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Bretz's Flood: The Remarkable Story of a Rebel Geologist and the World's Greatest Flood

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Channeled Scablands, between Idaho and the Cascades, is a unique landscape of basalt cliffs, dry waterfalls, canyons, and coulees. Legendary geologist J Harlen Bretz was the first to explore the area, starting in the 1920s. This dramatic book tells the story of this scientific maverick — how he came to study the region, his radical theory that a flood of biblical proportio Channeled Scablands, between Idaho and the Cascades, is a unique landscape of basalt cliffs, dry waterfalls, canyons, and coulees. Legendary geologist J Harlen Bretz was the first to explore the area, starting in the 1920s. This dramatic book tells the story of this scientific maverick — how he came to study the region, his radical theory that a flood of biblical proportions created it, and how a campaign by the mainstream geologic community tried to derail him for pursuing an idea that satellite photos would confirm decades later.


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Channeled Scablands, between Idaho and the Cascades, is a unique landscape of basalt cliffs, dry waterfalls, canyons, and coulees. Legendary geologist J Harlen Bretz was the first to explore the area, starting in the 1920s. This dramatic book tells the story of this scientific maverick — how he came to study the region, his radical theory that a flood of biblical proportio Channeled Scablands, between Idaho and the Cascades, is a unique landscape of basalt cliffs, dry waterfalls, canyons, and coulees. Legendary geologist J Harlen Bretz was the first to explore the area, starting in the 1920s. This dramatic book tells the story of this scientific maverick — how he came to study the region, his radical theory that a flood of biblical proportions created it, and how a campaign by the mainstream geologic community tried to derail him for pursuing an idea that satellite photos would confirm decades later.

30 review for Bretz's Flood: The Remarkable Story of a Rebel Geologist and the World's Greatest Flood

  1. 5 out of 5

    Mitchell

    What a guy. A great story, and a pretty good book though it kind of dribbled away at the end. But the author took enough time to set the story up, to make it clear what Bretz was about. This did not require hardly any real geology background. But then again I already knew about the floods, what I didn't know was about the man. But this explained the scablands and the the discovery better than anything I've seen. What a guy. A great story, and a pretty good book though it kind of dribbled away at the end. But the author took enough time to set the story up, to make it clear what Bretz was about. This did not require hardly any real geology background. But then again I already knew about the floods, what I didn't know was about the man. But this explained the scablands and the the discovery better than anything I've seen.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Amanda Christensen

    The oral history of J Harlen Bretz, Glacial Lake Missoula, and the floods have been the stuff of bedtime stories, long family road trips, and science classes throughout my life. His perseverance in the face of disbelief was a powerful tale and a source of inspiration. I bought this book on a whim years ago and only now finally got around to reading. Getting to know Bretz better through this book was a joy. My regard for his character (faults and all) has only grown. Bretz is a person worth the h The oral history of J Harlen Bretz, Glacial Lake Missoula, and the floods have been the stuff of bedtime stories, long family road trips, and science classes throughout my life. His perseverance in the face of disbelief was a powerful tale and a source of inspiration. I bought this book on a whim years ago and only now finally got around to reading. Getting to know Bretz better through this book was a joy. My regard for his character (faults and all) has only grown. Bretz is a person worth the honor of remembering. A basic understanding of geological terms and scientific methods will assist the reader in understanding the natural ice age forces at work on the landscape and the societal forces that delayed agreement with Bretz’s findings. I highly recommend to those interested in such things and fully expect to reread again someday.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jane

    The reality of the scablands versus the palouse really strikes you when you have a child at WA State and drive back and forth to Pullman regularly! This book really filled in the geological details. I dragged through the first section about Bretz's life; get me to the geology! But, there's a generic sub-theme in the book about scientists' own human perspectives and foibles that impact the introduction of new ideas and discoveries. Could Bretz have done a better job of introducing his theories? A The reality of the scablands versus the palouse really strikes you when you have a child at WA State and drive back and forth to Pullman regularly! This book really filled in the geological details. I dragged through the first section about Bretz's life; get me to the geology! But, there's a generic sub-theme in the book about scientists' own human perspectives and foibles that impact the introduction of new ideas and discoveries. Could Bretz have done a better job of introducing his theories? Another very human scientist who creatively identified a natural wonder.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Gerald Hickman

