Catastrophic Plate Tectonics review by David Plaisted

Summary of Catastrophic Plate Tectonics

This document is an evaluation of catastrophic plate tectonics as presented by John Baumgardner and others. Catastrophic plate tectonics (CPT) is a flood theory that assumes that there was originally one supercontinent, Pangea, and one large ocean in the location of the present Pacific Ocean. Then some event disrupted the Pacific lithosphere, which began falling through the mantle. The lithosphere consists of the outer crust of the earth which is on top of the outer mantle (the asthenosphere). The lithosphere is believed to consist of plates that move upon the asthenosphere. This falling of the Pacific lithosphere caused the mantle to heat up, which made it less viscous. Then there was a runaway process in which the mantle became less and less viscous. This drove catastrophic plate tectonics, in which the supercontinent split into continents which began moving towards the Pacific Ocean. The heating of the Pacific basin caused it to expand, become lighter and more buoyant, and to rise, so that water covered the earth. Also, the heating of the Pacific sea floor in places caused water to become steam and to fall as rain. When the Pacific basin cooled, it contracted, became less buoyant, and fell, and the water level decreased. Perhaps an increase in the decay rate heated the lithosphere, causing it to break up and permitting the oceans to start falling, or perhaps impacts by meteorites or asteroids initiated this subduction. The Pacific basin was partially or fully covered by lava in this scenario, requiring some means to cool this lava. Currently there is no solution for this problem, and it is assumed that the earth was cooled by a miracle.

Other flood mechanisms are associated with catastrophic plate tectonics. For example, sediments originally on the ocean floor were redistributed to the continents during the flood, and “earthquake-induced sea waves with ocean-to-land movement redistributed sediment toward continental interiors.” The cause of the ice age is also discussed in conjunction with CPT.

In the following discussion, it helps to know that the core of the earth is a sphere of material at the center of the earth, surrounded by the mantle, and then the lithosphere, consisting of the crust of the earth and the oceans. Also, concerning the density of the crust of the earth, Baumgardner writes,

The lithosphere represents the mantle’s cold upper thermal boundary layer. Since the density of oceanic lithosphere (which lacks the layer of buoyant continental crust that distinguishes the continental lithosphere) is higher than the underlying hot mantle, it is gravitationally unstable, that is, it has a natural tendency to sink. This cold layer of rock possesses gravitational potential energy relative to the mantle below. (Baumgardner, Numerical Simulation of the Large-Scale Tectonic Changes Accompanying the Flood, page 2)

This explains how the continents can float on the mantle, while the Pacific crust can sink.
Three papers will be discussed in order, some fairly briefly. Many other papers were not examined due to limited time and resources, and because all the papers seem similar to one another.

Baumgardner, J.R., 1986

Baumgardner, J.R., 1986. Numerical Simulation of the Large-Scale Tectonic Changes Accompanying the Flood. Presented at, The First International Conference on Creationism, technical symposium sessions, Creation Science Fellowship, Pittsburgh, PA, www.icr.org/article/large-scale-tectonic-change-flood/

Summary and Comment

The CPT theory is very logical. The lithosphere is heavier than the mantle. The ocean lithosphere is heavy enough that it could start falling through the mantle. If it started falling, the mantle would heat up. According to what we know, this would greatly reduce the viscosity of the mantle and there would be a runaway falling effect. This could drive catastrophic plate tectonics. This is consistent with evidence that there was once a single supercontinent that broke up, and also that there is no ocean floor deriving from the Paleozoic era or earlier. Baumgardner also talks about evidence for faster decay rates in the past. He also discusses the cooling issue, the need to cool the earth from the rise in temperature that would result, and seems to admit that he has no solution for it. He suggests that an increase in the decay rate could heat the lithosphere, causing it to break up and permitting the oceans to start falling.

However, if the falling Pacific Ocean basin pulled the supercontinents apart, then why were the mountain ranges raised up at the leading edges of the continents?

Necessity for Divine Intervention

Baumgardner writes:

Finally, it seems evident that the Flood catastrophe cannot be understood or modeled in terms of time invariant laws of nature. Intervention by God in the natural order during and after the catastrophe appears to be a logical necessity. Manifestations of the intervention appear to include an enhanced rate of nuclear decay during the event and a loss of thermal energy afterward. (p. 9)

This seems to be a deficiency of his model, the necessity for divine intervention. At least Baumgardner admits it. However, according to the Bible, the Lord does intervene in natural events. Also, some cause for an increase in the decay rate would at least solve one of his problems, namely, finding a cause for the flood.

