The recent Hollywood environmentalist epic ‘Noah’, starring Russell Crowe and Emma Watson, was made all the more apropos by a stunning discovery described this month by scientists at Northwestern University and the University of New Mexico. The movie version of the Biblical flood provided viewers with a sensationalized version of the story in which the patriarch Noah – from whom all peoples may claim descent – was called to God to build an ark in preparation for the terrific flood that would wash away sinners from the face of the earth and thus found a new creation.
In the Bible, Noah and his sons and family shut themselves up in the ark while also giving shelter to two of every living thing, as well as provisions, according to God’s command. It was then that forty days and nights of rain commenced, flooding the earth and drowning the sinners. Chastened by the destruction, Noah offered a sacrifice after the waters had subsided and his family was saved. It was thus that God granted a promise, the Noahide covenant, that never again would He destroy the earth with a flood.
One might wonder what was the origin of the waters of the flood and, just as important, their destination once they disappeared. While many scientists discard the story of Noah and the flood as merely legendary, people of faith have sought reconcile the truths of the Biblical account with their understanding of physics and geology so as to understand the mechanism of the Great Flood.
According to the Bible, Genesis 7:11 cites the source of the flood as “the fountains of the great deep” and the “windows of heaven.” The rain from the “windows of heaven” fell, according to the Bible, for forty days and nights as Noah and his family brought in every animal “that creepeth on the earth” until shutting the door to all outsiders in this reversal of Creation.
Genesis 7:11 In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.
The “fountains of the great deep” are mentioned before the “windows of heaven,” which indicates the their relative importance or the order of events. What could be the Biblical “fountains of the great deep?” It is a phrase used only in the abovementioned citation. However, “Fountains of the deep” is used in Genesis 8:2, clearly referring to the same thing, while in Proverbs 8:28 the precise meaning is not clear. “The great deep” is used three other times: Isaiah 51:10, where it clearly refers to the ocean; Amos 7:4, where God's fire of judgment is said to dry up the great deep, probably the oceans; and Psalm 36:6 where it is used as a metaphor of the depth of God's justice. “The deep” is used more often, and usually refers to the oceans (See: Genesis 1:2; Job 38:30, 41:32; Psalm 42:7, 104:6; Isaiah 51:10, 63:13; Ezekiel 26:19; Jonah 2:3), but sometimes to underground sources of water (Ezekiel 31:4, 15). The Hebrew word (mayan) is translated as “fountains” also means “fountain, spring, well.” The “fountains of the great deep” are probably oceanic or possibly subterranean sources of water, but in the context of the flood account it could mean both.
If the fountains of the “great deep” were the major source of the water, then they must have been a huge source of water. Once God made the dry land appear as the water receded and dry land appeared. Could some of that water have become trapped underneath the surface of the earth?
Genesis 7:11 says that on the day the flood began, there was a “breaking up” of the fountains, which may imply a gushing forth of the water through large fissures in the ground or in the sea floor. The waters that had been held back then burst forth with catastrophic consequences. What force could release the water?
Scientific explanations for observed phenomenon themselves go through evolution. While it is now generally accepted by the geo-science community that the earth’s surface is divided into eight major sections or plates, it was not generally accepted until well into the 1960s. In 1915, meteorologist Alfred Wegener described what he called continental drift when he published his book The Origin of Continents and Oceans. Wegener had noticed that the various continents resemble pieces of a puzzle that once fitted together: for example, the eastern part of Brazil that projects into the Atlantic Ocean fits very nicely into the Gulf of Guinea in Africa. Wegener sought to find out how the pieces of the puzzle had been pulled apart. His observations and theorizations were roundly rejected by the scientific community at first in a spasm of secular orthodoxy.
Fifty years later, the debate Wegener started would become the generally accepted theory of plate tectonics. The theory of plate tectonics holds that the eight major plates, and the many smaller plates, rub up against each other due to the forces of gravity and the heat found below the earth’s crust. As they grind against each other, the edges of some of the plates are pushed beneath other plates in a process called subduction. The material of the plates that are subducted then disappear into the earth’s mantle, which is the hot layer that lies beneath the crust from where volcanic and other material is spewed along the edges of the plates.