    I live just on the edge of these Scablands and this book helps to identify the geologic history of the unique area in Idaho and Washington. The book is well written and I gave it a 4 star rating. In my opinion this area would be a great place for historical/geologic park for the National Park Service. Read the book and see if you don't agree. Thank you for reading my blog. I live just on the edge of these Scablands and this book helps to identify the geologic history of the unique area in Idaho and Washington. The book is well written and I gave it a 4 star rating. In my opinion this area would be a great place for historical/geologic park for the National Park Service. Read the book and see if you don't agree. Thank you for reading my blog.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    If this book had started on page 77 (the point at which the discussion of Bretz's fieldwork begins and Bretz's early life story eases up), I would have given this a straight up 5 star rating. Having lived most of my life in eastern Washington and garnered only the faintest sketches of how the Channeled Scablands came to be, I found this book to be uber-fascinating. As I come off the South Hill on my daily walk to work in downtown Spokane, it is fun to imagine the wall(s) of water rolling down the If this book had started on page 77 (the point at which the discussion of Bretz's fieldwork begins and Bretz's early life story eases up), I would have given this a straight up 5 star rating. Having lived most of my life in eastern Washington and garnered only the faintest sketches of how the Channeled Scablands came to be, I found this book to be uber-fascinating. As I come off the South Hill on my daily walk to work in downtown Spokane, it is fun to imagine the wall(s) of water rolling down the Spokane River valley and scrubbing the basalt clean... The only quibbles that I have with the book (aside from the heavy focus on Bretz's early life) are that there is no index (gasp!) and as such I couldn't easily look to see if there was a discussion of the formation of Moses Coulee that I had somehow missed. According to the sketched map at the beginning of the book, Moses Coulee is located too high on the Waterville Plateau to have been formed by the flood waters described... so, Mr. Bretz, where did it come from?

  6. 5 out of 5

    Frank

    I liked this biography of geologist j Harlan Bretz and how his contemporaries refused to accept his theory for the creation of eastern Washington's scablands until he was a ripe old age. The first half of the book is an account of Bretz's early life and education, I found it a little plodding. The middle part of the book is the meat and that's the most interesting part. The end is predictably about his final years and kind of an anticlimax. Overall very informative and nice portrait of the man, hi I liked this biography of geologist j Harlan Bretz and how his contemporaries refused to accept his theory for the creation of eastern Washington's scablands until he was a ripe old age. The first half of the book is an account of Bretz's early life and education, I found it a little plodding. The middle part of the book is the meat and that's the most interesting part. The end is predictably about his final years and kind of an anticlimax. Overall very informative and nice portrait of the man, his theory, and the state of geography during the first half of the 20th century. Kudos to the author for doing his research and presenting geologic features, activities and theories in an interesting manner to a non-technical, popular audience. Pet peeve: I generally disapprove of using adjectives in book titles to tell the reader what to think. I would remove these adjectives from the subtitle: 'remarkable', 'rebel' and 'world's greatest'. This kind of sensationalizing turns me off. But I forgive the author and/or publisher somewhat, given the subject matter here.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Julia

    Did you know that during the last ice age, a glacial lake in Montana drained in a series of cataclysmic floods that unleashed a torrent of water (the largest had 13 times the flow of the Amazon) all the way to the Pacific? True story. I'm not sure how interesting this book would be if you haven't seen the wild, wild landscape of central Washington (look at the Google images for "dry falls washington" to get an idea of the scarred landscape the floods left behind), but if you have, it's a nice me Did you know that during the last ice age, a glacial lake in Montana drained in a series of cataclysmic floods that unleashed a torrent of water (the largest had 13 times the flow of the Amazon) all the way to the Pacific? True story. I'm not sure how interesting this book would be if you haven't seen the wild, wild landscape of central Washington (look at the Google images for "dry falls washington" to get an idea of the scarred landscape the floods left behind), but if you have, it's a nice meld of geology, biography, and a bit of scientific history. Bretz was the geologist who traversed much of this landscape on foot, and was rewarded for his hard work, careful observations, and good hypothesizing with criticism and contempt from his peers. The personal narrative drags a bit at times (I'll be honest - I was reading this for the flood details, which I found astounding), but Soennichsen has a friendly, conversational tone, and I'm glad he shed light on how this particular bit of our geological history was discovered.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Sheila

    As someone who grew up in Moses Coulee and who has spent my life in Eastern Washington, this was pivotal to my understanding of the geology of the area. In addition. the realization that Bretz first proposed his theory less than a century ago emphasizes the magnitude of research and distribution of knowledge in very recent history. Fascinating.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jerre Mcquinn

    An interesting account of the scablands of eastern Washington state and the geologist who figured out how they came to be...who persisted in the face of continued scepticism. Now I want to plan a rambling tour of the Ice Age Floods Geologic Trail to see for myself with a new perspective. Oh, and maybe but some good wines along the way.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Robert M. Galbraith

