Giant’s Causeway geology clarified for Earth Science Ireland

Geologist’s open letter on the Interbasaltic Bed


Published: 23 November 2014 (GMT+10)

Northern Ireland's only World Heritage site has become something of a battleground where believers in long-age evolution are fiercely resisting geological interpretations of the Giant's Causeway based on biblical history. Recently the geological magazine Earth Science Ireland published a fiery attack against biblical geology. Angus Kennedy, a geologist working in Northern Ireland, has responded in an open letter to the editor, Dr Tony Bazley, presenting geologic evidence that does not support the long age beliefs but is consistent with creation geology. Links to other articles on the Giant’s Causeway controversy are found under Related Articles. Angus Kennedy’s open letter is reproduced below.

Photo: Tas Walker giants-causeway
A glorious day for people to enjoy the Giant’s Causeway

Dr Tony Bazley
Editor, Earth Science Ireland
County Down
Northern Ireland

Dear Dr Bazley,

On recently leafing through a copy of the Spring 2014, Issue 15, Earth Science Ireland (ESI) magazine that had come my way, Stephen Moreton’s ‘Reading Between the (Basalt) Columns’ article caught my eye. In it he uses a supposed long formation time of the County Antrim laterite Interbasaltic Bed1 (IB) in an attempt to refute young-earth creationism, a position which many Christians (including some geologists like myself) accept as being clearly taught in the Bible, and consistent with the scientific evidence. I felt obliged to take pen to paper to correct some of the misleading information given in his article and to advance sound evidences for the rapid formation of the IB.

I met Dr Moreton twice in 2004 when he visited the quarry I was then based at to collect zeolites.2 I trust that if we have the opportunity to meet again, he may be willing to calmly discuss these issues without labelling my views as ‘absurd’ or ‘perverse’.

First of all, there is one point which Dr Moreton would surely agree with me on—that there is nobody that can take the end of any rate-based ‘tape measure’ (e.g., radiometric dating) from the present back to the time the IB was formed—science’s tape measure can only be extended into the past by using assumptions about rates, original starting conditions and processes. (One example of the sorts of assumptions involved in historical geology and which has recently been overturned is described later.) As a geologist and a Christian I am entirely happy with God’s tape measure, which he has kindly stretched out for us from the other end—from the time of creation, through the Flood to the present day—and which is based on observed history and that recorded in the Bible.

Moreton refers to the supposed slow rate of laterite formation solely in terms of what is observed today in the warm and humid tropics. With the world-wide judgement brought about by the global Flood that involved an unimaginable magnitude of tectonism and magmatism3 from the very outset and in its aftermath, there would have been plenty of heat and water available to produce rapid alteration and laterization of susceptible rocks, and that at a rate many orders of magnitude greater than is measured today. Moreton is also mistaken in his attempt to bolster his argument by associating laterite formation with the ‘excruciatingly slow’ weathering of historical monuments, for after all, only the most durable types of stone are selected for that purpose.

Photo: Angus Kennedy Toe-Flow-Breccia-lge
Figure 1. Brecciated (broken) vesicular (with holes) basalt enclosed in fine-grained laterite.

In my capacity as a geologist I have carried out geological appraisals involving exploratory drilling at a number of basalt quarries in the Province. The knowledge gained from this leads me to conclude that there is very good evidence for rapid laterite formation—quite the opposite of Moreton’s claims.

In one quarry, the IB is seen to be very much broken up, with clasts of vesicular basalt4 contained within a fine-grained brick-red laterite. This location in particular was brought to the attention of the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland, and geologist Mark Cooper visited it. He considered that it had been produced by lava flowing over wet ground, disrupting the base of the flow. Dr Alastair Ruffell, Queens University Belfast, examined a photograph of the exposure and concluded that, as the clasts were rounded, it was a toe-flow conglomerate. This shows that there was considerable disruption of the lava during emplacement. There is also abundant evidence of lava ploughing5 (actually more like bulldozing) where loose granular material had been pushed into banks and mounds.

At another quarry there is a thick (2–4m) heavily vesicularised laterite bed which also contains clasts. The clasts at this location are angular (see figure 1), indicating that violent brecciation6 had occurred.

