Philip Neal

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Since Dr. Lynn Torrance wrote this article in 1964, much has changed in the way geologists view the physical history of the world—and the fate of the dinosaurs. Up to 1980, most geologists endorsed strict uniformitarianism, the theory that changes in the earth’s crust during geological history resulted from the predictable action of continuous and uniform processes. This is also referred to as gradualism, i.e., that geologic change occurs slowly over long periods of time. This “principle of uniformitarianism” is credited to the work of geologists Charles Lyell and James Hutton.

Accordingly, geologists rejected catastrophism—the theory that changes in the earth’s crust during geological history have resulted chiefly from sudden violent and unusual events (such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or floods of vastly greater power than those observed throughout history). Instead, they believed that the earth had been shaped by the long-term action of forces such as volcanism, earthquakes, erosion, and sedimentation—forces that could still be observed in action today.

Entrenched uniformitarianism made the introduction of catastrophic theory difficult. But in 1923, Harlan Bretz published a paper on the dramatically channeled scablands of eastern Washington State. He was trying to explain the origins of a whole series of deep, abandoned canyons cut in hard, basaltic bedrock featuring dry waterfalls, deeply plunging pools and potholes, large stream ripples, gravel bars, and exotic house-sized boulders. Bretz showed that the scablands were of glacial origin, formed by a once-glacial Lake Missoula.

As would be expected, Bretz encountered resistance to his theories from the geology establishment of the day, since his research strongly promoted flood-catastrophism. After all, geologists had so thoroughly vilified the concept of “great floods” that they could not believe it when somebody actually found evidence of one. But after decades of debate and controversy, Bretz’s catastrophic explanation of the enigmatic Washington State topography was accepted as fact. Suddenly, catastrophism was becoming the new watchword.

(Recognition of the Missoula flood has helped other geologists identify similar landforms in Asia, Europe, Alaska, and the American Midwest. There is now compelling evidence for numerous gigantic ancient floods where glacial ice dams failed time and again, allowing massive amounts of lake water to rapidly flood an area. In fact, it is now widely accepted that England’s fate as an island was sealed by erosion from glacial floods that carved the English Channel.)

Scientifically-based catastrophism began to gain wide acceptance. One stimulus for this change came in 1980 from the publication of a paper by Walter and Luis Alvarez suggesting that a six-mile-wide asteroid struck the earth 66 million years ago. Apparently, this was just the catastrophe catastrophists were looking for.

But uniformitarianism proved to have considerable staying power. So instead of genuine catastrophism, there was a “marriage” of gradualism with catastrophism—which some call neo-catastrophism. This novel approach attempts to explain sudden extinctions in the paleontological record by high magnitude (catastrophic), low frequency (rare) events—such as asteroid impacts and super-volcanic eruptions. These events are thought to have occurred over great periods of time, with cumulative (gradual) effects.

Today, most geologists continue to combine catastrophist and uniformitarian standpoints, taking the view that earth’s history is a slow, gradual story “punctuated” by occasional naturally occurring catastrophic events. But as we will see, even neo-catastrophism fails to adequately explain the widespread geological phenomena that continue to awe scientists.

This is precisely the position of Henry Morris, Professor of Civil Engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. He writes: “The inadequacies of … uniformitarianism have become increasingly obvious in recent years, and such quasi-catastrophist concepts [neo-catastrophism] as wandering continents, shifting poles, slipping crusts, meteoritic and cometary collisions, etc., are appearing more and more frequently in geological literature. It is, in fact, generally recognized that even the ordinary fossiliferous deposits of the sedimentary rocks must often have at least a semi-catastrophist basis, since the process of fossilization usually requires rather rapid burial, under conditions seldom encountered in the modern world. Most geological processes of the present seem to be non-catastrophic in nature, but catastrophes of some sort seem necessary to explain many of the earth’s geological formations.

“Uniformity [uniformitarianism] is therefore entirely undeserving of its sacrosanct position in geological interpretation. On the other hand, [the earth’s geological] phenomena lend themselves quite readily to interpretation in terms of the Creation-Catastrophe framework.” (Biblical Catastrophism and Geology).

Writing for, Dr. John Whitmore notes that geologists are slowly coming to realize that most rocks contain evidence of 
rapid accumulation. “Conventional geologists are recognizing that catastrophic processes [explain] many parts of the geologic record….” He goes on to clarify their thinking: “When an organism is turned into stone (i.e., fossilized), the process usually must happen rapidly, or the organism will be lost to decay…. 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…. It is [becoming] widely recognized that most of these [fossil] deposits were formed by catastrophic, rapid burial of animal carcasses.”

Remember, rapid accumulation and rapid burial are 1) required for the formation of most fossil deposits, and yet 2) are not possible under a uniformitarian process. Catastrophism is the only viable explanation.

Lawrence Ford of the Institute for Creation Research indicates that today’s geologist is increasingly being confronted with irrefutable evidence of catastrophism. He says “evidence is mounting for the existence of [ancient] super-faults, which have not been active in recent history. These super-faults involve very rapid displacements driven by gravity. They must have generated enormous friction and heat that vaporized or melted rock on fault surfaces. We can see excellent examples of super-faults in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska and in the Heart Mountains of Wyoming—evidence that catastrophic plate tectonics and giant gravity-driven landslides formed mountains.” He adds that the “Coconino Sandstone of the Grand Canyon region has abundant cross-bedding that argues for deep, fast-moving flood waters over a submerged continent.”

