July 9, 1997 in Nation/World

Northwest Pathfinders Discovered A Similar Land Ancient Mars Flood Plain, Our Channeled Scablands Eerily Alike

By The Spokesman-Review

NASA had to spend $250 million and travel seven months to reach the flood-ravaged vistas of Mars.

Save yourself the time and money.

A few gallons of gas and a few hours of driving can take Inland Northwest residents to the channeled scablands.

It’s a landscape so similar to the Martian vistas at Ares Vallis that NASA tested the Pathfinder’s rover there in 1995.

The scablands are one of the few places on Earth - the others are in Iceland and Tierra Del Fuego, at the tip of South America - where the geography resembles the ancient flood plain where the Sojourner now creeps.

Take a look at those pictures from Sojourner: Land stripped to the scoured bedrock and boulders scattered across a flat landscape like a giant’s game of marbles.

Then think of the last time you looked out the window during the last half of a flight to Spokane from Seattle or Portland.

The biggest difference is probably the color. The latest Sojourner pictures show Mars to be very red. Eastern Washington tends toward browns and grays.

Color aside, Ares Vallis more closely resembles North Idaho and Eastern Washington of about 15,000 years ago, said Robert Quinn, a geography professor for Eastern Washington University and an expert on the scablands.

Give or take a few hundred years, that’s when the last great flood surged out of prehistoric Lake Missoula. A wall of ice had formed a dam, backing up the glacial melt into a mountain-bounded lake. One day, the ice melted quickly and a 2,000-foot wall of water roared across the Inland Northwest.

It swept down the river valleys, scraped off dirt down to the bedrock, and carried large boulders for miles.

It was a deluge of biblical proportions that makes North Dakota’s recent flood seem like a little water sloshing over the bank.

“If you could have walked out into the channeled scablands up to a year after the last great flood, that’s probably what it would have looked like,” Quinn said of Ares Vallis.

The wind, rain, plants and animals slowly reshaped parts of the scablands. That didn’t happen in Ares Vallis, which may be much the same as it was after the Martian flood a billion years ago.

Scientists will be able to calculate the size of that flood much the same way they calculate the size of the Lake Missoula flood, said Paul Weis, a retired geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and author of pamphlet on the scablands.

Once the rover measures the size of the largest boulders, a formula can tell scientists how much water would be needed to move that massive of an object.

“That will tell them how much water does this represent,” Weis said. “The biggest problem on Mars is, where has the water gone?”

The channeled scablands start in Spokane and Whitman counties and extend west into the Columbia Basin.

Some of the most striking and Martian-like examples are between Moses Lake and Othello, in the Columbia National Wildlife Area and around the Potholes Reservoir.

Whether this sudden attention to Mars will rub off on the scablands is unknown.

“We’re trying to see what we can do to increase tourism,” said Carrie Michel, manager of the Othello Chamber of Commerce.

The comparison to Mars “would be a good marketing tool,” she said. “To have an organization to come in and do tours, we would love it.”

Getting permission might be difficult, because some of the most scenic areas are on land controlled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Michel said.

The agency, however, is planning to show off the scablands this fall with a week long series of sunset tours through the Columbia Wildlife Refuge that will leave from Othello, starting Oct. 5.

There’s no Martian theme to the tours. Not yet, anyway. But regional chief of refuges Rick Coleman promises spectacular sunsets on the bus tours. They will take visitors into the Pillar Lake region, which is normally closed. More information an be obtained by calling the refuge office at (509) 488-2668.

Should anyone decide to overdo the similarities to Ares Vallis - Western Washington residents were fond of saying folks from this side of the state were from Mars, long before the Pathfinder mission - Michel is quick to jump to the defense of the scablands.

She lives on one of the few pieces of private land surrounded by refuge property, and sees plenty of differences between the view out her window and the Pathfinder pictures on her television screen.

“Actually, I think it’s a lot prettier than Mars. We have more pillars, beautiful cliffs and valleys, and the potholes and lakes.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photos

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