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Journal of Creation 31(1):11–12, April 2017

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Surprises in Surprise Canyon

by J.N. Caldwell

Figure 1. Geologic column of the Grand Canyon. Surprise Canyon Formation (4c) is shown incising into Redwall Limestone (4b).

John Woodmorappe’s critical review of The Grand Canyon: Monument to an Ancient Earth1 provided a good summary critique of the arguments the authors used to try to undermine Flood geology. Nonetheless, as Woodmorappe stated: “I … need to strongly stress the fact that it would require a full-length book to address all the fallacies of this pro-uniformitarian compromising evangelical missive.”2 A few remarks expanding on some of Woodmorappe’s points are thus germane.

Surprise Canyon

My main comment addresses a sedimentary layer within the Canyon walls called the Surprise Canyon Formation (figure 1). Hill et al. place strong emphasis upon their interpretation of a subaerial fluvial environment for this formation, claiming it as evidence for a prolonged period of erosion, and asserting that creationists have largely ignored the age implications of this evidence.3

The published research on the Surprise Canyon Formation, however, reveals some surprising information. First, the formation is a relatively recent discovery, being undefined before 1984 because of its discontinuous and patchy nature and generally inaccessible outcrops.4 It consists mainly of highly fossiliferous channel fill with conglomerates at its base. It incises through the top two members of the Redwall Limestone, and thickens from east to west. As a result of these characteristics, the Surprise Canyon Formation has been interpreted to have been formed by a dendritic river system flowing across the top of the underlying Redwall Limestone during a time of subaerial exposure—hence the interpretation of a subaerial fluvial environment.

However, since Hill et al. place great emphasis on uniformitarian methodology, using the present as the key to the past, their interpretation of the Surprise Canyon should be judged by that standard as well.

Surprise canyon and sedimentary fill

Table 1. Ten deepest rivers in the world, along with their lengths, with the Surprise Canyon at the bottom6

One of the most interesting aspects of the Surprise Canyon Formation is the depth of the channel fills, which range from an average of 50–98 m (164–323 ft) in the west, to 45 m (144 ft) in the central area, to no more than 25 m (82 ft) in the eastern exposures, with the deepest channel fill being 122 m (400 ft). The total length of the formation is estimated at 112 km (70 mi).5 From a uniformitarian perspective, therefore, it would be instructive to compare the dimensions of Surprise Canyon with those of the ten deepest rivers in the world today (table 1).

According to Hill et al., therefore, the Surprise Canyon river system, which was only 112 km (70 mi) long, was deeper than all of the world’s currently existing river systems, except for three rivers which are 25–56 times longer than the Surprise Canyon system’s estimated total length! (table 1).

Surprise canyon and karst

Moreover, the river that carved Surprise Canyon was supposed to have developed on a karst surface, for which Hill et al. use Yucatan as a modern-day analogy. The problem from a uniformitarian perspective, however, is that the Yucatan has no major rivers running through it because of its karst topography. This happens on the Kaibab Plateau, as well, where water drains through the surface and exits as waterfalls from the cliffs. So the question must be asked, how was a river system as short and deep as that proposed for the Surprise Canyon Formation supposed to have developed on a karst surface?

Additionally, the photos I’ve seen of Surprise Canyon outcrops appear to show draped fill layers within the channels, not the stacks of multiple channel fills which are common in modern rivers.7,8 Drape fill is more consistent with one episode of scouring.

In conclusion, the Surprise Canyon Formation’s short length, anomalous depths, and conglomeratic base fill are not consistent with modern drainage networks developed on karst surfaces. They are, however, consistent with mass flow scouring, which may have been subaerial or subaqueous, but in either case, does not demand a long period of time.

Grand Canyon and geomorphology

My second comment upon the book is that the authors point out the flaws with the many scenarios given by both creationists and secular geologists for the carving of the canyon, but do not address the solutions proposed by Michael Oard in his book, A Grand Origin for the Grand Canyon.8 Oard offers the most detailed analysis available from a creationist standpoint of the geomorphological features of the Grand Canyon, and I highly recommend it to all interested readers.

A call for caution

Lastly, although the book is about geology, Noah’s Flood, and biblical creation, the authors apparently cannot imagine that creation scientists who study the Grand Canyon could be anything besides deluded or acting on blind faith. The authors imply that their perspective on science is the only correct one. However, they do not realize, or are unwilling to concede, that science is a tool, not a philosophy, and much of the scientific evidence cited in their book can be interpreted in different ways, depending upon the assumptions of the scientist.

The book itself ends with the words, “Truth always matters”. Creationists could not agree more, but unfortunately, when it comes to the origin and age of the Grand Canyon, the full truth will not be known until we meet the One who created the world and all that is in it. Until then, He has revealed enough truth in His word for us to know the age of the earth, the reality of the global Flood, and the resurrection of Christ. So a measure of caution would be well-advised for Christian scientists who claim that science invalidates a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis, while presumably accepting a literal interpretation of the New Testament’s decidedly unscientific assertions that a man was born of a virgin and rose from the dead.

