“After the Floods”
by Eric Wagner
High Country News, November 23, 2009
[Wagner notes: This was in response to an email I wrote to HCN editor Sarah Gilman, in which I essentially said, “I want to write about the Ice Age Floods!”, and she wrote back: “Why?” Hence the abbreviated opening.]
Ice Age Floods
One of the things that interests me about the floods is the way they track the national consciousness re: the state of the Earth. When they were first hypothesized (in 1923 by a high school biology teacher, as it happens), geologists were speaking in terms of sweeping timescales. Change was slow, grand, almost dignified. The idea that the planet might undergo sudden, catastrophic upheavals smacked a little too much of the Bible for their tastes. As such, it was a long time before proponents of the now-accepted theory—that terrific walls of water loosed by weakened ice dams would occasionally thunder across the region, carving up the landscape—could get their views taken seriously. These days, however, we’re all too familiar with the prospect of the Earth undergoing violent climatic shifts, the consequences of which could be quite dramatic. This play between the fraught present, the firm past, and the theorized future could be an organizing theme for my envisioned sojourn.
As for the coterie of Flood Aficionados, their headquarters is the Ice Age Floods Institute, based in Richland, but with regional chapters spread out across Washington as well as relevant parts of Montana, Idaho, and Oregon. The IAFI is an organization of amateur and professional geologists that has institutional bylaws and a newsletter and regular fieldtrips to look at the rock formations, followed by the occasional wine tasting. (There a couple scheduled in May that I might try to hook up with, but they continue throughout the summer.) They are, in their own words, “committed to the recognition and presentation of the Ice Age Floods as a significant part of the nation’s, and the world’s, natural heritage.” For reasons that I can’t quite articulate, I can’t help smiling whenever I read that.
One last fortuitously timely element: on March 25, Congress at last approved the creation of the trail—it will be the first national geologic trail in the national parks system. This is something for which the IAFI had pushed for years. They are, of course, ecstatic that the trail is finally inching forward. If only the government could move as quickly as the water did.