    This is a fascinating story. As a geologist I can relate to the politics, shortsightedness and intransience of the establishment This is a wonderful story about a great man who did incredible work and ultimately succeeded using good science. A delight to read about in this day when "Science" is being so abused in the media. This is a fascinating story. As a geologist I can relate to the politics, shortsightedness and intransience of the establishment This is a wonderful story about a great man who did incredible work and ultimately succeeded using good science. A delight to read about in this day when "Science" is being so abused in the media.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Kathy

    Interesting read for geology buffs and anyone who has spent time in central/northeastern Washington. Not so much for folks who aren't in those two groups. The writing wasn't made for a best seller but gives a good description of the life and times of a true scientist. Interesting read for geology buffs and anyone who has spent time in central/northeastern Washington. Not so much for folks who aren't in those two groups. The writing wasn't made for a best seller but gives a good description of the life and times of a true scientist.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Melinda

    Fascinating account of geological process, geological discovery and academic politics. Growing up in Washington, I never appreciated what caused all those strange formations in the "desert" part of the state. I really want to be a geologist in my next life. Fascinating account of geological process, geological discovery and academic politics. Growing up in Washington, I never appreciated what caused all those strange formations in the "desert" part of the state. I really want to be a geologist in my next life.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Tim

    A 15,000 year old mystery, solved by maverick geologist, disputed as ludicrous by his peers and finally vindicated by satellite images of Mars! Sounds like a sci-fi thriller, except is all true. Can you get a more enthralling plot?

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jordan Harbour

    A good book about a steadfast man who advanced our understanding of geography despite heavy opposition.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    This was really interesting. There are a surprising number of people who make great breakthroughs in their fields just to be shunned by the rest. This is mostly a biography of Bretz.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Madison

    The best geology book I've read. The author spent a lot of time talking about the actual geological observations in a clear way. I'm planning on visiting lots of the sites mentioned in this book. The best geology book I've read. The author spent a lot of time talking about the actual geological observations in a clear way. I'm planning on visiting lots of the sites mentioned in this book.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Keith W. Parks

    Interesting to those who like earth science.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Linda

    Fascinating book about the scablands in Washington State, and about the geologist who persisted in his study of the scablands, in spite of his close-minded colleagues. I highly recommend Bretz's Flood to anyone who is intrigued by geology or by scientific discoveries. Fascinating book about the scablands in Washington State, and about the geologist who persisted in his study of the scablands, in spite of his close-minded colleagues. I highly recommend Bretz's Flood to anyone who is intrigued by geology or by scientific discoveries.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Last Ranger

    Bretz's Flood: the Remarkable Story of a Rebel Geologist and the World's Greatest Flood John Soennichsen The Power of Water Unleashed! This is a great book, it's a mix of history, biography, science and, last but not least, betrayal. In the early 1900's geologist J. Harlan Bretz stood toe to toe with the geological hierarchy of the day and proposed a radical new theory on the formation of the Channeled Scablands in Washington state. According to Bretz an ice dam for a huge glacial lake gave way and Bretz's Flood: the Remarkable Story of a Rebel Geologist and the World's Greatest Flood John Soennichsen The Power of Water Unleashed! This is a great book, it's a mix of history, biography, science and, last but not least, betrayal. In the early 1900's geologist J. Harlan Bretz stood toe to toe with the geological hierarchy of the day and proposed a radical new theory on the formation of the Channeled Scablands in Washington state. According to Bretz an ice dam for a huge glacial lake gave way and sent a wall of water thundering down the Columbia River Plateau during the Pleistocene Era, resulting in the eroded landscape we see today. Prior to that point the scientific "Old Guard" was of the opinion that all geological processes would happen slowly, over a very long period of time. But even before that there was yet another theory called Catastrophism, a theory that had fallen out of favor in the 1800's. Now Bretz was proposing, of all things, that a catastrophic flood was the cause of all this erosion. Soennichsen covers the resulting face off between Bretz and the Old Guard in fine detail and his book introduces the reader to the bizarre landscape of the scablands. In science anyone who proposes a paradigm changing theory finds that the burden of proof lies with him or her. The Old Guard, in this case, feels threatened and will do whatever's necessary to protect their view from attack. The text traces Bretz's life and his single minded pursuit of the evidence that would support his theory. Through years of grueling field work Bretz would meet and overcome every obstacle standing in his way, all leading him to the final showdown and a devastating betrayal by his colleagues. Last Ranger

