Do millions of varve-layers indicate an old earth?

ideas from Jonathan Sarfati (who quotes Mark Isaak) and Brad Henke

The selections below are quoted in full — including everything the authors say about varves — from a response (by Sarfati) in a rebuttal of Problems with a Global Flood by Isaak {but it includes an irrelevant quote from F.C. Kuechmann} and a counter-response (Henke).

Response by Sarfati

Isaak [question]: “How can a single flood be responsible for such extensively detailed layering?”

Answer [by Sarfati]:  Isaak is evidently ignorant of the Mt. St. Helens volcano and sedimentation evidence of Berthault, et al., published in the Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal. These show that the layers do not need to form slowly, one at a time, but can form simultaneously by a self-sorting mechanism as the differently-sized particles roll over each other.  A recent Nature article on spontaneous multi-layer formation shows that the secular journals have finally caught up with the creationary scientists, who published evidence like this 10 years ago — so much for the bigoted evolutionists’ claim that “creationists do no scientific research.” See the CENTJ article, “Sedimentation experiments:  Nature finally catches up”.  Isaak also seems unaware that Mt. St. Helens laid down 7.6 metres (25 feet) of finely laminated sediments in a few hour.  More recently, Iceland’s recent “mega-flood” (jökulhlaup) also laid down many finely laminated rhythmites.

Isaak [question]: “How do you explain the formation of varves?  The Green River formation in Wyoming contains 20,000,000 annual layers, or varves, identical to those being laid down today in certain lakes.  The sediments are so fine that each layer would have required over a month to settle.”

Answer [by Sarfati]:  The self-sorting mechanism described above explains that.  It’s simply nonsense that the layers would have to form slowly, and/or one at a time.  The evaporite mechanism fails to explain the variation in the number of layers between the same pair of volcanic ash layers.  More importantly, it fails to explain why there are fish and other fossils many different layers.  They would have decayed if they were on the bottom for thousands of years being slowly buried layer by layer (the varves are 0.1 mm thick in one of the fossil-bearing sections).  This applies even if the water was low in oxygen.  (The excuse that alkaline conditions might have preserved them from decay is preposterous — we use alkali in our dishwashers because it breaks down organic matter!  { On the “No Answers in Genesis” website (see critique), one of the thralls (lacking advanced science qualifications, as usual with that site) [note: the following quote is from F.C. Kuechmann, not Mark Isaak] attempted a rebuttal to this:  “We use alkali to clean dishes because it cuts grease.  Organic matter is then removed by physical forces — a dishcloth in case of hand washing, a spray of water in an automatic washer.  Mildly alkaline conditions might in fact protect the skeleton of a fish from both bacterial attack and softening from long-term immersion in water.”  This person [Kuechmann] doesn’t even know why alkali “cuts grease” — it is by catalyzing the hydrolysis (breaking up) the ester linkages in the fat molecules (incidentally soap is produced this way), and alkali also catalyzes the hydrolysis of the amide bonds in proteins.  In fact, alkali is more dangerous than acid in the eye, for example.  So the idea of tissues being preserved by alkali is indeed preposterous. }   See Green River Blues, Creation 19(3):18–19, June–August 1997.


Counter-Response by Henke


Laminae are very thin, parallel layers of sediment or sedimentary rock. By definition, laminae are less than one centimeter (cm) thick (Blatt et al., 1980, p. 129).   Sometimes, hundreds of thousands or millions of laminae may be stacked on top of each other.  The lateral length of laminae varies greatly and, in some cases, individual lamina have been laterally traced for at least 90 kilometers (55 miles) (Blatt et al., 1980, p. 553)!! 

