The Strange Geology of the Palouse

john bush

We see waves of grain. But underlying all this pastoral beauty lies a distinctive geology that proves the uniqueness of the Palouse.

For example, more than fourteen million years ago there was a deep canyon running through Moscow and Pullman, the region’s two key cities. According to geologist John Bush of the University of Idaho, it was "just a tremendous steep topograhy." In Pullman, the canyon would have been 2,200 feet deep, almost down to sea level.

Then came the flood basalts, a wave of volcanic activity, on a scale almost unheard of in the history of the planet.

palouse falls

"They’re large massive flows. And it’s one of the unique places in the world," says Bush. The flows filled up that huge canyon. And that canyon is now the region's aquifer, the source of all the drinking water in the Palouse.

You catch glimpses of that fourteen million year old world at places like Palouse Falls, where the melting of a glacial ice dam in Montana sent floodwaters hurtling into present-day Washington. The floods sliced through the volcanic rock, revealing the underpinnings of the Palouse.

Of course, we do not see the volcanism on the Palouse, because the rocks are covered with rich, fertile soil. But that soil did not originate in the Palouse. It was all deposited here, through a series of massive dust storms over thousands of years.

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