Did Noah really need the Ark?
Two sets of geologists are having a flood feud. The Americans say they have
proof that the Great Deluge happened just when the Bible says it did. The
Canadians say it's hogwash. KEVIN COX reports
By KEVIN COX
Saturday, December 8, 2001 – Print Edition, Page F6
"And the waters prevailed exceedingly on the earth; and all the high hills
that were under the whole heaven were covered. Fifteen cubits did the waters
prevail; and the mountains were covered."
Genesis 7, verses 19-20
Stories about cataclysmic floods prompted by angry deities have abounded in
European and Asian mythology for thousands of years, but geologists paid
Then, in 1997, two Columbia University geology professors, Walter Pitman and
William Ryan, stunned the earth-science community with their theory that
there had, in fact, been a great deluge around 7,000 BC -- the same time
that the Bible says Noah loaded animals and family onto the Ark on
instructions from God.
The professors' theory, which became the subject of a popular book, Noah's
Flood,and a BBC documentary, was based in large part on detailed
radiocarbon-dating of shells and sedimentary cores taken from the floor of
the Black Sea.
The two geologists, who did comprehensive mapping of the Black Sea floor and
seismic tests to examine the seabed sediments, were astonished to discover
that the remains of plants and shells were the same age -- originating about
They concluded that as glaciers melted, the level of the Mediterranean Sea
rose quickly and sediments formed a natural dam between it and the Black Sea
in an area called the Bosphorus Strait.
Pitman and Ryan believe that the pressure from the rising Mediterranean
caused the dam to break. This allowed a terrifying cataract of close to 12
billion cubic feet per minute of water to pound across the Black Sea Basin,
where the first people to till the land instead of hunting to survive had
The rapid rise in the Black Sea submerged mountains and killed everything in
its path, according to Pitman and Ryan.
Their work was an instant hit with many Judeo-Christian theologians, who
immediately used it in sermons. To some preachers, the geologists provided
proof that the Scriptures were literal truth, as was the image of a deity
who would angrily destroy those who sinned and ultimately put a rainbow in
the clouds, vowing to never again destroy the earth.
At the same time that the Pitman and Ryan work was being acclaimed in 1996,
two Canadian earth-science researchers, Richard Hiscott and Ali Aksu of
Memorial University of Newfoundland, were also examining the floor of the
southwestern part of the Black Sea.
The researchers were looking at the Bosphorus Strait seabed to determine the
origin of organic carbon-rich sedimentary deposits. With funding from the
National Science and Engineering Research Council, they were trying to
determine if the deposits had anything to do with oil-bearing rock
formations and if they were releasing greenhouse gases.
"We were preparing to go to the field when the Ryan paper came and Rick and
I looked at each other and we laughed and chuckled because we knew that even
the preliminary data were showing the other way," Aksu recalls. "Now, we've
written nine papers and no matter what we do, the data do not go Ryan's
Aksu and Hiscott were startled to see that their own findings from seismic
shooting and sonar mapping of the sea floor along with radiocarbon-dating of
the sediments were at odds with that of Ryan and Pitman.
Their work did not show any evidence of rapid, catastrophic flooding through
the Bosphorus into the Black Sea over the past 20,000 years. Instead, their
findings showed a much slower rise in sea level occurring between 10,000 and
12,000 years ago as the glaciers melted.
"All the data that we have looked at during that time interval [20,000 BC to
the present day] basically does not show any evidence of a massive event
that would require people to run for their lives," Aksu says.
The two Newfoundland professors have published several papers contesting the
flood theory, but until their most recent study, they attracted little
Aksu recognizes that challenging the Noah flood story will not make him
popular with some religious leaders. "In the back of most Christians' minds,
they would like to think that there is a true flood and the Bible is correct
and finally it is proven," he says. "But as a scientist I have to . . .
interpret the data the way the data want to be interpreted."
Aksu, who has spoken several times with Ryan, said it appears the U.S.
geologist was premature in writing the book and expounding on the flood
theory. "He had a sexy idea and ran with it," he says.
However, Ryan is sticking to his story. He says he and Pitman collected more
than 80 soil and sediment cores that probed eight to 12 metres into the
seabed and provided data from as far back as 30,000 years.
In work he has seen, he says, the Newfoundland geologists have not reviewed
enough of the ancient seabed cores to refute the flood theory. "They have
built a case based on extrapolation and extrapolation is risky, and if it
disagrees with what someone else has observed, I don't think it is quite
right to say that what someone else observed is wrong," he says.
In a telephone interview, Ryan sounds weary of the controversy. "I'd be glad
if somebody proved that the Black Sea flood didn't occur. My life would be
simpler," he says.
The biblical story of Noah taking two of every animal and bird along with
his family onto the Ark while rain pounded the earth for 40 days and nights
has been ridiculed by many scientists, who say it would have been impossible
to care for so many creatures on a boat.
At the same time, archeologists and adventurers have made several fruitless
attempts to scale icy cliffs in the area of Mount Ararat in Turkey, where
legends say an ancient wooden structure that is the remains of Noah's Ark is
Some archeologists have suggested that Noah and his three sons would have
taken only domesticated animals on board the ark, along with enough seeds to
plant their next crop.
Ryan says his flood theory does not prove the story of Noah's Ark. But
anthropologist Joao Zilhao of the Instituto Portugues de Arquelogia claims
agriculture in western Mediterranean countries of Portugal and Italy dates
back to about 5,400 B.C.
Basing his findings on radiocarbon-dating of items such as sheep bones,
barley and beads, the Portuguese researcher says the first settlers to work
the land rather than hunt probably arrived by sea and the colonization took
place rapidly over about six generations.
That conclusion, published in November in the Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences, could coincide with the aftermath of the great flood as
displaced farmers looked for new land to cultivate.
The study excites Ryan more than the ongoing debate about Noah's Ark. "Once
the Black Sea floods, all the communities have to get out," he says. "The
biblical mythical story has animals and seeds put on a boat to survive a
flood and has a survivor going to a faraway place and his sons spreading
different races around the world. . . .
"The archeological records show a rapid spread of people about that time
populating areas and they have domestic animals and domestic grains," he
But that still leaves the question of whether the flood took place.
Ryan and Aksu are now planning to put their opposing theories to the test.
They are organizing an expedition to the Black Sea soon to take more seabed
cores and analyze the results.
"I don't want to say nasty things publicly," Ryan says. "But if he [Aksu]
wants to do this [refute the flood theory], there is going to be egg on one
of our faces," he says.
Copyright © 2001 Globe Interactive, a division of Bell Globemedia Publishing
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