J. Sarfati quotes Sedimentation Experiment: Nature Finally Catches Up!, which provides an example at Mt. St. Helens where a 7.6 meter (25 feet) thick pyroclastic "flow" (and/or pyroclastic surge?, Carey, 1991; Walker and McBroome, 1983; Hoblitt and Miller, 1984; Waitt, 1984; Walker and Morgan, 1984) was deposited in only a few hours. The deposit was documented and photographed by YEC Steve Austin.  Discussions at Sedimentation Experiment: Nature Finally Catches Up! describe the 7.6 meter thick pyroclastic deposit as having "thin laminae" of fine and coarse ash with some cross-bedding.  J. Sarfati and YEC Snelling at Sedimentation Experiment: Nature Finally Catches Up! use this example to loudly proclaim that YEC Austin has made an important discovery at Mt. St. Helens; that is, laminar- and cross-beds can rapidly form. 

Before J. Sarfati and other YECs further proclaim Austin's "discovery" of rapidly developing laminae and cross-bedding, they should look at the literature and learn some geology.  For decades, geologists have known that cross-bedding and laminae can form in rapidly deposited pyroclastics (especially, surges) (Fisher and Schmincke, 1984, p. 107-115, 191, 192, 198-206, 247-256; Schmincke et al., 1973; Carey, 1991).  For example, Schmincke et al. (1973) discussed the presence of laminar- and cross-bedding in a pyroclastic deposit at Laacher See, Germany.  Many of the features seen in pyroclastics, such as cross-bedding, antidunes and laminar features, resemble those seen in "Bouma sequences," which typically form in natural catastrophic turbidite flows (Schmincke et al., 1973; Fisher and Schmincke, 1984, p. 107-115).  Bouma developed his sequence way back in 1962 and he knew that the laminar bedding in the sequences were the result of rapid flows (Bouma, 1962).  At the same time, laminae and cross-beds may also slowly form in quiet, gradually changing environments (Blatt et al., 1980, p. 133-135). 

Clearly, Austin's work at Mt. St. Helens is nothing unique or revolutionary.   It's just another pyroclastic deposit with ordinary laminar- and cross-beds.  Austin is also not the only person investigating the recent features on Mt. St. Helens.  Carey (1991) and Fisher and Schmincke (1984) mention numerous investigations (as examples: Hoblitt, 1986; Druitt, 1989; Fisher et al., 1987; Keiffer, 1981; Moore and Sisson, 1981).  Fisher and Schmincke (1984, p. 191) even include a nice photograph of inverse graded bedding in an ash deposit from the May, 1980 eruption at Mt. St. Helens. 

J. Sarfati, Austin (1994, p.37-39), and other YECs are also fond of citing a number of references, which indicate through field and laboratory studies that laminae may form very quickly (as examples: Kuenen, 1966; Berthault, 1986; Berthault, 1988a; Bailey and Weir, 1932; Ball et al., 1967).   By looking at when Bailey and Weir (1932), Kuenen (1966), and Ball et al. (1967) were written, it is clear that most of this is nothing new (also see: Bouma, 1962; Schmincke et al., 1973).  However, from reading J. Sarfati’s essay and YEC Snelling at Sedimentation Experiment: Nature Finally Catches Up!, the reader gets the impression that creationist Berthault (1986, 1988a, 1988b, 1990) recognized the fast formation of a certain type of laminae about 10 years before Makse et al. (1997) and the editors of the prestigious journal, Nature.  Berthault's work appears to be valid, although I don't know if he was producing the same type of multilaminar features that are discussed in Makse et al. (1997).  Snelling at Sedimentation Experiment: Nature Finally Catches Up! also suggests that Makse et al. (1997) unfairly ignored Berthault (1986, 1988a, 1988b, 1990).  Snelling implies that Makse et al. (1997) did so because of Berthault's creationist ties.  However, Berthault might have scooped Makse et al. (1997) if he had published in Nature or Science rather than in French or creationist journals.  Whether Snelling recognizes it or not, non-English journals are often ignored in English-speaking countries and creationist "journals" are not widely circulated or read by scientists.