Baumgardner 1990

Baumgardner, J.R., 1990. 3 -D Finite Element Simulation of the Global Tectonic changes accompanying Noah’s Flood. Presented at, The Second International Conference on Creationism, technical symposium sessions, Creation Science Fellowship, Pittsburgh, PA, www.icr.org/article/simulation-noahs-flood/

Summary

In this paper Baumgartner discusses heating of water to steam to produce global rain. He also suggests that the impact of an extraterrestrial body could have started the subduction leading to the flood. He discusses huge tidal wave actions as well. He says that a rising sea level caused the water to cover the continents. This was caused by cooler crust being replaced by warmer crust, or mantle. As the ocean floor cooled, it would sink and water would retreat from the continents.

Sinking of Ocean Crust

According to conventional plate tectonics, when two plates spread apart, magma comes up from the mantle. This magma forms mid-oceanic ridges. Also,
New sea floor formed at spreading ridges has a much higher average temperature and lower density than old sea floor that is subducted. This is the reason that on today’s earth the mid-ocean ridges display an elevation some 2,000 m higher than that of the abyssal plains where the lithosphere is relatively much colder. (page 3)
Further,

Applied to the Flood model, this observation implies that rapid subduction of the old ocean lithosphere would lead to a reduction in the mean depth of the ocean basins of between 2,000 and 3,000 m, depending on the thickness of the pre-Flood ocean lithosphere, and produce a rise in the world sea level of between 1,200 and 1,800 m. Such an increase in sea level would of course inundate most of the continental areas. As the newly formed ocean floor cooled, the result would be a deepening of the ocean basins and a runoff of the flood waters from the continents. (page 3)

In addition,

The volume of water converted to pressurized steam along belts of rapid sea-floor spreading is easily enough to produce rain over the entire surface of the earth at a rate of a meter per hour continuously for the 40 days and nights mentioned in Genesis 7. (page 3)

In this way, CPT explains the main features of the flood, and its observations about sea floor spreading are in harmony with what is inferred in modern plate tectonics.
Also,

Furthermore, rapid subduction of the pre-Flood ocean lithosphere is a logical requirement of the correlation of the onset of the Flood with the Precambrian-Cambrian boundary, because no ocean floor older than Mesozoic can be found on today’s earth. No pre-Flood (that is, Precambrian) ocean floor, which presumably covered some 60% of the earth’s surface area, can be identified anywhere (except possibly as rare ophiolite formations in continental environments). It is therefore logical to conclude that essentially all the pre-Flood ocean lithosphere has sunk into the mantle since the onset of the Flood just a few tens of centuries ago (Baumgardner, 1986). (page 3)

The assertion that no ocean floor is older than Mesozoic, is partially based on a magnetic chronology. See for example the web page at http://geology.about.com/library/bl/maps/blseafloorage.htm . However, there is evidence for this late age of the ocean floor that does not appear to depend on the magnetic chronology (Baumgardner, Catastrophic Plate Tectonics: the Geophysical Context of the Genesis Flood, April 1, 2002; http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/tj/v16/n1/plate-tectonics).
As evidence for the sinking of the Pacific crust, “Seismic tomography studies (Dziewonski &Woodhouse, 1987) indicate the existence of a band of material near the base of the mantle with high seismic velocity, presumably indicating cooler temperature, forming a ring around the present Pacific Ocean. These data argue strongly that a substantial amount of material has indeed been subducted around what was once
Pangea and that a process similar to that evident in the numerical experiment has indeed taken place in the earth.” (p. 8)

Austin et al 1994

Austin, S.A., Baumgardner, J.R., Humphreys, R.D., Snelling, A.A ., Vardiman, L. and Wise, K.P., 1994. Catastrophic Plate Tectonics: A Global Flood Model of Earth History. Presented at, The Third International Conference on Creationism, technical symposium sessions, Creation Science Fellowship, Pittsburgh, PA, www.icr.org/article/catastrophic-plate-tectonics-flood-model/

Summary

In this paper the authors say that sediments originally on the ocean floor were redistributed to the continents during the flood, and also that due to subduction at the edges of the continents, “earthquake-induced sea waves with ocean-to-land movement redistributed sediment toward continental interiors. Resulting sedimentary units tend to be thick, uniform, of unknown provenance, and extend over regional, inter-regional, and even continental areas.” (abstract) They also discuss the ice age and its cause.

