Saturday, 23 November 2013

Chapter 10: Catastrophic Plate Tectonics

Sarfati devotes several pages (177-180) of The Greatest Hoax on Earth to the theories of catastrophic plate tectonics and runaway subduction, proposed by geophysicist John Baumgardner as a young-Earth alternative to mainstream theories of plate tectonics.

In 1983 Baumgardner developed a computer programme called TERRA, which uses supercomputers to create three-dimensional models of processes in the Earth's mantle.  As Sarfati notes, at one time TERRA was one of the best programmes of its kind.  Indeed, a 1997 US News and World Report feature on Baumgardner by Chandler Burr reported that "there is universal agreement that one of the most useful and powerful geological tools in existence" and "Baumgardner is seen as one of the world leaders in numerical models of mantle convection".[footnote 1]

What Sarfati doesn't mention is that the models produced by TERRA depend entirely on the data entered into the programme.  As Burr's article puts it:
Run Terra one way, and you can watch Noah's flood take place before your eyes, mathematically calculated by a supercomputer. Run Terra another way, and you get the standard geological story of 4.6 billion years. The results obtained from the code are – as Baumgardner readily points out – dependent on the numbers fed into it in the first place.
The reason geologists use TERRA is because it can produce models consistent with accepted, mainstream geological data (as opposed to Baumgardner's young-Earth data).  That's why Sarfati is able to make vague statements such as "Aspects of Baumgardner's mantle modelling have been independently duplicated and thus verified by others" (page 179).  Burr's article points out the reality of how geologists regard Baumgardner's young-Earth theories:
Among geologists, there is universal agreement that Baumgardner's [young-Earth] views are simply wrong. The fact that the sedimentary record contains anomalies is unremarkable, they say. There are always anomalies. The real debate is about physics and belief. Runaway subduction, these scientists add, requires the suspension of the most basic laws of physics. The theory requires a Through the Looking Glass world where nothing is as it seems and no scientific principle – from gravity and electromagnetism on down – exists as it exists today.
Baumgardner himself says, "The only way to square the radiometric data with a flood that caused all these changes is to conclude that one aspect of the catastrophe was rapid radioactive decay." But what this means is that for a few years the universe behaved completely differently, compressing processes which now take millions of years into merely days. This is not impossible. It just contradicts almost every existing piece of evidence.
Catastrophic plate tectonics is not supported by anyone outside young-Earth creationist circles.  And Sarfati concedes (footnote 44 on page 177) the theory isn't even supported by all young-Earth creationists.

The following list outlines some of the key problems with the theory of catastrophic plate tectonics (see the references for further detail).
  • The amount of energy released by Baumgardner's model would completely boil off the Earth's oceans.[2]
  • Many aspects of the theory (such as the sudden cooling of the ocean floor, the greatly reduced viscosity of the mantle, the rapid magnetic reversals) cannot be explained by conventional physics.[3]
  • The model requires both frictional heating (as the heat source to accelerate the subduction) and a reduced viscosity of the mantle.  But the reduced viscosity of the mantle would likely also reduce frictional heating.[4]
  • Baumgardner's own modelling shows that during the Flood, currents would be faster over continents than over ocean basins, so sediments should, overall, be removed from continents and deposited in ocean basins.  Yet this is not the case (sediments on ocean basins have an average thickness of 600 metres, while those on continents have an average thickness of 2.6 kilometres).[5]
The main problem for catastrophic plate tectonics is that it is incompatible with so much geological evidence.[6]  A good example is the Hawaiian island chain, which I will discuss in my next post.  Multiple lines of evidence point to the conclusion that the island chain formed over millions of years.  Young-Earth creationists claim such evidence "could easily be incorporated into a creationist scenario such as Catastrophic Plate Tectonics",[7] but I've yet to find any young-Earth literature actually explaining how this would work.  Geologists reject catastrophic plate tectonics not because there is a conspiracy among geologists (many of whom are Christian) blinded by a 'secular world view', but because catastrophic plate tectonics fails to adequately account for the geological evidence.


[1] Chandler Burr, 'The Geophysics of God: A Scientist Embraces Plate Tectonics – and Noah’s Flood', US News and World Report (8 June 1997)

[2] Donald Wise, 'Creationism's Geologic Time Scale', American Scientist, Vol 86, No 2 (1998), pp 160-173

[3] Mark Isaak (ed), 'Claim CD750: Catastrophic plate tectonics' (2004)

[4] Molleen Matsumura, 'Miracles In, Creationism Out', Reports of the National Center for Science Education, Vol 17, Issue 3 (1997)

[5] Mark Isaak (ed), 'Claim CH430: Runaway subduction' (2003)

[6] See, for example: William Powell, Philosophy of Scientific Creationism, New Delhi: Global Vision Publishing (2009) pp 259-60; see also: Mark Isaak (ed), 'Claim CD750: Catastrophic plate tectonics' (2004)

[7] Tas Walker, 'The Hawaiian hot spot and the Bible' (28 May 2011)


  1. Thanks. I spotted a typo - 'subjection' in place of 'subduction'.