Indeed, the origin of the Grand Canyon continues to be a topic of much speculation and debate—and geologists have yet to reach a consensus. Dr. Steve Austin (of the same Institute) published a study in 1994 showing that the Grand Canyon was cut by a catastrophic flood. In 2000, a symposium was convened by geologists to discuss the canyon’s origin wherein similar ideas were presented. It appears that opinion is slowly beginning to favor a “catastrophic carving” of the Grand Canyon.

The fact is, millions of years are not required to explain the earth’s strange geological phenomena. In the aftermath of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, scientists began to realize that thin, delicate rock layers don’t necessarily represent slow sedimentary processes; thin layers of rock can be formed catastrophically. Mount St. Helens is one of the most well-studied and documented volcanoes in history. One of the most interesting discoveries following its eruption was thinly laminated deposits containing volcanic ash. The layers were clearly laid down suddenly, catastrophically—not as would be expected of such rock deposits.

Mount St. Helens also indirectly caused massive catastrophic flooding. For example, the “Little Grand Canyon” of the Toutle River was cut by a massive mudflow on March 19, 1982, that originated from the crater of Mount St. Helens. The abrasive mudflow cut through rockslide and pumice deposits leaving the new canyon system—which is 140 feet deep in some places. Nearby Engineer’s Canyon was also cut by the mudflow and is 100 feet deep.

It indeed seems that an increasing number of scientists are coming to grips with catastrophic geology. They are beginning to express an appreciation for the geologic power of “a lot of water in a little time”—which contrasts with the commonly accepted model of “a little water over a lot of time.”

Dinosaur Graveyards

Dinosaur extinction is still a major enigma of earth history. The mystery is heightened when one realizes that the dinosaurs were actually well adapted to their environments and apparently had a worldwide distribution (dinosaur “graveyards” have been unearthed on every continent).

Since about 1980, within the neo-catastrophic/uniformitarian paradigm, the “meteorite hypothesis” has been the dominant theory concerning the dinosaurs. But according to Michael Oard (, this theory fails to explain the abundance of evidence that the dinosaurs “died in a cataclysm of global proportions.” Oard cites Gregory Paul, a well respected geologist, who says, “Indeed, the dinosaurs’ fecundity makes it hard to see how such resilient animals could ever have been killed off. The extinction of the dinosaurs was probably not part of the normal course of evolutionary fluctuations, nor was it just another result of random extraterrestrial [meteoric] disruptions. Instead, it remains one of the most extraordinary and inexplicable events in earth history.”

Oard appropriately asks, “Could the reason the extinction of the dinosaurs remains such a major mystery be because of the uniformitarian bias within historical geology?”

He notes that the overriding aspect of dinosaur fossils is that most dinosaurs were buried rapidly in water—or entombed in giant mass flows. Afterwards, fossilization must have proceeded rapidly. Thus, he writes, “water is closely associated with the burial and fossilization of the dinosaurs.” This rapid burial is necessary if organisms are to be preserved as fossils.

Oard writes that “dinosaurs are often found in large bone-beds or dinosaur graveyards, where many dinosaur bones are packed together. This provides evidence for at least catastrophic local floods. A few of these bone-beds contain thousands of dinosaurs and indicate catastrophic action. Probably the largest bone-bed in the world is located in north-central Montana … [where an] estimate was made for 10,000 duckbill dinosaurs entombed in a thin layer measuring 2 km east-west and .5 km north-south. The bones are disarticulated and disassociated, and are orientated east-west.” He quotes geologists Horner and Gorman, who studied the Montana site—a jumble of disarticulated bones piled like logs in a logjam: “How could any mud slide, no matter how catastrophic, have the force to take a two- or three-ton animal that had just died and smash it around so much that its femur—still embedded in the flesh of its thigh—split lengthwise?”

Oard answers, “A cataclysmic event obviously is implied.”

Dinosaur graveyards are not found just in the western United States, but worldwide. And practically all of them indicate catastrophic burial by water or aqueous slurries.

Billions of dinosaur tracks have also recently been discovered, and these provide further evidence for unusual, stressful conditions. In the western United States, of special note are the mega-track sites. Practically all such track-ways are straight—an indication the animal was fleeing for its life.

Oard refers to researchers Lockley and Hunt, who state: “Any deer or elk hunter knows that land animals frequently meander, especially while looking for food. Straight tracks are usually made when the animal is in a hurry, escaping a predator or a hunter, or rapidly migrating. Even in these situations, the track-ways will sometimes curve or meander a little. The fact that practically all dinosaur track-ways are straight strongly favors animals desperately trying to escape some catastrophe. The worldwide extent of these straight dinosaur track-ways provides evidence for a cataclysm of global proportions.”

Moreover, it is rare to find juvenile tracks along such track-ways. It is speculated that this is because juvenile dinosaurs would have been 1) among the first to perish in rising flood waters; 2) trampled along the way by adult dinosaurs fleeing for their lives; and 3) unable to keep up with the fleeing adult populations. Again, the evidence points to widespread catastrophism.

These unusual characteristics of dinosaur track-ways do not fit into the uniformitarian paradigm of slow, gradual processes over millions of years. Rather, the evidence points to a time of worldwide stress on dinosaurs trying to escape rapidly rising flood waters. Indeed, wherever dinosaur bones are unearthed, the evidence predominantly suggests catastrophic entombment. Just the burial and fossilization of such massive hulks as the larger dinosaurs indicates major, sudden catastrophic action.