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Millions of years are not required to explain the earth’s rocks, as Hutton, Lyell, Darwin, and so many others have assumed.
Geology became established as a science in the middle to late 1700s. While some early geologists viewed the fossil-bearing rock layers as products of the Genesis Flood, one of the common ways in which most early geologists interpreted the earth was to look at present rates and processes and assume these rates and processes had acted over millions of years to produce the rocks they saw. For example, they might observe a river carrying sand to the ocean. They could measure how fast the sand was accumulating in the ocean and then apply these rates to a sandstone, roughly calculating how long it took sandstone to form.
Similar ideas could be applied to rates of erosion to determine how long it might take a canyon to form or a mountain range to be leveled. This type of thinking became known as uniformitarianism (the present is the key to the past) and was promoted by early geologists like James Hutton and Charles Lyell.
These early geologists were very influential in shaping the thinking of later biologists. For example, Charles Darwin, a good friend of Lyell, applied slow and gradual uniformitarian processes to biology and developed the theory of naturalistic evolution, which he published in the Origin of Species in 1859. Together, these early geologists and biologists used uniformitarian theory as an atheistic explanation of the earth’s rocks and biology, adding millions of years to earth history. The earlier biblical ideas of creation, catastrophism, and short ages were put aside in favor of slow and gradual processes and evolution over millions of years.
This chapter will document that geological processes that are usually assumed to be slow and gradual can happen quickly. It will document that millions of years are not required to explain the earth’s rocks, as Hutton, Lyell, Darwin, and so many others have assumed.
Long periods of time are not required to harden rock. Sedimentary rock generally consists of sediment (mud, sand, or gravel) that has been turned into rock. Sedimentary rocks include sandstones, shales, and limestones. Sedimentary rock is usually formed under water and is easy to recognize because of its many layers. A familiar example would be the layered rocks of the Grand Canyon (figure 1).
Layers in sedimentary rocks can be seen at small scales too, like the finely laminated beds from the Green River Formation in Wyoming (figure 2). When sediment turns into rock, or becomes hard, we say the sediment has become lithified. Lithification occurs during sediment compaction (which drives out water) and cementation, or gluing together of the sedimentary grains. The process of lithification is not time dependent, but rather dependent upon whether the rock becomes compacted or not and whether a source of cement is present (usually a mineral like quartz or calcite). If these conditions are met, sediment can be turned rapidly into rock.
Many examples of rock forming rapidly have been reported in the creationist literature: a clock (figure 3),1 a sparkplug,2 and keys3 have all been found in cemented sedimentary rock. Also a hat4 and a bag of flour5 have been found petrified. Examples of bolts, anchors, and bricks found in beach rock have also been reported.6 All of these examples show that sediment and other materials can be hardened within a relatively short time span. In many of these examples, rock probably formed as microbes (microscopic bacteria and other small organisms) precipitated calcite cement, which in turn bound sediments together and/or filled pore spaces. Examples of rapid lithification of this type include limestones that have been cemented together on the ocean floor.7
Thin, delicate rock layers don’t necessarily represent quiet, docile sedimentary processes; thin layers of rock can be formed catastrophically. On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens violently erupted. It was one of the most well-studied and scientifically documented volcanic eruptions in earth history, both by conventional scientists8 and creationists.9
The volcano remained geologically active during the months and years following the 1980 eruption. Fresh lava is still oozing out of the volcano today. During the violent eruptions of the volcano, pyroclastic material (hot volcanic ash and rock) was thrown from the volcano with hurricane force velocity. One of the most fascinating discoveries following the eruption was that some of these pyroclastic deposits, those that contained fine volcanic ash particles, were thinly laminated.10 When geologists see thin layers like this (figure 4), they usually assume that slow, delicate processes formed the layers (like mud settling to a lake bottom). However, in this case, the layers were formed during a catastrophic volcanic eruption.
Other types of thin, delicate rock layers can also form quickly too. Fossil fish are very abundant in the thin, laminated mudstones of the Green River Formation of Wyoming (figure 2). After death, fish rot very quickly. Scales and flesh can slough off within a matter of days, and fish can completely disappear within a week or two.11 In order for the Green River fish to be preserved as well as they are, it would have been necessary for a thin layer of calcite mud to cover the fish immediately after death (figure 5).
