Rain and melting snow, wind, frost, and other forces of erosion have carved our badlands into intricate shapes. Since the Little Missouri River began to form the badlands, it has removed an enormous amount of sediment from the area. In the southern part of the badlands, near the river’s headwaters and close to Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming and adjacent Montana, the river has cut down about 80 feet below the level at which it had been flowing before it was diverted by a glacier farther north. Near Medora, the valley floor is 250 feet lower than the pre-diversion level. Still farther downstream, in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and near the confluence of the Missouri and Little Missouri rivers, and nearer to where the glacier diverted it, the east-trending portion of the Little Missouri River flows at a level that is 650 feet deeper than when it was diverted.
The average rates of erosion in the badlands, assuming they started to form about 640,000 years ago, can be calculated as follows:
Headwaters area in Wyoming: 0.15-inch/100 years;
Medora area: 0.5-inch/100 years;
Confluence area near Mandaree – Missouri and Little Missouri rivers: 1.25 inch/100 years.
These rates may seem tiny but, over time, erosion has removed a huge amount of sediment. Approximately 40 cubic miles of sediment have been eroded and carried away by the Little Missouri River from the area that is now the badlands. Most of that sediment now lies beneath the water of the Gulf of Mexico.
The rates of erosion I’ve noted are long-term averages, but erosion goes on at highly irregular rates. Locally, considering only the past few hundred years, the badlands have undergone four separate periods of erosion and three periods of deposition. Since about 1936, new gullies have been cut to their present depths. It may seem a paradox that, although running water is the main agent of erosion, badlands formation tends to be most intense when water is in short supply. Why? Because erosion tends to be more vigorous during times of drought when the vegetative cover is too sparse to protect the soil from the occasional rain storm or spring snow melt. When precipitation is sufficient for the growth of heavy vegetation, the soil is better protected from severe erosion.
Streams and rivers carry sediment away from the area of the badlands, but most of the actual “on-the-spot” erosion is a result of slopewash. In places where vegetation is sparse, the soil and rock materials are easily weathered, forming loose surfaces that slide downslope easily, slumping and sliding during showers or when the snow cover melts.
The Badlands Landscape
The shapes, sizes, and configurations of the hills, buttes, valleys, and other landforms in the badlands are not entirely happenstance. Differences in hardness of the materials result in differences in resistance to erosion. Nodules and concretions help to shape a landscape ranging from beautiful, to desolate – even grotesque. Hard beds of sandstone or clinker cap many of the small buttes. Variations in permeability (permeability is a measure of the ease with which water can move through porous rock) have similar effects; rain and melted snow soak into the more open and permeable sands, resulting in only minimal erosion. When water flows over the surface of tighter, less permeable sediment, such as clay, it abrades and erodes the material, carrying some of it away. The presence or absence and the character of the vegetation also play important roles in governing the rate of erosion. Grass usually helps to control erosion more effectively than does forest vegetation.
The irregular placement of hard nodules and concretions may result in the development of rock-capped pillars, known as “hoodoos,” mushroom-like shapes perched on stalks of clay. In places, slopes are covered by nodules of siderite (iron carbonate). As they weather out of the surrounding materials, becoming concentrated on the surface, the copper-colored nodules form an erosion-resistant armor, which temporarily slows the rate of erosion. Clinker beds are also much more resistant to erosion than are the softer surrounding beds. We commonly see buttes capped by red clinker beds.
Erosional “pipes” sometimes form in gullies and ravines where surface runoff is focused. “Piping” results where runoff can flow downward into small cracks and joints. Pipes are common in places where surface runoff erodes cavities vertically downward through the soft rock. With time, the initial pathways may widen at depth into caves the size of small rooms. The average depth of vertical pipes is about 10 to 15 feet, but some are much deeper. The tops of pipes may be partially concealed making hiking treacherous. I have seen the bones of animals, such as rabbits and deer, at the bottoms of pipes (so far I haven’t seen any human bones). The animals fell into the holes and could not get out.
The geology is only part of the badlands story. The weather and climate, vegetation, animals, birds, insects, sounds and aromas–all of these, along with the human history and the ranching heritage, work together to complete the story of the badlands.
I think the North Dakota badlands are particularly beautiful because of their parklands; wooded areas that occur in draws and on north-facing slopes. Heavy vegetation in the badlands in places like Little Missouri State Park adds to the scenery. Evergreens, such as the Rocky Mountain juniper, ponderosa, and creeping juniper are interspersed with quaking aspen, cottonwood, and poplar. Limber pines are found in the badlands in the southwest corner of the state, near Marmarth.
I’ve hiked and camped in the badlands many times. Evening summer showers accentuate the colors and the clinker beds assume intense shades of red and orange. The fresh, pungent aroma of wet sage and cedar enhance the experience. At night, the stark, intricately eroded pinnacles can seem unreal. In the moonlight or in a night lightning storm, it is easy to imagine the strange shapes as ruins of a magical city, rather than structures of mere sand and clay. Blend in the sound of coyotes conversing and the badlands environment is complete.