During trial drilling at this location, a few thin (0.3–1.5 m) layers of pink lateritic basalt were encountered within the depth of a single 30-m-thick flow. More extensive occurrences of pink lateritic basalt were found below the IB during drilling at the first location at a later date, with a maximum thickness of 7.6 m logged in one of the boreholes. This indicates that hydrothermal alteration7 from the heat and water originally present in the magma occurred in the interior part of a flow, and that laterization is not exclusively associated with sub-aerial weathering.8

At a third quarry, laterised and highly vesicular basalt could be seen through the depth of three quarry benches over an extensive area. This feature (now no longer exposed due to flooding) was the result of volatiles streaming up through the basalt. It was certainly not the product of sub-aerial weathering from the top.

In summary, the above geological evidence points to:

  1. The presence of abundant heat and water during the emplacement of the material.
  2. The starting material being disrupted during emplacement and therefore susceptible to rapid alteration.
  3. Hydrothermal alteration, i.e., laterization, occurring within flow units.

In the Corlat Handbook for describing laterite profiles, Aleva (1993)9 sets out what an eminent group of earth scientists consider to be the “essential process parameters” for laterite formation. These are: high average temperature; high rainfall to promote leaching; high rate of percolation to allow the leachate to be flushed away; sufficient decaying organic matter (i.e., producing humic acid) to turn the percolating water into a chemically and physically aggressive fluid; and surface relief with a minimum slope in order to minimise erosion.

The tectonism and magmatism associated with the biblical world-wide Flood would have provided an abundant source of warm acid-bearing rain10 in its aftermath, which would produce hugely accelerated laterite formation in a very short period of time. This obviates the hook that long-agers are caught on of needing high precipitation, high percolation, but low relief, in order to account for the little or no erosion seen.

Photo: Ghosh and Maji, ref. 13 Gosh-Maji-laterite-erosion-gully
Figure 2. Gully eroded in laterite, Bengal, India.

Moreton then turns his attention to attacking two articles on the geology of the Giant’s Causeway which have been written from a creationist perspective by Dr Tasman Walker, a well known CMI author and speaker. In his attempt to rebut Walker’s point that the relatively uniform thickness (i.e., lack of erosion) of the IB argues for rapid formation prior to its subsequent capping and preservation by fresh basalt, he asks “why shouldn’t it be even11 [given] …the same climatic conditions over a large area of low relief, with the same underlying rock, for the same length of time”—a time Moreton believes to be 3 million years (Mitchell et al.12 give up to 1 million years, and recently a National Trust guide talked of 100,000 years of monsoon rains—take your pick). As shown by his mistaken monument analogy, Moreton appears not to appreciate the fact that laterite is a very weak material. Quarrymen exercise great care to exclude laterite and altered basalt as they both readily disintegrate and cause problems if inadvertently incorporated into finished product. Furthermore, laterite soils in tropical areas where the rainforest has been clear-felled are indeed weak and erosion prone, being easily scoured by monsoon rains into gullied badlands (figure 2).13 Gullies, large or small, do not feature over the large areas of laterite beds that I have seen exposed in the quarries. The presence of granular material loose enough to be bulldozed by advancing lava fronts also argues strongly against any such period of quiescence. Whether, 0.1 million years or 3 million years—how could such feats of non-erosion be achieved?

In dismissing Walker’s observation that the topography of the Lower Basalts is relatively even with an emphatic “False” Moreton appears to be confused, having himself only just appealed in his preceding paragraph to low relief for the evident lack of erosion of the IB.

Forming valleys in a volcanic terrain would not be the sole preserve of rivers. Rather, the varied morphology of basalt lava flows, assisted by faulting, would have undoubtedly expressed itself topographically during accumulation—a situation which would not preclude linear valley-like features on the scale seen. After all, most of the basalt is thought to have been emplaced via linear fissures. At one of the quarries previously referred to, the fan-shaped main flow had filled a broad depression in the underlying surface. Flow thickness varied between 3 m and 14 m around the edges, to 20 m in the centre. The nose of the flow forms a trap14 feature approximately 10 m in height.