Some, but not all, laminae are varves.  Varves are couplets of laminae that result from seasonal changes. Typically, varves consist of alternating light- and dark-colored layers (Blatt et al., 1980, p. 133).    In temperate lakes, for example, the light layers may form from sediment runoff during the summers, while the dark layers may represent organic matter that settled during the winters. Frequently, each couplet represents an annual accumulation of sediment.  Therefore, by counting couplets, the age or length of the accumulation time may be estimated for a series of varves.   In a way, varves resemble tree-rings.

The famous Green River Formation of Wyoming contains numerous laminae, some of which are varves. The formation and its varves probably developed in several large Eocene lakes.  The Green River Formation is frequently cited by YEC critics because the numerous varves refute both "Flood geology" and a "young" creationist Earth.  J. Sarfati and other YECs argue that the rocks of the Grand Canyon and the Green River Formation and its varves may have formed rapidly, just like Austin's pyroclastic "flow" at Mt. St. Helens.  However, clearly, it is a gross mistake for J. Sarfati and his YEC allies to assume that the rapid processes that formed a pyroclastic deposit at Mt. St. Helens can be scaled up to explain the geology of the Grand Canyon or the delicate and extensive varves of the Green River Formation.  For example, as far as I know, the laminae of the Green River Formation do not include cross-bedding, antidunes or other features that are present in Bouma sequences and many pyroclastic deposits.  

Now, there is no doubt that multiple laminae MAY form in a single season or even from a single storm or sediment flow as Austin (1994, p. 37-39) and other YECs claim.   However, YECs are mistaken if they believe that ALL laminae form rapidly.  Glenn Morton at Young-Earth Arguments: A Second Look, for example, cites Lambert and Hsu (1979) and illustrates the great differences between regularly spaced annual varves from Lake Zurich, Switzerland, and noticeably irregular storm laminae from Lake Walensee, also in Switzerland.   YEC Austin (1994, p. 38) mentions the storm laminae from Lambert and Hsu (1979), but fails to quote Lambert and Hsu's (1979, p. 460) clear statement that annual varves do exist in other Swiss lakes, such as Lake Zurich.   By failing to properly quote Lambert and Hsu (1979, p. 460), Austin (1994, p .38) gives the false impression that there are no annual varves in any Swiss lakes.

Glenn Morton at Young-Earth Arguments: A Second Look also discusses how pollen supports the validity of varves in another Swiss lake.  The varves and their pollen record the sedimentation history of the lake back to at least 7,000 years ago! 

As part of their efforts to discredit the presence of varves in the Green River Formation, Austin (1994, p. 39) and other YECs often cite Buchheim and Biaggi (1988).   J. Sarfati makes a vague reference to this paper by saying that the presence of a pair of volcanic ash layers in the Green River Formation undermines the "evaporite mechanism" for the formation.  Buchheim and Biaggi (1988) is only a brief abstract, but the authors expressed skepticism about the presence of varves in at least one portion of the formation.  The number of laminae situated between two volcanic ash layers (tuffs) varied from 1160 to 1568 with the number and thickness of the laminae increasing from the basin center to the margin.   Both geologists and YECs would agree that the ash layers were probably deposited rapidly after winds brought in the ash from distant volcanic eruptions.  If the laminae between the two ash layers were true annual varves and IF none of the laminae were eroded then there should be no discrepancy between the number of laminae between the two ash layers.  

Now, scientists KNOW that NOT all of the layering in the Green River Formation are varves (Ripepe et al., 1991, p. 1155).  Specifically, the Tipton, Laney and Wilkins Peak Members of the Green River Formation frequently contain varves.  The Wilkins Peak Member also contains abundant salt deposits that formed from dry evaporating conditions, which, by the way, are incompatible with a wet raging "Flood". These salts would have dissolved and dispersed in any "Flood" waters.  Because the Wilkins Peaks Member is sandwiched between the Tipton and the Laney members (see Figure 2, p. 1147 in Fischer and Roberts, 1991), this means that the area experienced deep lake conditions as the Tipton was deposited, followed by the drier conditions of the Wilkins Peak and finally BACK to the deeper water of the Laney Member. That's a lot of deposition and climatic change for even 6,000 years.   Miall (1990, p. 489) also notes that the Parachute Creek Member of the Green River Formation consists of kerogen-rich layers that formed during humid lacustrine phases and kerogen-poor layers that resulted from ARID playa phases. 

