Wednesday, December 21, 2005

History in the Rocks...and the Sand..and the Muck

An article in my paper today was so fascinating to me. As I have said before, my Dad was a Junior High science teacher with an undergrad degree in Forestry. From the time I can remember, he had my brother and me reciting the Latin names of trees and plants in the woods. But in addition, he pointed out things around us. For example, my Dad's favorite fishing spot (where his ashes were strewn) was Beaver Creek at the point it flows into the Missouri River. With the exception of the dam and a couple of fishing access spots, it looks pretty much the same as when Lewis and Clark explored 200 years ago.

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Missouri River at Beaver Creek, photo by Scott Lane

The cliffs around Beaver Creek are limestone and I remember learning from my Dad and from my science classes that this part of Montana had been covered by a large inland sea. I do believe Salt Lake in Utah is all that is left. Well, in the middle of Montana with the nearest salt water a 12 hour drive away to Puget Sound, you can find sea shell fossils in the cliffs above Beaver Creek. I discovered the fossils on my own with a friend because I didn't really like to fish so we would explore. It was strange to see with my own eyes evidence of an ancient ocean.

Anyway, when you go out to the coast of Washington, there are weird areas of dead trees. Trained to be observant of geological issues from my childhood, I have always wondered about this. We have heard about previous big earthquakes but why would trees die in massive numbers? The answer is we had a giant tsunami much like the terrible tragedy that struck a year ago. The thing is this paleoseismologist named Brian Atwater thought this from digging around and seeing the ghost forests but he didn't really have proof except for Indian legend until---and this is true---the Japanese warriors known as samurai provided the answer.

According to the article, "Samurai helped track Big One" by Tom Paulson in today's Seattle PI, the Japanese samurai kept meticulous records of all things commerce in addition to their sword duties. Evidently, they recorded an orphan tsunami which means they felt no earthquake in Japan. And nobody on this side wrote anything down to document this event. Long story short, Atwater is now able to prove from Japanese samurai records that we had a magnitude 9 earthquake on a Tuesday at 9 PM, January 26, 1700. As a result, the megaquake spawned a massive tsunami that destroyed a lot of forests---hence, all the dead trees.

Brian Atwater has written a book called "Orphan Tsunami of 1700". How cool...and a tad scary!