Support for Plate Tectonics

Quote (p. 2):

Because of the enormous explanatory and predictive success of the plate tectonics model (reviewed in Wise, in prep. a; Wise et al., in prep.), we feel that at least some portion of plate tectonics theory should be incorporated into the creation model. It appears that taking the conventional plate tectonics model and increasing the rate of plate motion neither deprives plate tectonics theory of its explanatory and predictive success, nor does it seem to contradict any passages of Scripture.

Therefore there is good reason to believe that the continents were once together and then separated.

Formation of Earth’s Core

The authors do not believe that the core of the earth could have formed during the flood (p. 3):

We believe that the pre-Flood earth was differentiated into a core, mantle, and crust, very much as it is today. We conclude this for two major reasons. The first is that under any known natural conditions, core/mantle differentiation would destroy all evidence of life on earth completely. The current earth has a core/mantle/crust division according to the successively lower density of its components. If this differentiation had occurred by any natural means, the gravitational potential energy released by the heavier elements relocating to the earth’s interior would produce enough heat to melt the earth’s crust and vaporize the earth’s oceans.

However, the heat would not be generated all at once. It would come out during the year of the flood, possibly longer, and could be gradually released into space. For example, there may have been large areas of lava on the earth’s surface during the flood, and water or air over them would have been superheated and gone high into the atmosphere or even into space. Heat loss is not limited to the equations of black body radiation if matter is ejected. Walt Brown is actually an expert on heat loss due to his thesis work at MIT. Someone who is an expert in heat dynamics should examine this question in more detail.

Another thing to consider is that it takes a long time for heat generated within the earth to reach the surface. A reference from Brown’s book says that it would take millions of years for heat to flow up through 4.68 or more miles of rock (Brown, In the Beginning, p. 376). It is possible that the generated heat has not yet reached the surface.

Concerning this matter, Brown writes

The heat released by gravitational settling ended up primarily in the core. Except for flood basalts and earthquakes, the rest of the earth’s surface has been relatively unaffected by this heat. The outer earth was never molten. (In the Beginning, page 165)

Cause of the Flood

We feel that the Flood was initiated as slabs of oceanic crust broke loose and subducted along thousands of kilometers of pre-Flood continental margins. We are, however, not ready at this time to speculate on what event or events might have initiated that subduction. (p. 4)

Creation of Some Mountain Chains

Collisions of continents at subduction zones are the likely mechanism for the creation of mountain fold-and-thrust-belts, such as the Appalachians, Himalayas, Caspians, and Alps. (p. 4)

Falling Lithosphere

ln fact, the velocity anomalies seem to imply that not only did flow involve the entire depth of the mantle, but that ocean lithosphere may have dropped all the way to the core/mantle boundary. (p. 5)

This seems to contradict Walt Brown’s idea that the core formed during the flood. However, if the lithosphere dropped to the core/mantle boundary or lower, and contracted, then this may have helped to speed up the rotation of the earth. Also, if light water rose and possibly even was expelled from the earth and dense mass sank, it might have helped to speed the rotation of the earth.

One important consequence of mantle-wide flow would have been the transportation of cooler mantle material to the core/mantle boundary. This would have had the effect of cooling the outer core, which in turn led to strong core convection. This convection provided the conditions necessary for Humphreys’ (1987, 1990) model of rapid geomagnetic reversals in the core. (p. 5)

Fountains of the Great Deep and Rain

As ocean lithosphere subducted it would have produced rapid extension along linear belts on the ocean floor tens of thousands of kilometers long. At these spreading centers upwelling mantle material would have been allowed to rise to the surface. The new, molten mantle material would have degassed its volatiles (Whitelaw, 1983) and vaporized ocean water (Baumgardner, 1987, 1990a) to produce a linear geyser of superheated gases along the whole length of spreading centers. This geyser activity, which
would have jettisoned gases well into the atmosphere, is, we believe, what Scripture refers to as the “fountains of the great deep” (Genesis 7:11; 8:2). (p. 5)

