however, and the rest of the group also appeared to take the weather in stride.

“Our arrival at the “breached-dam overlook” allowed us to see some of the more prominent erosional features of the Toutle River Valley. Here Steven picked up his narration, describing the landforms as a result of specific processes that had occurred at specific “moments” in time [my wording].

“After his description of the various landforms [basically: 1) debris hummocks, 2) ash-fall, and 3) erosional valleys], Steven mentioned again, that this landscape was a result of “self-organized criticality” [his wording]. There were some questions and comments from the attendees regarding past volcanic events and landscape processes, even a statement about something that happened “100 million years ago” to which Steven did not react or criticize. But then he left us with some oddly phrased question about how much of this landscape was a result of “catastrophic” change versus “gradual” change. To which another person [I do not know if they were co-leading or attending] added that “both types have occurred. I was still trying to parse his catastrophism comments, so I only asked one question about this particular landscape in the future: “what would you expect to see in this landscape in the distant future?” I don’t think he quite understood what I was asking, but he did address the fact that this particular landscape was anthropogenically altered, therefore some changes would not take place [which was entirely correct]. But as a summary, his statement was “more erosion.” Nothing about changes in stream power, or sediment load, or base-level fluctuations. Just “erosion.”

“Because of
the rain, his stop was likely cut short. As a parting comment about future eruptions, he made some comment about a similar 1980-style event unlikely [I’m not sure if he was talking about never again, or just in the relatively short-term]. But he made some passing comment about eruptions occurring as a result of the interaction between water, crystallization of magmas [my impression was he thought crystallization was near-instantaneous], and “self-organized criticality” allowing for this pressure to be released [his wording again]. I didn’t have a chance to follow-up on that and ask him what he meant, since everyone had started to hike back to the ridge [I still need to do that].

“When we got up towards the ridge, the rain let up and I concentrated on taking photographs. Most of the group had started to spread out, such that I only saw the same four or five people at any given time. Arriving back at JRO, the overlook stop had apparently been cancelled, so I stood on the observation deck and took lots and lots of pictures.

“The return trip to the Convention Center was unremarkable, except that when we got off the bus, they handed a nice 60″ wide panoramic photo of MSH to each of the attendees [this was pretty cool].”


“Ultimately, the trip was not as embarrassing or intellectually painful as I had feared. If a GSA member had signed up for the trip, they may not have realized that the trip leader was a YEC [my grad school friend didn’t know about Steve Austin until I mentioned something on the bus when we left for MSH]. The people sympathetic to his views were obviously happy. I took away some nice photos and memories of the volcano itself along with a clearer picture of what these YEC-ers are up to and what they are thinking.

“I want to thank Steven Austin and his colleagues for taking the time and effort to organize the trip. I have some concerns, but these are more appropriate for a letter to the GSA Field Trip Committee Chairperson.

“I also want to commend GSA for their decision. It wasn’t a tough one, and understandably, there was a great deal of internal discussion related to the trip and whether to allow it. As written, the description of the trip makes no statements regarding a “Young Earth” or other sentiments anathema to the GSA mission. In addition, to deny a proposal on the “possibility” of something coming up is a big step down the slippery slope of guilt by association.

“Yes, the YEC crowd will put this as a shining feather in their caps [ironic, since they claim all of our work is wrong yet they view interaction with us as “proof” that their ideas have merit]. But, there are always unintended consequences. Thanks to the hard work of Jessica at Magma Cum Laude, I was aware of the situation prior to the event, and I’ve been able to share my experiences with sufficient prior knowledge to report on the event. I also have gained valuable insight into the YEC community, and a new lesson plan to teach about deep time – using Austin’s work to show why it’s completely wrong.”

To finish up, here are a few thoughts from Pascal’s last post about why using social networking for the sake of science can be really beneficial:

“This brings up an important point about social networks. The conference at GSA held a special session on the use of social networks in teaching and research. I think the use of social networking tools such as blogs, tweets, and facebooks is vital to help make the geologic community aware of what’s going on. Without it, I would not have been able to be aware of the nature of the field trip: both in its implications, but also in terms of its “science” content. In addition, I might not have pursued the background research and stumbled upon these abstracts. The activities of the young-Earth community clearly are part of a larger strategy to gain “scientific merit” for their views (this is related to the “Wedge” strategy as described by the Institute for Creation Research). Without social networking, this behavior might not have been discovered until later – at a point where response and criticism would be more complicated.

“As geologists, we ignore people like Steve Austin, John Witmore, and Timothy Clarey at our peril. However, our response must be both thorough and united. Social networking can provide the first line of notification. I want to thank Jessica at “Magma Cum Laude” for her first note: without it, I – and others – would have been duped.”