Magazine article Oceanus

Noah's Not-So-Big Flood: New Evidence Rebuts Controversial Theory of Black Sea Deluge

Magazine article Oceanus

Noah's Not-So-Big Flood: New Evidence Rebuts Controversial Theory of Black Sea Deluge

Article excerpt

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A long time ago, whether your time frame is biblical or geological, the Black Sea was a large freshwater Black "Lake." A high and dry piece of land, the Bosphorus Sill, dammed the narrow connection between the lake and the Aegean Sea, blocking the entry of salty seawater.

When Earth's last ice age waned, water frozen into vast ice sheets melted and returned to the ocean, elevating sea levels. About 9,400 years ago, Mediterranean waters rose above the dam, reconnecting the two seas. They surged over the now-submerged Bosphorus Sill with the force of 200 Niagara Falls, according to a controversial theory proposed in 1997 by Columbia University marine geologists Bill Ryan and Walter Pitman. The resulting deluge, they speculated, could have wiped out early human settlements around the lake's perimeter and inspired the Noah's Ark story in the Bible, the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, and catastrophic flood myths among other peoples.

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The geological story behind the stories sparked a best-selling book, considerable popular interest, and a lot of subsequent research to support or refute the theory.

Now, a new study in the January 2009 issue of Quaternary Science Reviews suggests that if the flood occurred at all, it was much smaller--hardly of biblical proportions. Liviu Giosan of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and Florin Filip and Stefan Constantinescu of the University of Bucharest found evidence that Black Lake/Sea water levels rose only 5 to 10 meters around 9,400 years ago, not 50 to 60 meters as Ryan and his colleagues proposed. The flood would have drowned only about 2,000 square kilometers of land (about half of Rhode Island), rather than 70,000 square kilometers (more than the entire state of West Virginia).

Fueling the debate is the difficulty of finding reliable ways to reconstruct Black Lake's water level before the flood. Investigating seafloor features, Ryan and Pitman inferred former shorelines or beach dunes, now drowned, and estimated that Black Lake was at least 80 meters lower than the modern Black Sea. But sand deposits are molded and eroded by underwater currents and can be misleadingly interpreted as dunes or beaches, and so they are less-than-reliable indicators of past sea levels, Giosan and colleagues said. …

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