It is this geyser-produced rain which we believe is primarily responsible for the rain from the “windows of heaven” (Genesis 7:11; 8:2) which remained a source of water for up to 150 days of the Flood (Genesis 7:24–8:2). (p. 5)

Source of Flood Waters

The now warmer and more buoyant ocean floor displaced ocean water onto the continents to produce the inundation itself. (p. 5)

Discussion of Sediments

The authors give fairly detailed explanations of the origins of minerals found on earth today. Also, they discuss the sedimentary record:

The absence of these most superficial [surface] continental deposits may explain the absence of human as well as most mammal and angiosperm fossils in Flood sediments. (p. 7)

Sheet erosion from receding Flood waters would be expected to have planed off a substantial percentage of the earth’s surface. Such planar erosion features as the Canadian shield and the Kaibab and Coconino plateaus might well be better explained by this than by any conventional erosional processes. (p. 7)

we tentatively place the Flood/post-Flood boundary at approximately the Cretaceous/Tertiary (K/T) boundary. (p. 7)

Post-Flood Events

lsostatic readjustments with their associated intense mountain uplift, earthquake, and volcanic activity would have occurred for hundreds of years after the global effects of the Flood ended (p. 7)

This model takes into account detailed features of the fossil record and geological features:

By the time Flood waters had settled into the post-Flood basins, they had accumulated enough heat to leave the oceans as much as twenty or more degrees centigrade warmer than today’s oceans (Figure 1). These warmer oceans might be expected to produce a warmer climate on earth in the immediate post-Flood times than is experienced on earth now (Oard, 1990a). More specifically, a rather uniform warm climate would be expected along continental margins (Oard, 1979, 1987, 1990a), permitting wider latitudinal range for temperature-limited organisms (Oard, 1990a)—for example, mammoths (for example, Schweger et al., 1982), frozen forests (for example, Felix, 1993), and trees (Wise, 1992b). This avenue in turn may have facilitated post-Flood dispersion of animals (Oard, 1990a; Woodmorappe, 1990). Also expected along continental margins would be a rather high climatic gradient running from the ocean toward the continental interior (Oard, 1979, 1990a). This might explain why some Cenozoic communities near the coasts include organisms from a wider range of climatic zones than we would expect to see today— for example, communities in the Pleistocene (Graham & Lundelius, 1984; Oard, 1990a) and the Gingko Petrified Forest in Oregon (Coffin, 1974). (p. 8)

We would expect floral and faunal communities to have tracked the cooling of the oceans and the corresponding cooling and drying of the continents. Such a tracking seems to explain the trend in Cenozoic plant communities to run from woodland to grassland and the corresponding trend in Cenozoic herbivores to change from browsers to grazers. (p. 8)

According to Oard’s (1987, 1990a) model, by about five centuries after the Flood, the cooling oceans had led to the advance of continental glaciers and the formation of polar ice caps (see also Vardiman, 1993). Oard (1990a) suggests that rapid melting of the continental ice sheets (in less than a century) explains the underfitness of many modern rivers (Dury, 1976) and contributed to the megafaunal extinctions of the Pleistocene (Bower, 1987; Lewin, 1987; Martin & Klein, 1984). It may also have contributed to the production of otherwise enigmatic Pleistocene peneplains. (p. 8)

Thus many specific features are explained by this model; of course, many of these do not depend on CPT at all, but only on a flood, a heated ocean, and sliding continents.

Heat, Dating, and Meteorite Problems with the Model

Most significantly, we still need to solve the heat problem (Baumgardner, 1987; Wise, 1987) and the radiometric dating problem (Baumgardner, 1987).” (p. 9) “It is also important that we evaluate the role of extraterrestrial bombardment in the history of the earth and Flood, since it was most certainly higher during and immediately after the Flood than it is now (Gibson, 1990; Whitelaw, 1983). (p. 9)

The CPT model does not have much of an explanation for this increased bombardment during the flood.

Discussion

In general, there seems to be good evidence that the continents were once joined together and separated rapidly during the flood. Also, there is evidence that some of the crust fell through the mantle even to the core, probably during the flood. Baumgardner and his co-authors also give reasonable evidence that the core of the earth existed before the flood. There is good evidence that the mantle can flow much more easily with an increase in temperature. Computer simulations support the main features of their model. They discuss some detailed features of the sedimentary record. Their model also does a reasonably good job of explaining post-flood events, but these do not depend on CPT. Many of their other conclusions also do not depend on CPT, such as their discussion of the sediments.