Some have proposed that a catastrophic movement of the tectonic plates on the earth’s surface may have unleashed worldwide volcanic eruptions as well as considerable water vapor. Volcanoes erupting today release smoke and materials of which 70 percent may consist of water vapor. That such an event could occur, conclude most scientists, is merely pseudo-scientific.
The windows of heaven
As believers know, it was during the Flood that the world received a deluge of forty days and nights. Was there enough suspended moisture in the atmosphere in the form of clouds to release such a torrent? Genesis 7:12 tell us that it was “the windows of heaven.” Oddly, Genesis 2:5 says that there was no rain before humanity was created. Was there no rainfall anywhere on the earth before the Deluge? It is difficult to imagine a world without rain since we know that water when heated becomes a vapor that rises into the sky where it condenses when cooled and becomes rain. However, is there another celestial source of water that was added to the ordinary rainfall? What are these “windows of heaven”?
“Windows of heaven” is a phrase used twice in reference to the Great Flood (Genesis 7:11, 8:2), and then found only three times elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. It is found twice in 2 Kings 7:2 and 19 in reference to God's miraculous intervention in sending rain, and then once in book of the Prophet Malachi 3:10, where it is again to describe God’s abundant outpouring of blessings on His people. The Genesis account clearly suggests the extraordinary nature of the rainfall that was part of the Flood. It is not ordinary rainfall.
Earlier in Genesis, we are told that on the second day of creation He divided the waters that were on the earth from the waters that He placed above the earth (Genesis 1:6-8) when He made a “firmament” (Hebrew: raqiya, meaning “expanse”) between those waters. This “expanse” or gap was the atmosphere, were birds fly, thus locating the “waters” actually above the atmosphere.
So, what is this water? If the earth had had rings of ice and debris circling around it (as those around the planets Venus and Saturn), could these have been the source of waters? Or were there suspended molecules of water in the “firmament” described by the Bible, or some sort of vapor canopy, that nucleated around particles of volcanic material thrown up by volcanoes that then fell out as rain?
These are conjectures that may occupy physicists, geologists, and Bible scholars for many years as they seek to understand God’s creation. The beauty of it is that scientific method, if unburdened by atheism but armed with true inquisitiveness may serve to amaze Bible believers and elucidate eternal truths. Currently, scientists in the disciplines of stratigraphy, geology, physics, and others discount various theories offered by creationists who seek to reconcile Fundamentalist Christian beliefs about the Bible with observations of the fossil and geological record.
But the discovery at Northwestern University is an example of how strictly scientific inquiry might be informed by Scripture, and how believers might also learn from free inquiry. That a huge amount of water may be stored deep in the earth in deposits of minerals under the immense weight of the earth’s crust is a theory that goes back to at least 1997. In the journal New Scientist, L. Bergeron wrote in 1997, “You have oceans and oceans of water stored in the transition zone. It's sopping wet.”
Researchers from Northwestern University and the University of New Mexico have now reported their evidence that oceans worth of water is found deep beneath the United States. It may be the largest reservoir of water in the world. While it is not in a liquid form, according to a news release, the scientists found ingredients for water bound up in rock deep in the earth’s mantle. They now seek to know if this deposit of water may extend around the world.
Geophysicist Steve Jacobsen of Northwestern University and seismologist Brandon Schmandt of the University of New Mexico have found deep pockets of magma located about 400 miles beneath North America, possibly indicating water at great depths. The discovery suggests water from the surface can be driven to great depths beneath the earth by plate tectonics and eventually cause the partial melting of the rocks found deep in the mantle. They published their findings in the journal Science.
“Geological processes on the Earth’s surface, such as earthquakes or erupting volcanoes, are an expression of what is going on inside the Earth, out of our sight,” said co-author Jacobsen. “I think we are finally seeing evidence for a whole-Earth water cycle, which may help explain the vast amount of liquid water on the surface of our habitable planet. Scientists have been looking for this missing deep water for decades.”