Some individual varves in the Green River Formation may extend for ten's of kilometers (Fischer and Roberts, l99l, p. 1148) and there are more than 5,000,000 individual couplets or a total of more than 10,000,000 individual layers (Strahler, 1987, p. 233).   J. Sarfati quotes Berthault (1988b, 1990) and invokes a "self-sorting mechanism" to explain the rapid formation of numerous laminae at once in the Green River Formation.  So, if this "sorting mechanism" was responsible for the laminae in the Green River Formation, how could this mechanism instantly produce numerous fine-grained laminae over ten's of kilometers (Fischer and Roberts, 1991, p. 1148)?  It's one thing to rapidly produce some laminae in a laboratory separatory funnel (see Figure 1 in Sedimentation Experiment: Nature Finally Catches Up!, it's another thing to rapidly deposit thin layers of very fine-grained clay and silt over ten's of kilometers.  That is, unlike relatively coarse sand particles, very small particles (silts and clays) take TIME to settle out of solution. So, how could Berthault's "self-sorting mechanism" speed up the deposition of silts and clays?   Even the YECs at Varves: Problems for Standard Chronology admit that silts take days to settle out of turbulent water and clays even longer.  Even if the 10,000,000 layers of the Green River Formation formed in only 6,000 years, an average of 4.6 layers would have to settle out COMPLETELY in one DAY!  That's too fast and chaotic for both the laws of physics and the geology of the formation.  Of course, things become even worse for YECs, since in their minds, the Green River Formation either formed during the year-long "Flood" or in the 4,000 or so years of "post-Flood" history.  Already, young-Earth creationism is refuted.  YECs must also explain how 10,000,000 layers, some of which may extend over tens of kilometers, can catastrophically form without eroding previously deposited layers or producing cross-bedding and other non-linear features.  Simply hoping that Berthault's laboratory work could somehow be scaled up to ten's of kilometers isn't good enough.

Worst of all for young-Earth creationism, variations in varve thickness within the Green River Formation clearly fall into regular cycles, several of which correlate beautifully with various LONG-TERM climatic and astronomical cycles (Fischer and Roberts, 1991; Ripepe et al. 1991):

Cycle in Years*

In Green River Formation?




ENSO (El Nino!!)



Sunspot Cycle












Precessional cycle



Obliquity cycle



Eccentricity cycle



Long eccentricity cycle

*The lengths of some of these cycles have slowly changed over geologic time (Van Andel, 1994, p. 243-244).

Notice that the cause(s) of some of the cycles have not been explained. Other expected cycles were not detected in the research discussed in Fischer and Roberts (1991) and Ripepe et al. (1991). The cycles are real; there's no conspiracy here. Petrographic, statistical and geophysical methods have detected the cycles and some of them have been seen over and over and over again in the Green River Formation for the past 70 years.

Notice that YEC web sites, like this one: Varves: Problems for Standard Chronology or the one recommended by J. Sarfati: Green River Blues, completely IGNORE the associations between varve thickness and astronomical and climatic cycles. Why? Because these correlations utterly refute young-Earth creationism and YECs haven't been able to cook up any natural explanations to deal with them. Why would laminae segregate by cycles to conform to the Earth's eccentricity if the Earth is too young to have completed even one of these cycles?   How did Noah's "Flood" or "post-Flood" conditions counterfeit the effects of ENSO and the sunspot cycles in these varves?  No rivers, turbidity currents, or any questionable speculations based on Berthault's laboratory results can explain them either. YEC claims (they're too inadequate to be called models) for the origin of the Green River Formation are too fast and chaotic to be affected by subtle astronomical and climate cycles. Quiet and stagnant water is needed to record these astronomical processes and slow climatic changes. All YECs can do is invoke groundless miracles or ignore 70 years of research and just refuse to acknowledge the existence of the cycles.

