SEATTLE - The ground trembling came first, Eastern Washington shuddering under the approach of an Ice Age flood of 500 cubic miles of water, weighing more than 2 trillion tons.
The sound next, an ominous rumble growing to an overpowering roar. A cloud of mist on the horizon. Beneath it, a towering, unstoppable wave.
The water was a brown slurry, soupy with silt, rocks, trees, icebergs and any animals unlucky enough to get in its path: mammoths, giant sloths, beavers the size of bears. Basalt columns were peeled off like string cheese. Some gravel from Montana would be carried all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Other would be left in bars as high as a 40-story building.
If any humans were in the Northwest then, roughly 15,000 years ago, the inundation would have seemed like the end of the world.
The wave itself was a prow of white water, pushing a shockwave of air. Rivers typically flow from near zero to 7 miles an hour, but this flood started at freeway speeds. In volume, the deluge thundering across the Northwest was 10 times the combined flow today of all the rivers on Earth.
Wall of water
The flood started in the Idaho panhandle as a wall of water 2,000 feet high, bursting through the remnants of a glacial dam at 65 miles an hour. It spread into temporary lakes as it plowed west and south, and bunched into a rising boil at every canyon and constriction. In the Columbia River Gorge, it rose again as deep as 2,000 feet, its kinetic energy so great that it gouged out a pothole below sea level in the John Day River canyon.
At the Gorge's western end, the flood depth was still 800 to 1,000 feet, and water shot past Oregon's Crown Point like a fire hose at speeds as high as 70 to 80 miles an hour. One of its gravel bars would become east Portland, the water there 400 feet deep. The flood backed up the Willamette Valley as far south as Eugene, the swirling current grounding ice chunks that, when melted, deposited odd boulders across future farmland.
On the flood poured, past the future sites of Kalama, Longview and Astoria. Sea level was 300 feet lower than now, and the coast a hundred miles farther west. The flood crossed this plain and plunged into the sea so violently that it scoured a canyon underwater and carried parts of Montana - 600 million cubic yards of sediment in all - in a curving arc as far south as California.
After a week or two, the flood subsided to normal river levels, the land around stripped bare. Halting recovery began in the ensuing years, vegetation getting a toehold on ravaged floodplains. Then, 30 to 50 years later, another flood would come.
This cataclysm happened as many as 100 times over the next 3,000 years, helping carve the Washington we see today.
Welcome to the Northwest's proposed newest, most timely tourist attraction.
There's no better place to contemplate the future effect of our atmosphere's change than the base of Washington's Dry Falls at Sun Lakes State Park, a landscape catastrophically carved the last time the planet dramatically warmed. The Ice Age's end might have been partly due to unexplained "burps" of carbon dioxide from the ocean 18,000 and 13,000 years ago, according to a paper in the journal Science published in May.
The last Ice Age went out with a roar, not a whimper. The result is one of the most dramatic examples in the world of what climate change can mean, and Congress has plans for a "trail" to commemorate the little-known story.
Signs, interpretive centers and maps following the floods would be coordinated under federal legislation proposed by a Democrat, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Seattle, and a Republican, Rep. Doc Hastings of the Tri-Cities. If the bipartisan measure, co-sponsored by much of the rest of the Northwest delegation, passes as expected by the end of this Congress in 2008, the long-sought "Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail" - similar to the auto route following the path of Lewis and Clark - would be planned by 2010 and in place by 2016, Keith Dunbar of the National Park Service estimates.
"Instead of opening new visitor centers, we'd enhance what's already been built," he said.
Federal funding would be a modest $500,000 or so a year to coordinate state and local efforts, plus about $12 million in expected capital spending. "The idea is from the top down but also from the grassroots up," said Rene Senos, a senior associate at Seattle's Jones & Jones landscape firm, which has worked on the plan.
Some municipalities aren't waiting for Congress. The Wenatchee Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, for example, already has a map of its own 164-mile flood loop, which includes Dry Falls.
Following the entire trail could be a daunting project for the amateur geologist. Its primary roads are estimated to total nearly 1,000 miles, said Gary Kleinknecht, president of Richland's Ice Age Flood Institute. Secondary loops could double that.
"You just can't fit the entire story into a national park," noted retired Eastern Washington University geologist Eugene Kiver. The only photographs that take in the entire scale of the flood are from space.