In taking Walker to task regarding his point about the lack of roots, Moreton again appears unmindful an earlier statement of his own: “…the true soil layer [is] confined to the top few inches where nearly all the activity of life goes on, the lower layers being devoid of plant roots [emphasis added] and composed of an intensely leached, altered and hydrated remnant of the underlying rock [i.e., sterile laterite]”. Tropical rainforests on laterite are remarkably shallow rooted, growing as they do on what is only a thin soil layer. This is why slash and burn agriculture is so wasteful—the exposed soil quickly loses its fertility within a few years and never recovers, becoming prone to the erosion mentioned earlier. What any unbiased person should spot straight away, and consider to be truly remarkable, is the fact that there are no carbonised remains of any such rainforest to be seen, and which might reasonably be expected to have developed in the claimed long-age time-frame. Even Surtsey, in only five decades since it first appeared above the Arctic Ocean,15 appears to have bettered the growth found fossilised between the IB and succeeding lavas. That there is nothing more substantial than leaf impressions or pockets of lignite16 falsifies the long-age position.

Photo: Tas Walker Bell-Kennedy
A prominent exposure of the red Interbasaltic Bed beyond Giant’s Causeway alongside the path.

Moreton bangs on about his ‘facts’ while at the same time decrying the ‘faith’ of others, all the while adopting a position of authority he assumes 130 years of geological effort confers on him. What he himself entirely ignores is the faith that he himself places on his ‘facts’, particularly when so many of them have been completely overturned. Space precludes an extensive list (creation.com and similar websites are full of them), so I’ll give only one example.

Stoke’s Law is used in calculating the time it takes for various sizes of particle to settle by gravity through a fluid. In water, coarse sand-size particles settle rapidly while very fine particles such as clay settle very slowly. This is easily demonstrated by putting some clay in a gas jar filled with water, stirring it up and then timing how long it takes to settle. As much of the geological column consists of mudstone and shale, the slow settlement time of clay was taken as irrefutable evidence that still, deep water and long ages were absolute necessities for their formation. Schieber, Southard and Thaisen,17 in their 2007 paper, showed how clay particles, due to their intrinsically sticky properties, bind together in flowing water to form larger particles (flocs), which in turn clump into even larger lumps (floccules). The floccules then attached to the base of their specially designed racetrack flume to form migrating ripples. This completely overturns a foundational pillar of long ages that generations of geologists, including myself, were taught.

I can corroborate from personal observation the fact that clay does indeed drop out from fast moving water. In 2008 I watched while a 1.2-m-thick deposit of clay floc was cleaned from a settlement pond. The clay that produced this floc had been ground out of the IB in the floor of the quarry by heavy traffic and it ended up being washed into the lagoon. The flocculated clay had a sloppy chocolate–mousse-like colour and consistency. The iron oxide in the laterite also gave it a pinkish tint. It was a surprise to me at the time, that with a mountain at the back of the quarry and frequent heavy storm-water flows, that any clay at all had been deposited, never mind so much.

In our first exchange (my open letter to you in September 2008, and published on the CMI website) I objected to the anti-Christian and anti-creationist articles which were in the Spring 2008 issue of ESI. In your response, you were kind enough to reassure us that Earth Science Ireland would never publish anything that is anti-Christian. Moreton’s article appears to be at odds with your reassurance in regard to his characterisation of creationists as being highly deceptive and misleading. Is it not also disingenuous on his part to single out creationists for attack as if they were something other than Christian, and to relegate the Genesis account of creation and the global Flood to mere ‘biblical tales’ and the stuff of ‘myths and legends’. Such posturing is not merely an attack on creationists, but it is also a direct attack on the person and deity of Jesus Christ. The Bible affirms that he is God incarnate and both the Creator (John 1:1–3) and the Saviour of the World (1 John 4:14). He himself spoke directly about Noah and the Flood in his discourse on the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24:38; For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark… (KJ21)). It is no wonder that Moreton is happy to mollify Christians “who have no difficulty with either evolution or the age of the earth”, as he at least appreciates that in doing so they tacitly accept that the Son of God is less than omniscient regarding Noah, greatly undermining their position as a result.

The tone of Dr Moreton’s demonstrably weak attack on Dr Tasman Walker, and his thinly veiled attack on Christianity, again reflect poorly on your magazine. We can still live in the hope that in future ESI will encourage its contributors to adopt a less strident tone and a more considered approach to any future articles on this subject.