The Green River Formation contains some beautifully preserved fish and other fossils.   However, except for microfossils, fossil-bearing laminae are uncommon in the formation (Fischer and Roberts, 1991, p. 1147).  J. Sarfati and other YECs are skeptical that dead fish could have laid undisturbed on the bottom of lakes where they were slowly encapsulated into varves over many years.   YECs insist that the fish and other well-preserved fossils had to have been buried quickly by "Noah's Flood" or subsequent "post-Flood" catastrophe(s).  Otherwise, they claim, the fossils would have been destroyed by decay and scavengers.

Drever (1997, p. 166-169) states that the bottoms of deep water (eutrophic) lakes may become very anaerobic if the cold bottom waters (the hypolimnion) remain dense and stagnant.  That is, the bottom waters of lakes may not experience frequent seasonal mixing and aeration, especially in depositional environments like those of the Green River Formation, where the bottom waters were probably saltier and, therefore more dense, than the surface waters (Drever, 1997, p. 169; Fisher and Roberts, 1991, p. 1147).  Currently, these eutrophic conditions are also present in the Black Sea (North, 1990, p. 44). 


Fischer and Roberts (1991, p. 1147) and Strahler (1987, p. 233) further discuss in more detail the field and geochemical evidence on why scavengers were often absent in the Green River Formation.  Not only was the deep and quiet water too stagnant (low oxygen) and salty to support scavengers and aerobic decay-promoting bacteria, but the water probably had too much highly poisonous H2S to support scavengers, burrowing organisms, and most bacteria that would have destroyed organic remains and disrupted varve structures. Strong currents would also not have been expected in the stagnant water, so the fish corpses could have remained intact and undisturbed for many years until burial. Nevertheless, Ripepe et al. (1991, p. 1157) show photographs of varves that have undergone possible small-scale bioturbation, so varve disruption and decay may have occurred at some of the sites.


The Green River Formation represents only a small fraction of the geologic record, but by itself it sinks both young-Earth creationism and “Flood geology.”   Glenn Morton gives examples of other cyclic sedimentary rocks (Devonian Catskill Delta, Triassic Hungarian carbonates, and Newark Basin of New Jersey) that refute young-Earth creationism at Why the Flood is not Global.


{ note:  Several non-varve sections from Henke's response — re: hematites, marine deposits,... — are omitted in the page you're now reading. }


Overall, J. Sarfati's article is full of outdated and erroneous claims that could be easily corrected if he would just read some undergraduate geology textbooks.



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Ripepe, M; L.T. Roberts; and A.G. Fischer "ENSO and Sunspot Cycles in Varved Eocene Oil Shales from Image Analysis," Journal of Sedimentary Petrology, vol. 61, no. 7, Dec. 1991, p. 1155-1163.

Schmincke, H.-U., R.V. Fisher, and A.C. Waters, 1973, "Antidune and Chute and Pool Structures in the Base Surge Deposits of the Laacher See Area, Germany," Sedimentology, v. 20, p. 553-574.

Strahler, A.N., 1987, “Science and Earth History,” Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY.

Waitt Jr., R. B.,1984, “Comments and Reply on ‘Mount St. Helens 1980 and Mount Pelee 1902 - Flow or Surge?”, Geology, Nov., p. 693.

Walker, G.P.L. and L.A. McBroome, 1983, “Mount St. Helens 1980 and Mount Pelee 1902 - Flow or Surge?”, Geology, v. 11, p. 571-574.

Walker, G.P.L. and L.A. Morgan (McBroome), 1984,“Comments and Reply on ‘Mount St. Helens 1980 and Mount Pelee 1902 - Flow or Surge?”, Geology, Nov., p.693-695.           

And you can LEARN MORE ABOUT VARVES from two perspectives, young earth and old earth.