These thin layers of mud are what make up the thin, laminated layers of the Green River Formation. If a fish is not covered immediately, but several days after its death, scales will slough off and scatter around the fish carcass (figure 6). Because many of the layers in the Green River Formation contain well-preserved fish, we can conclude that many of layers were formed within a day or two. A study of fish coprolites (feces) also concluded that the thin layers must have formed quickly.12 The Green River Formation was probably made in a post-Flood lake setting where sediments were accumulating rapidly.13 These few examples of thin layers being made quickly does not mean that all thinly laminated rock layers have formed quickly; it shows that some thinly laminated layers can form quickly.
Erosion can happen catastrophically, at scales that are difficult for us to imagine. When standing along the edge of a canyon and seeing a river in the bottom, one is inclined to imagine that the very river in the bottom of the gorge has cut the canyon over long periods of time. However, geologists are realizing that many canyons have been cut by processes other than rivers that currently occupy canyons.
Massive erosion during catastrophic flooding occurs by several processes. This includes abrasion,14 hydraulic action,15 and cavitation.16 The “Little Grand Canyon” of the Toutle River was cut by a mudflow on March 19, 1982, that originated from the crater of Mount St. Helens. The abrasive mudflow cut through rockslide and pumice deposits from the 1980 eruptions. Parts of the new canyon system are up to 140 feet deep.
Engineer’s Canyon was also cut by the mudflow and is 100 feet deep. There is a small stream in the bottom of Engineer’s Canyon (figure 7). One would be inclined to think that this stream was responsible for cutting the canyon over long periods of time if one did not know the canyon was cut catastrophically by a mudflow. In this case, the canyon is responsible for the stream; the stream is not responsible for the canyon.
Other large canyons and valleys are known to have been cut catastrophically as well. One of the most famous examples is the formation of the Channeled Scabland17 of eastern Washington state. The catastrophic explanation of the enigmatic topography is now well accepted, but when it was first proposed in the 1920s by J Harland Bretz,18 it was radical. The idea was not well accepted until nearly 50 years later, in 1969.
Bretz was trying to explain a whole series of deep, abandoned canyons (cut in hard, basaltic bedrock), dry waterfalls, deep plunge pools, hanging valleys, large stream ripples, gravel bars, and large exotic boulders. The Scabland formed as a glacier blocked the Clark Fork River in Idaho during the Ice Age. The glacially dammed river caused water to back up and form a huge lake (Lake Missoula) in western Montana, in places 2,000 feet deep!
Eventually, the ice dam burst, releasing water equivalent in volume to Lakes Erie and Ontario combined. The water rushed through Idaho and into eastern Washington, carving the Scabland topography. Hard basaltic bedrock was rapidly cut by abrasion, hydraulic action, and cavitation (figure 8). As the water drained into the Pacific Ocean, it created a delta more than 200 mi2 in size. It took Lake Missoula about two weeks to drain. It has been estimated that at peak volume, the flood represented about 15 times the combined flow of all the rivers in the world!19 Catastrophic floods of this magnitude were unthinkable at the height of uniformitarian geology in the early 1900s. Today, they are becoming more widely accepted as explanations of large parts of the earth’s topography.20
The origin of the Grand Canyon has been a topic of much speculation. Conventional geologists have not reached any consensus on its origin. Dr. Steve Austin, of the Institute for Creation Research, published in 1994 that the Grand Canyon was cut by a catastrophic flood that originated from post-Flood lakes ponded behind the Kaibab Upwarp.21 In 2000, a symposium was convened in Grand Canyon National Park to discuss the canyon’s origin. One paper22 was published that was similar to Austin’s idea, although the authors gave him no credit. Evidence in favor of the lake failure hypothesis for the catastrophic carving of the Grand Canyon is growing.
Recent work from the Anza Borrego Desert of California also supports this theory.23 Austin believes that several lakes ponded behind the Kaibab Upwarp, containing a volume of about 3,000 mi3 of water, about three times the volume of Lake Michigan,24 or about six times the volume of Lake Missoula. Austin proposed that the lakes drained because the limestones of the Kaibab Upwarp, which held back the ponded water and developed caves (through solution by carbonic acid), catastrophically piping the water out of the lakes, cutting the canyon.
When an organism is turned into stone (i.e., fossilized), the process usually must happen rapidly, or the organism will be lost to decay. Taphonomy is a relatively new branch of geology that studies everything that happens from the death of an organism to its inclusion in the fossil record. Many experiments have been performed to see what happens to all types of animal carcasses in all types of settings including marine, freshwater, and terrestrial settings.