Scientists have long speculated that water is trapped in a rocky layer of the Earth’s mantle located between the lower mantle and upper mantle, at depths between 250 miles and 410 miles. Jacobsen and Schmandt are the first to provide direct evidence that there may be water in the rocky layer of the earth’s mantle located between its upper and lower layers: the “transition zone.” If just one percent of the weight of mantle rock located in the transition zone is water, theorized the researchers, that would be nearly three times the amount of water in all of the oceans.
The study combined Jacobsen’s lab experiments in which he studies mantle rock under the simulated high pressures of 400 miles below the earth’s surface with Schmandt’s observations using vast amounts of seismic data from a dense network of more than 2,000 seismometers across the United States, known as USarray. Jacobsen and Schmandt produced evidence that melting of rock may occur some 400 miles under the earth’s surface. The researchers said that water stored in mantle rocks, such as those containing the mineral called ringwoodite are key to the process. “Melting of rock at this depth is remarkable because most melting in the mantle occurs much shallower, in the upper 50 miles,” said Schmandt. “If there is a substantial amount of H2O in the transition zone, then some melting should take place in areas where there is flow into the lower mantle, and that is consistent with what we found.”
The water is not in a liquid, ice or vapor form, but in a fourth form that is trapped inside the molecular structure of the minerals in the mantle rock. The weight of 250 miles of solid rock creates such high pressure and temperatures above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit that a water molecules split to form a hydroxyl radical (OH) which can be bound into a mineral’s crystal structure.
The only sample of ringwoodite from within the earth that is in existence was found in a diamond brought from a depth of 400 miles by a Brazilian volcano. It contained a significant amount of water in a solid form. It was reported in March 2014. “Whether or not this unique sample is representative of the Earth’s interior composition is not known, however,” Jacobsen said. “Now we have found evidence for extensive melting beneath North America at the same depths corresponding to the dehydration of ringwoodite, which is exactly what has been happening in my experiments.”
(University of Alberta scientist Graham Pearson holds a sample of diamond containing ringwoodite)
For years, Jacobsen synthesized the sapphire-colored ringwoodite by reacting green olivine – a material commonly found in the upper mantle – with water under high pressure. He found that one percent of the weight of the ringwoodite’s crystal structure can consist of water. This is roughly the same amount of water as was found in the Brazilian diamond sample. Jacobsen said that ringwoodite soaks up water like a sponge. The material has a crystalline structure that attracts hydrogen and retains water. When Jacobsen subjected the synthesized ringwoodite to the conditions found 400 miles below the earth’s surface, he found that it produces small amounts of partial melt when pushed to these conditions. His findings produced the same evidence of partial melt, or magma, that Schmandt detected by using seismic waves. “Seismic data from the USArray are giving us a clearer picture than ever before of the Earth's internal structure beneath North America,” Schmandt said. “The melting we see appears to be driven by subduction -- the downwelling of mantle material from the surface.”
This melting is called dehydration melting. While rocks in the transition zone can hold a great deal of water in the form of H2O, rocks in the top of the lower mantle can hold almost none. The water contained within ringwoodite in the transition zone is forced out when it goes deeper into the lower mantle and forms a higher-pressure mineral called silicate perovskite, which cannot absorb the water. This causes the rock at the boundary between the transition zone and lower mantle to partially melt. “When a rock with a lot of H2O moves from the transition zone to the lower mantle it needs to get rid of the H2O somehow, so it melts a little bit,” Schmandt said. “This is called dehydration melting.” He added, “Once the water is released, much of it may become trapped there in the transition zone.”
The paper by Jacobsen and Schmandt is titled, The paper is titled “Dehydration melting at the top of the lower mantle.”
Science and Faith
Holy Scriptures, when they are read as transcendental truth rather than literal truth, can inform skeptical scientists in the same way that science can bolster the faith of believers. The findings made by the scientists Schmandt and Jacobsen opens up a whole new area of conversation for seekers of truth. Interestingly, Jacobsen said of his discovery, "We should be grateful for this deep reservoir," adding "If it wasn't there, it would be on the surface of the Earth, and mountain tops would be the only land poking out."