  20. 5 out of 5

    Peter Heinrich

    Interesting account of J Bretz's geological research in Eastern Washington. I appreciated the direct, journalistic style and enjoyed learning how Bretz came to form his then-controversial theory. His conclusions point to a truly awe-inspiring cataclysm, but the book (mostly) avoids sensationalism. Bretz's portrayal as a "rebel geologist" gets equal play with his Scablands research, but the drama is a shade paler than the title suggests. The author does a great job explaining Uniformitarianism, Ca Interesting account of J Bretz's geological research in Eastern Washington. I appreciated the direct, journalistic style and enjoyed learning how Bretz came to form his then-controversial theory. His conclusions point to a truly awe-inspiring cataclysm, but the book (mostly) avoids sensationalism. Bretz's portrayal as a "rebel geologist" gets equal play with his Scablands research, but the drama is a shade paler than the title suggests. The author does a great job explaining Uniformitarianism, Catastrophism, and how they were significant to the debate, but the philosophical clash still feels esoteric and decidedly not riveting. Unlike, say, plate tectonics, there was no decisive discovery that completely validated Bretz's theory; opposition to his ideas just decreased until most people accepted his explanation of things.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Karry

    This was a good book about an interesting man who first hypothesized about the scablands in Eastern Washington. Bretz was an early American geologist who spent many years saying that there was a cataclysmic event that caused the topography of Eastern Washington. He did not propose the reason for the topography initially so was not the first one to explain the phenomenon of the Missoula flood but eventually agreed that might have been the cause. He spent many years arguing with other geologists a This was a good book about an interesting man who first hypothesized about the scablands in Eastern Washington. Bretz was an early American geologist who spent many years saying that there was a cataclysmic event that caused the topography of Eastern Washington. He did not propose the reason for the topography initially so was not the first one to explain the phenomenon of the Missoula flood but eventually agreed that might have been the cause. He spent many years arguing with other geologists about his findings and eventually his focus on field work became the norm of the science. The author explained the beginnings of geologic science and the political infighting that went on, but his over support of Bretz's egotistical behavior put a bit of a damper on the little book. It was generally a good read that could have been improved with a little less bias.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Martha

    Great biography of Bretz. I love the scablands of Eastern Washington because they are such a fascinating geological landscape, but also because of the fascinating human story behind it. Bretz was lucky enough to live to see his theories proved right and accepted by the scientific community. The book does a wonderful job of presenting the details as Bretz found them so that you can see exactly how he unraveled the mystery. Soennichsen does more than just explain Bretz's brilliant and controversial Great biography of Bretz. I love the scablands of Eastern Washington because they are such a fascinating geological landscape, but also because of the fascinating human story behind it. Bretz was lucky enough to live to see his theories proved right and accepted by the scientific community. The book does a wonderful job of presenting the details as Bretz found them so that you can see exactly how he unraveled the mystery. Soennichsen does more than just explain Bretz's brilliant and controversial career. By the end of the book you have a great sense of his quirky and cranky (but ultimately kind) personality. Geologists, former students, and family members all weigh in. Definitely an enjoyable read.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Rick

    Living in Eastern Washington and driving, hiking, and fishing through many of the amazing features created by these floods, I have come to love learning all I can about this geological event. I find it amazing that through simple fieldwork and observations, Bretz could envision such a cataclysmic event. What I find most admirable about Bretz was his steadfastness in sticking with what he believed was demonstrated by the evidences he found, even when it was rejected by the majority of the experts Living in Eastern Washington and driving, hiking, and fishing through many of the amazing features created by these floods, I have come to love learning all I can about this geological event. I find it amazing that through simple fieldwork and observations, Bretz could envision such a cataclysmic event. What I find most admirable about Bretz was his steadfastness in sticking with what he believed was demonstrated by the evidences he found, even when it was rejected by the majority of the experts in his field. He was not swayed and was eventually vindicated, when, after decades of ridicule from these experts, his ideas, observations, and theories became largely accepted.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Kirsten

    J Harlen Bretz was the geologist who figured out just why the Scablands in Washington and Northern Oregon are so weird: they were created by an unprecedented phenomenon, a massive flood caused when what's now known as Glacial Lake Missoula burst its barriers and washed toward the ocean. It's a mind-boggling concept, and the fact that Bretz's conclusions were not initially accepted by his fellow geologists is not all that shocking. I loved reading this little book and learning more about geology, J Harlen Bretz was the geologist who figured out just why the Scablands in Washington and Northern Oregon are so weird: they were created by an unprecedented phenomenon, a massive flood caused when what's now known as Glacial Lake Missoula burst its barriers and washed toward the ocean. It's a mind-boggling concept, and the fact that Bretz's conclusions were not initially accepted by his fellow geologists is not all that shocking. I loved reading this little book and learning more about geology, philosophies amongst geologists, and of course, about the colorful character of J Harlen Bretz himself.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Christina Dudley