The goal of many of these experiments is to make actualistic taphonomic observations so the fossil record can be better understood. One common theme throughout many of these experiments is rapid disintegration of soft animal tissue. In the absence of scavengers, bacteria and other microbes can rapidly digest animal carcasses in nearly all types of environments. For example, I have documented that fish can completely disintegrate in time frames from days to weeks in both natural and laboratory settings under all types of variable conditions (temperature, depth, oxygen levels, salinity, and species).11 The taphonomic literature has shown this is generally true for many other types of organisms as well.26
Simply put, in order for an animal carcass to be turned into a fossil, it must be sequestered from decay very soon after death. The most common way for this to happen is via deep rapid burial so the organism can be protected from scavengers that may churn through the sediment in search of nutrients. Many fossil deposits around the world are considered to be Lagerstätten deposits (like the Green River Formation), or deposits that contain abundant fossils with exceptional preservation. It is widely recognized that most of these deposits were formed by catastrophic, rapid burial of animal carcasses.27
Common experience tells us that soft tissues disappear quickly if something doesn’t happen to prevent their decay. However, what about the hard parts of organisms, like clam or snail shells? Shouldn’t they be able to last almost indefinitely without being buried? Numerous experiments have been completed, watching what happens to shells on the ocean floor over time.26 Not surprisingly, these experiments have shown that thick, durable shells last longer than thin, fragile shells.
If the fossil record has accumulated by slow gradual processes, like those that are occurring in today’s oceans, then the fossil record should be biased toward thick, durable shells and against thin, fragile shells. This was exactly the hypothesis that a recent paper tested.28 The authors used the online Paleobiology Data Base, consisting of extensive fossil data from all over the world and throughout geologic time. Contrary to their expectations, they found thin, fragile material is just as likely to be found in the fossil record as thick, durable material. A reasonable interpretation of this finding (which the authors did not consider) is that much of the fossil record was produced catastrophically! This finding supports the hypothesis that much of the record was produced rapidly, during the Flood.
Coal does not take long periods of time to form. Coal forms from peat, which is highly degraded wood and plant material. Peat looks much like coffee grounds or peat moss. During the Flood, large quantities of peat were likely produced and buried as a result of pre-Flood vegetation being ripped up and destroyed.
The extensive coal beds we find throughout the world may have also been the result of pre-Flood floating forests that were destroyed and buried.29 Coal has been produced experimentally in the laboratory from wood and peat.30 Most of these experiments have used reasonable geologic conditions of temperature (212–390°F, 100–200°C) and pressure (to simulate depth of burial). These experiments have succeeded in producing coal in just weeks of time. It appears time is probably not a significant factor in coal formation. The most important factors appear to be the quality of the organic material (peat), heat, and pressure (depth of burial).
Salt deposits can form in other places and in other ways besides large salt lakes that evaporate over long periods of time (like the Great Salt Lake in Utah or the Dead Sea in Israel). Geologists have traditionally interpreted thick salt deposits as evaporites. In other words, they picture a large basin of seawater (like the Mediterranean Sea) being enclosed and sealed off from the surrounding ocean. The confined salt water evaporates, forming a thick deposit of salt on the bottom of the basin.
Conventional scientists have recognized that this model is fraught with many paradoxes and unresolved problems.31 Recently, a new theory of salt formation has been proposed that overcomes some of these difficulties.32 This theory points out that salt is not very soluble33 at high temperatures and pressures. These situations are common near deep-sea hydrothermal vents. The authors cite examples from the Red Sea and Lake Asale (Ethiopia) where these situations exist and are associated with abundant salts. Several times throughout the paper, the authors cite that rapid deposition of the salt with accompanying rapid sedimentation rates are necessary conditions for the salt to be preserved. If the salt is not rapidly covered, it will dissolve back into the seawater when the conditions change.
Under certain conditions, coral reefs can grow rapidly. Modern coral reefs are often small accumulations of corals, coralline algae, and other organisms that secrete calcium carbonate (calcite, the main ingredient of limestone) exoskeletons. However, some can be massive and thick, like the Great Barrier Reef (thickness of 180 feet [55 m])35 off the coast of Australia or Eniwetok Atoll36 (thickness of 4,590 feet [1,400 m])37 in the Marshall Islands of the Pacific. Some have argued that because of the slow growth rate of corals, large reefs need tens of thousands of years to grow.38 Corals, which build coral reefs, have been reported to grow as much as 4 to 17 inches (99–432 mm) per year.39
Large coral accumulations have been found on sunken World War II ships after only several decades.40 Acropora colonies have reached 23–31 inches (60–80 cm) in diameter in just 4.5 years in some experimental rehabilitation studies.41 At the highest known growth rates, the Eniwetok Atoll (the thickest known reef at 4,590 feet [1,400 m]) would have taken about 3,240 years to rise from the ocean floor. However, coral growth rate is not equal to reef growth rate; it is usually much less. Reef growth is a balance between constructive and destructive processes and has proved particularly difficult to measure. Reefs are constructed by coral growth and sediment, which settles and becomes cemented between reef organisms.
