“It’s going to destroy the world,” says Russell Crowe’s Noah in Darren Aronofsky’s new biblical epic. Soon, immense torrents of water will fall from the sky, deluges from the ocean will engulf the forests, and gushing floods will drench the land. The flood is one of the enduring myths of human civilization, recounted in Mesopotamian stories, the Deucalion tale in Greek mythology, and of course, Genesis in the Bible. Scientifically, it’s a bit of a stretch.
But researchers have long examined a major flood some 8,000 years ago in the Black Sea that may have inspired the mythic story. Most notably, William Ryan and Walter Pitman, senior scientists at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, wrote a book called Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About the Event That Changed History, which suggests that climate changes at the time created an ocean deluge 200 times the force of Niagara Falls, flooding the Black Sea area’s fresh water lakes with salt water, and driving Neolithic farmers into Northern Europe.
Since the publication of Ryan and Pitman’s research in the late 1990s, numerous scientists have followed up on the data, adding their own nuances, refutations, and conclusions to this environmental event, which may have been less seismic than originally thought. But today, even Ryan admits, “There is no evidence whatsoever for a global flood of the type portrayed in the movie and promoted by creationists.”
Science and Film recently talked to Liviu Giosan, Associate Scientist of Geology & Geophysics at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and a colleague of Professor Ryan’s, about his own research into the Black Sea, what it tells us about a potential flood-like event in the region, and whether it could have been anything like the one envisioned by Darren Aronofsky.
Sloan Science and Film: First, can you take me through the research that Bill Ryan and William Pitman had done in the late 1990s?
Liviu Giosan: They found out that the sea level in the Black Sea was very low during the last glaciation about 20,000 years ago. And it was low all around the world because most of the water was immobilized in big ice sheets. But then the action between the world ocean and the Black Sea was made when we had the de-glaciation—when the water from the ice sheet melted and increased the level of the ocean. So the levels of the ocean reached the levels of the [Bosporus and Dardanelles] Straits, and it came back into the Black Sea. They found out that reconnection was very fast and very abrupt, estimating that the sea level increased about 50 meters, from -90 meters to -30. So that meant that anything on the dry land around the Black Sea was underwater. And they estimated that this took place over a few years.
SSF: And what did your research yield? You went to the Danube River in 2007.
LG: Yes. This is a huge river coming from Central Europe—it’s the largest, the Mississippi of Europe—and this river provides seventy percent of the fresh water to the Black Sea. And the Black Sea is much fresher than the ocean; it’s 20 units of salinity compared with 35 units of salinity in the ocean. It provides so much water it provides a lot of sediment, and that brings new land as a delta. And deltas are very flat landscapes. They are within one or two yards above sea level. They build very low, so they are an indicator of sea level. If the delta existed below the flood, it should have been at the level of the flood. And after the flood finished, it should have reconstructed at another level. That was our hypothesis. So we drilled through the sediments of the Danube delta to find out where the delta was before the flood. It turned out to be preserved very well, and we could estimate the flood from where the other delta started to form after the flood, about 10-15 meters high, not 50 meters. So it means the region was flooded, but not that intensively.
SSF: What about the speed or the rate in which the area flooded? Is that consistent with Ryan and Pitman’s research?
LG: It’s very difficult to say. We tried to tackle this with British researchers, who assumed different scenarios based on the research from Ryan and others. But the thinking is that this would take at least 30 years, even with a 50-meter inundation. Why is this the case? Let’s make an analogy: if you want to force some fluid through a very narrow opening, it’s just not going to go more than it can accommodate. So it takes about 30 years for the ocean to refill the Black Sea from -90 to -50 meters, because of the narrowness and shallowness of the straights. So it can’t be done overnight.
SSF: Or 40 days and 40 nights?
LG: No. I do like mythology, and I like what the stories tell us. But taken literally, it’s a big step in the wrong direction.
SSF: What research do we need to continue to do in this area, not necessarily to debunk the Bible, but to understand this situation better?
LG: We still have a lot of things to learn, even in the history of the sea level. We now have two opposing scenarios: it was a large and fast movement of water during the inundation from the ocean, or it was smaller and fast. There is the continental shelf, a plain that is extended underwater, about -120 meters and then it breaks toward the continental slope and goes to the deep ocean. Now this flat plain was sometimes not underwater during glaciations when the sea level was lower. So the history of this sea level movement is recorded in the sediments of that continental shelf; we have never done proper research on the continental shelf in front of the Danube, and it’s one of the widest in the world. And wide is important. Because if it’s wide, when the sea level rises a meter, you will advance the water on the continental shelf tens of kilometers, because the slope is so shallow.
SSF: Have you encountered creationists or religious people who want to challenge you?
LG: Many times. I don’t answer them. I don’t enter discussions with these people. They are the bane of science.