    Part geologic history of Eastern Washington, part biography of geologist J Harlen Bretz, this book succeeds most when it sticks to the effects of the prehistoric megaflood that carved the "Scablands." We make the drive twice a year to the Tri-Cities from Western Washington, and I've long wondered about the distinctive terrain across the Columbia River at Vantage. Wonder no more! Now we'll have to add a couple hours to the road trip for me to wander up and down the borders of the ancient flood, c Part geologic history of Eastern Washington, part biography of geologist J Harlen Bretz, this book succeeds most when it sticks to the effects of the prehistoric megaflood that carved the "Scablands." We make the drive twice a year to the Tri-Cities from Western Washington, and I've long wondered about the distinctive terrain across the Columbia River at Vantage. Wonder no more! Now we'll have to add a couple hours to the road trip for me to wander up and down the borders of the ancient flood, checking out the coulees and shipwrecked fragments of Palouse, and I've learned enough facts to bore visitors from Multnomah Falls to Lake Coeur d'Alene. Recommended.

  26. 4 out of 5

    KennyO

    I'd read many citations of J Harlan Bretz's work and even read some of his published science but this was my first comprehensive look at the man in view of that work. This is a fairly short book that does a particularly good job of biography in light of that brevity. Like several other biographies of people in the sciences, Soennichsen's is a story of Bretz swimming upstream against a current of tenured, ossified, don't-have-to-study-because-we-already-know-the-truth intellectuals. It's worth a I'd read many citations of J Harlan Bretz's work and even read some of his published science but this was my first comprehensive look at the man in view of that work. This is a fairly short book that does a particularly good job of biography in light of that brevity. Like several other biographies of people in the sciences, Soennichsen's is a story of Bretz swimming upstream against a current of tenured, ossified, don't-have-to-study-because-we-already-know-the-truth intellectuals. It's worth a read and a reread.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    A really interesting account/biography of the geologist who discovered evidence of the huge land forming floods that occurred in the Pacific Northwest, an area I am very familiar with. It was pretty easy to read for a non-fiction, and I was happy to stick with it, unlike other some other non-fiction works I have read. It's incredible to think that a year ago I had no idea any of this had happened, though I've lived in the PNW my whole life. A really interesting account/biography of the geologist who discovered evidence of the huge land forming floods that occurred in the Pacific Northwest, an area I am very familiar with. It was pretty easy to read for a non-fiction, and I was happy to stick with it, unlike other some other non-fiction works I have read. It's incredible to think that a year ago I had no idea any of this had happened, though I've lived in the PNW my whole life.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    This popular history/science book tells the story of J Harlen Bretz and his radical theory of how the scablands of Eastern Washington were formed. The book does a good job of revealing Bretz's personality and explaining the theory in simple terms (no knowledge of geology is needed) - so simple, in fact, that it's hard to imagine why Bretz's fellow geologists would not accept his theory. This popular history/science book tells the story of J Harlen Bretz and his radical theory of how the scablands of Eastern Washington were formed. The book does a good job of revealing Bretz's personality and explaining the theory in simple terms (no knowledge of geology is needed) - so simple, in fact, that it's hard to imagine why Bretz's fellow geologists would not accept his theory.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sam Zipper

    The writing was often too speculative for my tastes (things like, 'Standing there, Bretz must have thought...') but it was a good story about a badass scientist, even if we all knew how it was going to end - after all, if he was wrong, there probably wouldn't be a book about him. Interesting if you like geology or you want to be inspired to stand by your ideals. The writing was often too speculative for my tastes (things like, 'Standing there, Bretz must have thought...') but it was a good story about a badass scientist, even if we all knew how it was going to end - after all, if he was wrong, there probably wouldn't be a book about him. Interesting if you like geology or you want to be inspired to stand by your ideals.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Steve Wiggins

    Bretz was truly a remarkable geologist. His discovery of the Lake Missoula floods makes for very interesting reading from the point of view of an amateur geologist and those interested in the implications of science. Further discussion may be found here: Sects and Violence in the Ancient World. Bretz was truly a remarkable geologist. His discovery of the Lake Missoula floods makes for very interesting reading from the point of view of an amateur geologist and those interested in the implications of science. Further discussion may be found here: Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.

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