Yours sincerely,
Angus Kennedy

Update: On 17 November 2014, Angus Kennedy emailed this letter to Dr Tony Bazley, editor of Earth Science Ireland, who replied saying he appreciates the contribution. It just missed the current issue, which is at the printers, but will be in the following (Spring) issue. Dr Bazley expects he will have to trim the references somewhat but will try to put them online so people with an interest can check them out.

Update 2: On 25 November 2014, Dr Tony Bazely advised Angus Kennedy: "I have re-read your letter. It is an open letter already published and you do not ask me to print it in the magazine. Accordingly I will refer readers to the place that the letter has already been published. It is anyway too lengthy for the magazine. Sorry that I misunderstood the original note."

References and notes

  1. County Antrim is the county in Northern Ireland in which Giant’s Causeway is located. Laterite is a type of soil, rich in iron and rusty red, supposedly formed in hot, wet tropical areas. The 10–12 m thick red bed between basalts at the Giant’s Causeway has been called a laterite, but it does not appear to have formed as a soil, which is what this discussion is about. Because the red bed is found between a thick series of basalt flows it is called the Interbasaltic Bed. Return to text.
  2. Zeolites are minerals popular with collectors and important industrially. Return to text.
  3. Tectonism involves movements of the earth’s plates. Magmatism is the generation of magma (molten rock), and its movement in the earth and eruption from volcanoes. Return to text.
  4. Clasts are pieces of rock. Vesicular basalt is basalt with holes, formed by gas bubbles in the molten lava. Return to text.
  5. Wilson, H.E., Lava Ploughing in the Tertiary Basalts of County Antrim, Geological Magazine 102, pp 538–540, 1965. Return to text.
  6. Breccia is rock composed of broken, angular clasts, rather than rounded clasts. Return to text.
  7. Hydrothermal alteration is the mineral changes that occur in a rock due to the presence of hot, pressurised, chemically-aggressive fluids, either from within the magma itself or from groundwater, late in the cooling of the basalt. Return to text.
  8. Sub-aerial weathering is weathering under the air, in a normal outdoor environment. Return to text.
  9. Aleva, G.J.J. The Corlat Handbook: Guidelines and Background Information for the Description of Laterite Profiles for Interdisciplinary Use, Corlat Technical Publication: 1 Wageningen, ISRIC, p 7, 1993; Link is http://edepot.wur.nl/298583 Return to text.
  10. The USGS webpage http://volcanoes.usgs.gove/hazards/gas lists the following gasses that are dissolved in magma: sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen chloride (i.e., hydrochloric acid), and hydrogen fluoride, and which are vented during eruptions as acid aerosols. They also note that extreme heat from lava entering the sea breaks down the seawater into a corrosive hydrochloric acid bearing steam known as lava haze or laze. Return to text.
  11. An admission that it is indeed relatively even. Return to text.
  12. Mitchell, W.I., Cooper, M.R., McKeever, P.J., and McConnell, B., The Classic Geology of the North of Ireland, Geological Survey of Northern Ireland, Belfast, p 16, 2010. Return to text.
  13. Ghosh, S., and Maji, T., Pedo-geomorphic analysis of soil loss in the lateritic region of Rampurhat I block of Birbhum district, West Bengal and Shikaripara block of Dumka district, Jharkhand, International Journal of Environmental Sciences 1(7), 2011; Link is: http://www.ipublishing.co.in/jesvol1no12010/EIJES2120.pdf Return to text.
  14. Step-like, from the Swedish word for stairs. Return to text.
  15. Catchpoole, D., Surtsey still surprises, Creation 30(1):32–34, 2007; https://creation.com/surtsey-still-surprises Return to text.
  16. Wilson, H.E., and Manning P.I. Geology of the Causeway Coast, Memoir for one–inch geological sheet 7, Vol 1, p 119, (1978). It has been suggested that the hollow at Craigahullier which is infilled with lignite was formed by a river, but Wilson states that this is impossible as it dips discordantly in a number of directions and ends abruptly against the IB. Wilson suggests that it may have been a pit crater of a type seen in Hawaii. Return to text.
  17. Schieber, J., Southard, J., and Thaisen, K., Accretion of mudstone beds from migrating floccule ripples, Science 318(5857):1760–1763, 2007. Return to text.

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