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Noah Flood Idea Doesn't Hold Water, Scientists Say

An international research team claims that a bold and popular 1997 theory about a Black Sea deluge 7,500 years ago is full of holes.

January 19, 2003|Robert Cooke | Newsday

Scientists are seriously challenging a fascinating proposal that Noah's epic story -- setting sail with an ark jam-full of animal couples -- was based on an actual catastrophic flood that suddenly filled the Black Sea 7,500 years ago, forcing people to flee.

In a detailed new look at the rocks, sediment, currents and seashells in and around the Black Sea, an international research team pooh-poohs the Noah flood idea, arguing that all the geologic, hydrologic and biologic signs are wrong. Little that the earth can tell us seems to fit the Noah story, they say.

The new research takes direct aim at the work of two Columbia University geologists -- William Ryan and Walter Pitman -- whose proposal in 1997 ignited much new interest, and much new research, into Middle East history and geology.

According to Ryan and Pitman, their strong evidence shows that sudden flooding of the Black Sea did occur, and they think it was such a traumatic event that it became part of the folklore of ancient peoples of the Middle East, showing up vividly in the Bible.

Ryan and Pitman's bold proposal, first published in a marine geology journal, holds that the gradual rise of sea level at the end of the last Ice Age eventually overtopped and washed out a fragile natural barrier across what is now the Bosporus Strait. And once the barrier fell, it set off a catastrophe for settlers living in a huge basin to the northeast.

As the fragile barrier across the Bosporus collapsed, Ryan and Pitman proposed, a massive amount of seawater surged from the Mediterranean into what was then a stagnant, low-lying basin, the huge region now filled by the Black Sea. According to their scenario, the surge of seawater continued for about two years, until the major inland sea reached its present size.

Before the flood, Ryan and Pitman calculated, the basin contained a large soggy marsh sitting about 500 feet lower than the sea, which was held back by the barrier at the Bosporus. Once the barrier was breached, they estimated, some 10 cubic miles of seawater poured through the gap every day.

That, certainly, would have been a memorable event for people living around the basin. They would have seen the water rising inexorably, pushing them farther and farther up-slope, driving them away from their homes and fields. But whether it actually happened, and whether it matches what the ancient writings report, are questions that are open to serious debate.

Now an international team led by Ali Aksu argues there was no Black Sea flood at that time, and little else to support Noah's story. Instead, they see evidence that 7,500 years ago the Black Sea was already full, that it wasn't very salty, and more water was running out of the Black Sea than was pouring in through the Bosporus. As it does today, they said, the narrow strait carried a two-way flow 7,500 years ago, with salty water going in via the bottom, and less-salty water coming out on the surface. So, no flood.

This narrow strait, the Bosporus, is important both geologically and historically. It is a thin channel that separates the two major land masses, Europe and Asia. It has been a historic crossroads for millennia, a place where East meets West, in what is now Turkey. At the Bosporus' northeastern end is the Black Sea, and at the other end is the Sea of Marmara, linked to the Mediterranean, and thus to all the world's oceans.

What Aksu and his co-workers argue is that for the past 12,000 years brackish water has been steadily streaming out of the big inland sea and into the Mediterranean. Their studies of deltas, sea-floor sediment cores and the remains of marine life at the southern end of the Bosporus show no evidence of a Noah-type flood.

This detailed study of the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara region was undertaken by Aksu and Richard Hiscott at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada; Peta Mudie and Andre Rochon of the Geological Survey of Canada; Michael Kaminski at University College in London; Teofilo Abrajano at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.; and Dogan Yasar at Dokuz Eylul University in Turkey.

Their new look into the region's history was undertaken in response to the controversial proposal by Ryan and Pitman, at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, in Palisades, N.Y. Ryan and Pitman announced their intriguing evidence in 1997, boldly suggesting that old flood stories in the Bible and other ancient texts speak of a true flood, an event of gigantic proportions.

Despite the new evidence gathered by Aksu's team, Ryan and Pitman aren't retreating. Ryan pointed out in an interview that Aksu's team did most of its work outside the Black Sea, mapping the flow of water, the buildup of sediments and other evidence beyond the southern end of the Bosporus.

"Their paper is strongly model-driven," Ryan said, using a "concept of how water masses work. But our work is with directly sampled and directly dated Black Sea sediments."

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