The story of Noah’s Ark and the Genesis flood narrative is one of the most famous stories in the Bible, but what is the scientific perspective on this profound biblical story?
According to scripture, God, who was displeased with mankind’s corruption, decided to destroy creation with a great flood. God spared only Noah and his family, who survived by constructing a ship – the Ark – in which a pair of every animal on Earth was spared from the deluge.
Beyond the inherent interest the flood narrative holds for religious devotees, the story also poses interesting questions for scientists in a range of disciplines. Even to those who profess no religious convictions, the possibility that the Earth was once drowned in a colossal flood is a fascinating and quite terrifying prospect.
What do scientists think about Noah’s flood?
“The one thing we know for sure from geology is that a global flood never happened,” David Montgomery, a professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington, told Live Science recently.
Montgomery, who authored the book The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood, also added that “If you look at it as literally a global flood that covered the world’s highest mountains, I’m sorry, there’s just not enough water on Earth to do that.”
There are other studies that also cast doubt on the historicity of the flood narrative. For example, the US Geological Survey has calculated that if all the water stored in the Earth’s atmosphere were to come down as rain on a single day, the planet would indeed be submerged, but only to a depth of approximately one inch (roughly 2.5 centimeters). This would hardly pose enough of a threat to justify the construction of a massive ship by Noah.
The flood narrative becomes more feasible if one considers the possibility of additional sources of water. NASA states that the melting of all glaciers and ice sheets worldwide would cause sea levels to rise by more than 195 feet (60 meters).
Additionally, a 2016 report in the journal Nature Geoscience approximated that there are 5.4 million cubic miles (22.6 million cubic kilometers) of groundwater in the upper 1.2 miles (2 km) of Earth’s crust, sufficient to submerge the land under 590 feet (180 m) of water. The problem is that there is no evidence in the geological record for a global flood on this scale.
However, some scientists have posed alternative theories that the biblical flood narrative may have a basis in reality, even if it did not necessarily occur in the same way as described in the Bible.
For example, In their book Noah’s Flood, William Ryan and Walter Pitman propose a theory that the flood narrative may have been shaped by actual events.
Ryan and Pitman’s theory is that as the earth warmed and glaciers melted, the resulting meltwater from the European glaciers flowed northward into the North Sea instead of replenishing the Black Sea, which was at this time a freshwater lake. This caused the water level of the Black Sea to decrease, resulting in most of the surrounding area becoming dry land, particularly the region adjacent to present-day Crimea and the Sea of Azov.
At this point, the level of the Black Sea was much lower than that of the Mediterranean, and they were separated by the dry land of the Bosporus. However, this situation was not sustainable since the ocean was continuously rising while the Black Sea was falling. Eventually, the Mediterranean overflowed into the Black Sea basin like a bathtub.
The result was that a massive waterfall, 200 times more voluminous than Niagara Falls, formed as saltwater flowed through a deepening channel. In just one day, enough water came through to submerge Manhattan at a depth twice that of the World Trade Center’s height. The sound of the cascading water would have been heard over 100 miles away. People residing in the fertile farmlands on the sea’s northern boundary would have witnessed the ocean moving inland at a rate of one mile per day.