Curt Sewell is the author of God at Ground Zero

How Was The Grand Canyon Formed?

Author: Curt Sewell
Subject: Creation Overviews
Date: 11/8/1999

The Grand Canyon of Arizona is one of the outstanding geological wonders of the world, stretching for some 277 miles in a generally east-west direction, virtually isolating northwest Arizona from the rest of the state. It’s over a mile deep in spots, and ranges from 4 to 18 miles wide. Parts of the north rim reach an altitude of 8,500 feet, while the mighty Colorado River, looking tiny from above but carrying tremendous volumes of water and silt, rushes along the bottom at about 2,400 feet elevation, passing through Lake Mead and finally dumping into the Gulf of California. One of the earliest government explorers referred to it as a “hideous gash” in the earth, forming an impenetrable barrier to travel; he said it was a totally worthless area. Yet millions of people have travelled thousands of miles to gaze in awe at the magnificent landscape — intricately carved massive cliffs, sheer pinacles, and other geological features. More strata can be seen exposed here than at any other place in the world.
For years, scientists said that it had been carved slowly by the Colorado River, over a period of milllions of years. It was considered a showcase of evidence of the tremendous erosive power of water, when combined with eons of time. Yet today most geologists acknowledge this explanation must be wrong. Within recent decades, it’s becoming a monument to the power of the Creator God, and the terrible effects of the Great Flood described in Genesis 6-9. Steve Austin discussed this changing viewpoint in his beautifully illustrated and well documented book1. Steven A. Austin, Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe, (Institute for Creation Research, Santee, CA 92071, 1994), pp. 83-110.. Any solution to the question “How was the Grand Canyon eroded?” must provide answers to several geological factors, including:

1) About 1000 cubic miles of sediment was removed from the Canyon itself. Also, examination of the regional strata shows that between 1,000 and 3,000 feet of upper-layer strata have been eroded from over 100,000 square miles of the Colorado Plateau, forming a giant peneplain. Where did all this sediment go? It couldn’t just evaporate.

2) The eastern portion of the Colorado River, northeast of the Utah-Arizona border, behaves like a normal river, having its origins at high elevations and finding the easiest path toward the ocean. The area near the present Glen Canyon Dam, which forms Lake Powell, is at an elevation of some 5,000 feet. But the region to the west, near the beginning of Grand Canyon, rises in the vast uplifted Colorado Plateau stretching for hundreds of miles. This is caused by the Kaibab Upwarp, or Kaibab Monocline, which lifted the previously flat strata some 3000 feet. This would appear to form a barrier to the flow of the river, which might have turned southeast to join the Rio Grande and dump into the Gulf of Mexico, or it might have turned south and southwest to dump into the Pacific via the Gulf of California. Instead, it did what seems impossible — flowed west, cutting directly into and through this huge monocline!

3) When did this uplift occur? When was the Canyon eroded? Uniformitarian geologists, using the Geologic Column system of classification, assign the highest folded strata of the Kaibab Uplift to the Upper Cretaceous, said to be some 70 million years old. Further north, these are beveled and overlain by the flat-lying Wasatch Formation, which was not uplifted or folded. It is assigned to the Eocene Series of the Tertiary, which is said to be some 50 million years old. The uplift must have occurred between these two dates (according to evolutionary thinking). And parts of the Grand Canyon erosion cut through portions of Wasatch Formation rock near Bryce Canyon. This shows that the massive erosion of the Grand Canyon occurred after the Wasatch was laid down, within the last 50 million years. We must recognize that the vast Colorado Plateau was already in position before the Colorado River flowed uphill (?) to cut the Grand Canyon through that Plateau! Something doesn’t add up.

4) From 1926 until 1950, just before the Glen Canyon Dam was built, the daily sediment flow of the river was carefully measured, and was found to average almost 500,000 tons per day (168 million tons per year). This is equivalent to 0.015 cubic miles per year. During a 1927 flood, this increased to some 23 million tons per day. Another interesting fact — in modern times, the majority of the sediment coming out of the Canyon originates in the headwaters region, not in the Canyon itself. The Grand Canyon is not presently undergoing much erosion.

The Antecedent River Theory is the name given to the original “solution” to the question of “How did the Grand Canyon originate?” It’s been described in elementary textbooks for more than a century, and is still seen on much of the literature put out by National Park Service. It began in 1869, when geologist John Wesley Powell rafted down the river. He was a believer in uniformitarianism, so naturally he found an idea that matched that belief. He said that the river must have existed in about its present position before, or antecedent to the uplift of the Colorado Plateau, during the Laramide Orogeny, about 50 to 70 million years ago. He said that as the slow uplift occurred the river eroded the uplifted portion, maintaining its current level. Thus the theory depends on a rate of erosion which precisely matched the rate of uplift. For about 100 years since that time geologists have gone along with that theory.

However, many geologists have recognized that there were some major problems with this idea. Among the worst is the question of what happened to such vast amounts of sediment. If the river had been carrying that much sediment for that long a time, this would amount to (168 million tons/year) x (70 million years) = 11.8 million billion tons, equivalent to some 1.3 million cubic miles of rock. This is 1500 times the volume of Grand Canyon itself, and should be easy to find. But there was no trace of such a huge delta deposit.

Just outside the west end of Grand Canyon, at Pierce Ferry, there is a lot of sedimentary deposit (but not nearly that much). This is mostly limestone with some local granite gravel. These don’t have the character one would expect from massive erosional deposits for millions of years. They are called the Muddy Creek Formation, and are assigned a Miocene age (about 20 million years).

In 1964, a symposium of geologists who had extensively studied the western end of the canyon met to discuss this theory, as well as others.. E.D.McKee, R.F.Wilson, W.J.Breed, and C.S.Breed, “Evolution of the Colorado River in Arizona,” in the Museum of Northern Arizona Bulletin 44 (1967), pp. 1-67. This is cited in Austin’s Grand Canyon.” Their conclusion was unanimous — this theory couldn’t be true. The primary problem involved the sedimentary deposits which would have been made by the river over many millions of years, but which couldn’t be found!

The next issue of Creation Bits (No. 16) will discuss the other two main theories of how Grand Canyon was formed — the “Precocious Gully Theory” and the “Breached Dam Theory.” We’ll see that the breached dam idea has the best experimental evidence behind it, and also fits the Genesis account of the Great Flood of Noah. It has a strong parallel that was produced by the 1980 volcanic explosion of Mount St. Helens, with its damming of the Toutle River and subsequent breaching of that dam. The result looks very much like a 1/40-scale model of the Grand Canyon of Arizona.