Ice Age Floods Trail Commemorates Floods of Unimaginable Ferocity
The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 established three National Scenic Trails -- the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail, the New England National Scenic Trail, and the Arizona National Scenic Trail. The much-awaited scenic trails have generated a good deal of buzz. For example, some are saying that the new Pacific Northwest Trail may rival the renowned Pacific Crest Trail within a decade. Pretty much lost in all the hoopla is the fact that this year’s public lands act also established the country’s first-ever national geologic trail.
The Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail, actually a network of routes in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, is designed to interconnect historic sites, parks, and other facilities interpreting the geologic consequences of the Glacial Lake Missoula Floods. And my, what geologic consequences they were! The Missoula Floods, a series of several dozen immense floods resulting from the sudden draining of a giant ice-dammed lake many thousands of years ago, scoured vast amounts of sediment and rock from the eastern Washington scablands, created many unique landforms, and carved the impressive Columbia River Gorge. And all of this was done so quickly it defies the imagination.
It was a pretty awesome system that stored enough energy to do this work. Glacial Lake Missoula, which formed in western Montana at various intervals during a period extending from about 13,000 to 15,000 years ago, was perhaps the largest of all the ice-dammed lakes we now of. It formed when lobes of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet that extended southward from Canada and along the spine of the Rockies blocked the Clark Fork River with ice dams soaring 2,000 feet high. The 200-mile long lake that backed up behind thee ice dams contained about 500 cubic miles of water, or about half the volume of present-day Lake Michigan.
When the dam was breached, an event that is thought to have happened about every 40 to 140 years during the span of two millenia, the immense torrents of water that gushed out were some of the biggest floods this planet has ever produced. The largest of the floods discharged an estimated 2.6 billion gallons of water per second. Each of the great floods packed enough kinetic energy to accomplish, in a mere geologic eye blink, erosion that would take normal geologic forces many thousands of years to accomplish.
Trail supporters, especially in the state of Washington, campaigned more than 15 years to make the new geologic trail a reality. It’s expected that the trail, which will traverse public lands and minimally impact private lands, will generate many economic and cultural benefits in the four-state region encompassed by the project.
To see a map of the new trail (at the proposal stage) and get additional relevant information, visit this Ice Age Floods Institute site.
The National Park Service will administer the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail, but the trail will not be counted as a unit of the National Park System.
Postscript: The lower St. Croix River in the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway near Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, has a notch-shaped profile in places. Those miniature canyons were carved by cataclysmic floods gushing from ice dammed lakes similar to (but smaller than) prehistoric Lake Missoula.