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A few weeks ago my girlfriend, Aubrey, and I drove out to eastern Washington to bask in the warm sun, and explore various geological relics. Starting about 17 million years ago most of Washington (and bits of Oregon) were periodically flooded with lava for about 11 million years. During this time as many as 300 lava floods coated 60,000 square miles of land with up to a vertical mile of dark basalt rock. As the lava cooled, it shrank, creating evenly spaced fractures in the rock that ultimately led to the relatively evenly spaced tall columns of basalt that you can see today. This columnar basalt can be found all over the world, but what makes the columns of the Columbia Basin so special is the brightly colored lichens that tend to grow on them.

Click image for larger view!

Basalt Columns near Ancient Lakes, Potholes Coulee, Eastern Washington, scablands

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Lichen covered basalt columns near the Ancient Lakes in E. Washington.

The Tech: Canon 5D2, Nikon 14-24mm, tripod
Exposures (4): iso 100, f/22, 1/4th; 1/20th; 1/160th; 1/250th
Notes: 4 exposures blended for dynamic range.

After seeing that picture you’re hopefully wondering how these incredible basalt formations (which are hidden underground throughout the area) were exposed. Two million years ago the area would have been covered in constantly shifting massive sheets of ice. These glaciers trapped rivers in what is now Idaho and Montana, creating huge lakes, cumulatively containing on the order of 500 cubic miles of water. Periodically the ice would retreat, allowing a cataclysmic floods of glacial water to pour into the Columbia Basin. The primary lake that contributed to the formation of the valleys in this area was Lake Missoula, which is estimated to have resulted in at least 40 massive floods.

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Palouse Falls Rainbow, Washington, flood, waterfall

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High spring water in Palouse Falls.

The Tech: Canon 5D2, 100-400mm, tripod
Exposure: iso 200, f/8, 1/800th
Notes: This is one of 126 exposures I took - the water flow was so dynamic that every image was different!

These floods carved deep canyons (such as Palouse Canyon, through which the modern day Snake River flows), and a myriad of other fascinating geological features, most of which are best seen from a satellite view. The area is often referred to as the "scablands", named after the common basalt mesa like structures that look kind of like giant scabs on the Earth. If you’re curious, I recommend exploring the Google Earth satellite view around Eastern Washington. The eastern shores of Lake Lenore have some particularly neat features. Aubrey and I explored that area on foot, in fact, to see the deep basalt potholes you can find on the satellite view. The potholes, called kolks, were formed during the floods. In some ways the formations reminded me of Utah – we even saw a basalt arch – though not nearly as photogenic. Still, it was an interesting area to explore.

Click image for larger view!

Palouse Falls Sunset, Washington, sunset, scablands, snake river

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Sunset over Palouse Falls.

The Tech: Canon 5D2, Nikon 14-24mm, tripod
Exposures - landscape (2): iso 100, f/11, 1.3 sec; 1/4th
Exposure - water: iso 3200, f/11, 1/25th
Notes: I blended the two landscape exposures for dynamic range, and blended in the water from the high iso exposure. In fact, I used 5x high iso exposures, merged in 'lighten' blend mode to convey the proper sense of volume in the waterfall.

We concluded our trip with a visit to Palouse Falls, which is one of the few remaining relics of the historical floods that still has water flowing through it. On a warm spring day the volume of water is impressive; the falls roar with power as the water free-falls ~180 feet. You’d think it would be madness to get close to such a powerful force, but two years ago Tyler Brandt, a crazy kayaker, paddled his boat (on purpose) over the edge of the daunting drop. See the video here: world record waterfall descent. That night, from the comfort of our campsite in the green grassy state park, we watched a lightning storm explode in electrical fury far in the distance as the stars twinkled above our heads. It was utterly silent, other than the roar of the nearby falls, a very surreal experience for a lightning storm. I probably should have gotten out my camera for a few pictures, but I was too content sitting by the warm campfire.

For additional information on the historical floods of the Columbia Valley, see Tom Foster’s fantastic website: Huge Floods.

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6 Comments to “Ancient Basalt & Ancient Floods – Eastern Washington”

  1. Jack Brauer says:

    Awesome photos as usual! “White Water Spirits” is killer.

  2. John Wall says:

    Ditto. Excellent blending technique all around as usual! Interesting the way you built up the waterfall spray with multiple exposures. Great result.

  3. Steve Sieren says:

    Hey Floris, last shot is very pretty but I must say I like the other two a lot better! Especially the falls shot in a new perspective!!!

  4. Thanks Steve – I’m totally with you on that!

  5. Wow! Love the images from the blog post. Ancient Ramparts is my favorite – love the detail and texture in the foreground.