References and notes

  1. Woodmorappe, J., review of The Grand Canyon: Monument to an Ancient Earth by Hill et al., J. Creation 30(3):17–21, 2016. Return to text.
  2. Woodmorappe, ref. 1, p. 17. Return to text.
  3. Hill, C., Davidson, G., Ranney, W. and Helble, T., The Grand Canyon, Monument to an Ancient Earth: Can Noah’s Flood Explain the Grand Canyon? Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI, p. 200, 2016. Return to text.
  4. Beus, S.S., A geologic surprise in the Grand Canyon, Fieldnotes, Arizona Geological Survey 16(3):1–4, 1986. Return to text.
  5. Billingsley, G.H. and Beus, S.S., The Surprise Canyon Formation, an Upper Mississippian and Lower Pennsylvanian (?) rock unit in the Grand Canyon, Arizona, US Geological Survey Bulletin A 1605:A27–A33, 1985. Return to text.
  6. Merrow, B., 2009 Day 8 Sept 20 166.5-213 from National Canyon to Pumpkin Spring, bmerrow.blogspot.com, 1 January 2009. Return to text.
  7. McCann, M., Mike the Geologist: Science and the Bible (Lesson 5), www.internetmonk.com, 19 May 2016. Return to text.
  8. Oard, M.J., A Grand Origin for the Grand Canyon, CRS books, Chino Valley, AZ, 2016. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Richard D:
Sheldon Judson is the author of a 1968 paper on long term erosion rates (Judson, 1968, Erosion of the Land, or What's Happening to Our Continents?, American Scientist Vol. 56, No. 4).

According to his calculations, at the present rates of erosion, there has been enough time for a mass equivalent to the earth's crust to have moved two times through the sedimentary portion of the cycle. And, yet, as you point out, there are still massive volumes of Precambrian and Paleozoic rock on the earth.

Judson ends with this remarkable statement:
"We began this review with a brief examination of the homely process of erosion. As we continued, we found that man has appeared on the scene as an importang geologic agent, increasing the rates of erosion by a factor of two or three. We end the review face to face with larger problems. Regardless of the role of man, the reality of continental erosion raises anew the question of the nature and origin of the forces that drive our continents above sea level. In short, we now seek the mechanics of continental survival."

Perhaps the problem is not with the presumed survival of the continents, but with their presumed age.
Aiden B.
Great article! And good points at the end. Evolutionary/naturalistic beliefs are not compatible with Biblical beliefs. For example, the Bible says we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and not in the image of an ape-like creature. Furthermore, God does not lie (Titus 1:2) so we should not tell God what we believe he did but believe what he said he did in his word.
Kosta A.
I fully agree with gabriel S.
Richard D.
Excellent article!- I have one question- Assuming uniformitarian view of geology to have occurred over the millions and millions of years, punctuated by an occasional comet that cause mass planetary destruction; wouldn't the erosion - uplift processes uniformitarians preach, and the occasional comet, basically grind into celery salt everything above the surface of the oceans every 20 million years or so, and with uplift, replace everything with new sediments?. Thus, holding to this view, the Grand Canyon formation with the Tapeats sandstone at the base- uniformitarian age aprox. 550 million yrs. and the Kaibab Limestone at 250 million at the top would no longer be in existence, right? Ground into celery salt by erosion and replaced by other sedimentary layers through uplift, ages ago? If current rates of world wide erosion and uplift are considered - wouldn't these so labeled ancient continental wide rock formation have long since vanished? The result then being, we would not even have trilobite fossils as they existed from the early Cambrian to the end of the Permian eras, roughly the same age as the layers of the Grand Canyon? Doesn't the erosion - uplift cycle held by uniformitarian geology completely erase the Cambrian era, etc etc.? Or at the very least trilobites would be very very rare and not littering ever rock and fossil store in the nation? I wait for your reply. Thank you.
Tas Walker
Those sorts of catastrophes would have a huge effect, as you suggest.
Michael S.
I DO find it interesting that mainstream science has begun to grow defensive in the face of creationist arguments. It is fascinating that the author felt the need to repudiate the work of creationist scientists, who were only looking at and interpreting the same evidence. I can only hope that this new defensiveness is the new norm of mainstream science, and more importantly, that this will lead them to at least consider all of the implications of the evidence (you know ... what a true scientist is supposed to do in the first place).
S M.
A few weeks ago SBS ran a show that featured 2 massive canyons.
The presenters showed the erosion happened quickly to carve out the "Groove"
Some particles that come off the sun and effect the grooves surface were measured.
The surfaces were all pretty much equal in the amount of particles.
The presenters concluded the massive flood happened quickly that caused the groove and they guessed by the amount of average particles that it happened around 7000 years ago.
The presenters (scientists) were secular and made no reference to he bible at all.
gabriel S.
The last sentence of this article is an absolute beauty. It also in some way raises the question how one can claim to be a Christian scientist and NOT take God at His word THROUGHOUT the bible. Unlike so-called scientific writings which change and adapt in time, the word of God does not and is still the authority on life and death. Thank you once again!

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