Modern reefs are destroyed by a number of processes, including active bioeroders (parrotfish, sea urchins), chemical dissolution, boring organisms (sponges, clams, and various worms), tsunamis, and storm waves. Reef growth occurs by the addition of mass, particularly from corals. Reef volume increases as living animals and their dead remains become cemented together with sediments to form the reef. Reef growth slows or even stops as the reef reaches sea level, because the reef organisms need to be submerged in water. Hence, the growth rate of a reef is slower than that of fast-growing corals.
So how might a thick reef, like the Eniwetok Atoll, have grown from the ocean floor since the time of the Flood? The Eniwetok Atoll is not made completely of corals that have grown on top of each other. Drilling operations into the atoll have shown that a significant amount of the material (up to 70 percent of the bore hole) was “soft, fine, white chalky limestone,”36 not well-cemented reef limestone. It may be significant that this atoll, along with many of the other atolls in the western Pacific, ultimately rise from volcanic pedestals. It is known that heat coming from these volcanoes draws cold, nutrient-rich water into the cavernous atoll framework and circulates it upward, through the atoll via convection. This process is called geothermal endo-upwellling42 and helps provide nutrients to the reef organisms near sea level.
Here is a possible scenario of how the Eniwetok Atoll may have become so thick in the few thousand years since the Flood (figure 9). The reef began as a volcanic platform. Carbonates (limestones) began to accumulate on the platform as the result of bacteria and other organisms that can precipitate calcite, especially in volcanically warmed water. This produced much of the “soft, fine, chalky limestone” found within the reef. Carbonate-producing organisms (like corals) were brought to the platform as small larval forms, transported by ocean currents. This explains the occasional occurrence of various corals and mollusks found within the deeper parts of the drill core. The volcanic heat source allowed the carbonate mound to grow, deep below sea level, and the process of geothermal endo-upwelling to begin. The combination of nutrient supply and heat may have allowed the carbonate mound to grow much faster than observed coral reef growth rates today. As the carbonate mound approached sea level, shallow water reef corals were permanently established and thrived as a result of the upwelling process.
Many modern geologists realize that most rocks contain evidence of rapid accumulation. However, the idea that the earth is millions of years old is still a common belief. So if the time is not within the rocks, where is it? Many believe the time is within the “cracks” or “hiatuses” between the rocks (see figure 10). Derek Ager, who was not friendly toward creationist ideas, explained it like this: “The history of any one part of the earth, like the life of a soldier, consists of long periods of boredom and short periods of terror.”43 He viewed most of the physical rock record as accumulating quickly (i.e., “the short periods of terror”) and the breaks in between rock layers representing long periods of time (i.e., “the long periods of boredom”). In other words, the “breaks” or “cracks” are where most of the time is placed. The belief then is that these surfaces represent either long periods of nondeposition or surfaces of perfectly flat erosion. But both of these propositions have problems. For example, if a surface is exposed for long periods of time, why don’t organisms churning through the mud extensively disturb the sediments below the surface? In observational studies, it is estimated that bottom-dwelling organisms can rework the annual sediment accumulation several times over!44
This chapter has only examined a few processes in geology that are assumed to take long periods of time. There are many more issues that could be addressed. Today, ideas of uniformitarianism are fading quickly in geology. In fact, many conventional geologists would like to abandon the idea of uniformitarianism altogether, although they are careful not to advocate biblical catastrophism.45
Conventional geologists are recognizing that catastrophic processes can form many parts of the geologic record, and this is being widely reported in the literature.46 The eventual nemesis will be time. Time will continue to be placed in between the rocks, not because there is evidence for it, but that is the only place left for it.47 Conventional geological paradigms demand long periods of time be accounted for, whether there is evidence for it or not.
Answers in Genesis is an apologetics ministry, dedicated to helping Christians defend their faith and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ effectively. We focus on providing answers to questions about the Bible—particularly the book of Genesis—regarding key issues such as creation, evolution, science, and the age of the earth.