A Lecture Review: Ancient Rivers

I have featured book reviews multiple times on my blog, and even had one music review.  Given the unusual circumstances of a stay at home pandemic, it only seems reasonable to offer a Lecture Review.  I stumbled on this one circuitously through a Facebook Group of which I am a member,

Nick Zenter is a Professor of Geology at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, WA.  He has produced a number of online lectures, both for his students and for the general public and it seems many of them are readily available to all who wish to learn a bit of geology.  I’ve watched a couple so far and will likely watch more.

The lecture I am choosing to feature is one on the river systems of the northwest, notably the Columbia, Snake, Salmon, and Yakima Rivers.  The picture at the top is a link to the lecture, or try:


The story Professor Zenter tells, and then supports with data, describes the forces of tectonics, basalt lava flows and eventually glaciation on the location of these 4 rivers over the past 20 million years.  But the real reason I am featuring this lecture and potentially his other presentations, is Nick’s unique style.

Nick Zenter clearly enjoys geology and teaching and he is very good at both.  His passion is contagious as you watch him mix the technologies of the past (a good old fashioned chalkboard) with the modern technology of today.  He combines simplicity in concept with scientific rigor as he enthusiastically engages his audience.  The river rocks which help tell his story are called spuds (well, some are sourced in Idaho) and you almost feel that you are in the room with him as he narrates his story.  You will learn how water gaps and wind gaps and basalt-filled valleys help unravel the last 20 million years of an active geologic past in the northwest.

Towards the end of the presentation, you will see short vignettes of Nick in the field as he further explains the evidence for the significant changes in the paths of rivers.  In the photograph just below and on the right, Nick is literally in the Yakima River holding up the dark colored rocks that tell us where the river is sourced.  On the left, he is standing 1000’ above the current Columbia River holding up quartzite “yellow spuds”, sourced in extreme northern Idaho.  The location high above the current river tells us where the river once flowed before tectonic uplift forced it elsewhere.

Apparently, I am not the only one who enjoyed Nick’s lectures.  In 2015 Nick received the prestigious James Shea Award, a national award recognizing exceptional delivery of Earth Science to the general public.  He claims to be on a crusade to bring the drama of Northwest geology to life for everyone – not just the academics and die-hard rock hounds.

The people of central Washington are fortunate to have him around and the rest of us can watch from afar.  If you have an hour and want to learn about the recent geologic history (last 20 million years) of the northwest, I think you will find the experience both entertaining and educational.

 You can find all of Nick’s online offerings at his webpage:  http://www.nickzentner.com/.  Some are hour-long lectures like the one I review here, but others as short as 5 minutes are listed on his site.  Both of the lectures I have watched and enjoyed are in the “Downtown Geology Lecture Series”.

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