During my 42 years with the Geological Survey (1962 – 2004), I worked on nearly every facet of North Dakota geology: the rocks that produce oil, gas, coal, gravel, ground water and our other mineral resources. My studies of the glacial sediments near Devils Lake helped me to gain detailed insights into North Dakota’s past climate changes. However, I was always most interested in the origin of the hills and valleys I saw every day as I traveled around the state. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to understand how the land that is North Dakota came to be the way it is. My wife, Mary, and our three children as they came along, lived with me in about 25 North Dakota towns over the years. Our oldest son, Bill, was born in Park River while I was mapping Walsh County, and our daughter, Irene, arrived in Lisbon while I was mapping Ransom County. Paul, the youngest, was born in Grand Forks on the first day of January, when it was too cold to map anywhere. Over the years, we lived, up to six months each, in places like Carrington, Cooperstown, Harvey, Hazen, Mayville, McClusky, Washburn, White Shield, Fort Totten, Fort Yates, Rock Lake, and Turtle Lake. Our summer homes were in towns in about 30 counties, and on four Indian Reservations. We enjoyed every one of them.
Each place was special in some way. North Dakota people are open and friendly, and often interested in geology. When we arrived at a new place, we asked locally if anyone had an apartment for rent and, usually, someone did. In Harvey we rented from the owner of the town bakery—a great choice! In Enderlin, our landlady’s son, a hunter, kept us supplied with pheasants and geese that autumn. In another town, our landlady’s son provided us with wild turkeys (some of them may have been poached—we didn’t ask). In another place, we shared a rental house with some bats. In Fort Yates, the brand-new nursing home was not yet filled and still had room, so that became our home. Our little kids were a hit with the elderly residents. I worked in every part of the state. A “field season” for me usually lasted from sometime in May, beginning when it was dry enough to get around, and ending in November, when the ground was frozen too hard to auger a hole. Just before Thanksgiving, we would move back to our own home in Grand Forks. The day after we got home one year, I raked the yard and put up the storm windows. The next day a blizzard blew, and the snow stayed until spring. Our neighbor, an elderly Norwegian man, commented, in his wonderful accent, “that Bluemle, he always times things right.” Well, I don’t “always time things right,” but I was glad I had that year. For the nearly 25 years that we spent our summers “in the field,” throughout North Dakota, we tended to visualize Grand Forks as a white and snowy “winter wonderland” because we weren’t around much to enjoy it in the summer time. Mary and I claim some important knowledge and understanding of North Dakota, apart from the geology. While mapping, I noted stands of chokecherries, wild plums, buffalo berries and juneberries. That valuable information went on my field maps, right along with the geology, as did the locations of the best places to buy sausage and kuchen.
Most of the photos I will post on this website will illustrate landforms. I hope they will help readers appreciate and understand the geologic processes that shaped our modern landscape. I took most of them during the summers of 2009, 2010, and 2011 while we traveled throughout the state. The notion to travel around the state in the summer as kind of a “post-retirement” project turned out to be a great decision. To provide purpose, I took photos of geologic features. During some of our trips around the state we got a little more “off the beaten path” than I intended. One day, I drove along a road on the Missouri Coteau that became a trail, and eventually a narrow, mostly washed-out path with no place to turn around easily, so I kept going. Finally, we came to a barricade, so I stopped and walked around it to read the hand-printed sign: “Do Not Enter: Road Impassible.” The seven miles I had just driven were impassible! I dug out a couple of the steel fence posts, drove to the “good” side of the barricade, and replaced the posts and sign. Another day, I walked over to a fence line, took a picture, and stepped in a badger hole and broke my foot. Still another time, we stopped to admire a herd of longhorn cattle, standing on the road, surrounding us. I thought one was particularly handsome so I took his picture through the open window on the passenger side of our van. I felt something cold, turned around, and found myself nose to nose with a cow that had gotten her head in through the open window as far as her horns allowed. I presumed she probably wanted her picture taken too, so I snapped her as well.
Many geologists move from country to country around the world; we moved from county to county around the state of North Dakota. Unspoiled prairies and buttes, rivers and lakes, wildflowers and wild fruit are everywhere. Wildlife abounds. Gravel trails lead to broad horizons. Late afternoon summer
showers are followed by spectacular sunsets. The prairie landscapes are multi-dimensional. Their breadths, elevations and depths reflect geologic events and processes I’ll explore on this website. And the geology is always there. Geology opens the door to another world just beneath the familiar scenes of our everyday lives. It takes us outdoors as we explore the intricacies of our Earth’s history. Mary and I have traveled beyond North Dakota–to most of the states and Canadian provinces and about 20 other countries. Much of our travel has been to enjoy geology. We’ve seen a lot of spectacular geology in places like Montana, Alberta, and Sweden. Scotland is my favorite destination for geology and for the history of the science of geology. Our geology, here in North Dakota, may be more subtle than the places I just mentioned, but it is just as interesting. My career has been satisfying, my work interesting and rewarding. Every day on the job was different for me. Whether it was the glorious summer days in the field, mapping geology, or wintry days I spent in my office, piecing together and trying to understand what I had mapped the previous summer, it was always fascinating.