Possible problems with this model include the cause of the flood, dissipation of heat, meteorite or asteroid impacts during the flood, and the raising up of the mountain chains at the leading edges of the continents. Perhaps only the bottom of the crust or some of the asthenosphere under the crust fell away through the mantle, and the top remained, reducing the heat problem. If the falling Pacific Ocean basin pulled the supercontinents apart, then why were the mountain ranges raised up at the leading edges of the continents? Also, perhaps this method is not in harmony with the Genesis account of the “fountains of the great deep” as initiating the flood. The Bible gives the breaking up of the fountains of the great deep as an initiating event of the flood, followed by rain and rising waters. This does not seem to correspond to the sinking of the Pacific basin as a cause.

The chronology of CPT needs to be clarified. It appears that CPT has the Pacific crust sinking, pulling the continents apart. Then the Pacific bottom becomes covered with lava, and becomes hotter and more buoyant, and rises. This cannot happen, however, until the continents are pulled apart, or else the continents would not be pulled apart. When the Pacific bottom becomes more buoyant, flood waters cover the earth. This happens after the continents have separated. Thus it appears that according to CPT the continents split before or in the very early stages of the flood. This seems to contradict geological evidence that the continents separated during the Mesozoic period of earth’s history, in the middle of the flood. Baumgarder even begins his simulation early in the Mesozoic, thus entirely skipping over the Paleozoic period, in which a considerable volume of sediment was created:

In particular, it should be emphasized that the initial condition used for the calculation does not represent an initial state for the pre-Flood earth. Instead it represents a state roughly mid-way into the actual Flood cataclysm corresponding to the early Mesozoic point in the record. (Baumgardner, Catastrophic Plate Tectonics: The Physics Behind the Genesis Flood, page 5)

The CPT theory is very logical in many ways. The lithosphere is heavier than the mantle. The ocean lithosphere is heavy enough that it could start falling through the mantle. If it started falling, the mantle would heat up. According to what we know, this would greatly reduce the viscosity of the mantle and there would be a runaway falling effect. This could drive catastrophic plate tectonics. This is consistent with evidence that there was once a single supercontinent that broke up, and also that there is no ocean floor deriving from the Paleozoic era or earlier.

Brown’s Criticisms of CPT

Here is what Walt Brown (In the Beginning, pp. 511-512) says about CPT:


ICR and AiG sometimes invoke miracles to solve their scientific problems. For example, their explanation for the flood is catastrophic plate tectonics (CPT), developed by John R. Baumgardner with help from coauthors Steve A. Austin, D. Russell Humphreys, Andrew Snelling, Kurt Wise and Larry Vardiman. Baumgardner acknowledges his miracles:

…the physical laws were somehow altered by God to cause the [flood] catastrophe to unfold within the time frame of the Biblical record. John R. Baumgardner, “The Imperative of Non-Stationary Natural Law in Relation to Noah’s Flood,” Creation Research SocietyQuarterly, Vol. 27, December 1990, p. 98.

One of Baumgardner’s specific difficulties is explaining why his crustal plates suddenly dove into the mantle as the flood began. He explains:

An initial temperature perturbation is required to initiate motions within the spherical shell domain that represents the earth’s mantle. For this, a temperature perturbation of -400 K to a depth of a few hundred kilometers is introduced around most of the perimeter of the supercontinent. John R. Baumgardner, “A Constructive Quest for Truth,” Technical Journal, Vol. 16, No. 1, 2002, p. 80. <http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/tj/v16/n1/plate-tectonics5>

Why does Baumgardner “introduce” a sudden temperature drop in the top “few hundred kilometers” of the earth, along what are now 15,000 miles of unconnected ocean trenches? If so much rock (10-million cubic miles) suddenly became 720°F (400 K) colder, the rock’s density would increase, so much it might fracture the earth’s crust globally, forming plates (Invoked Miracle #1). Then, the edges of some plates
might be so dense they sink into the mantle (Invoked Miracle #2) just as a rock sinks into water. If so, subduction would begin. But just to be sure, Baumgardner assumes the mantle is much less viscous than today (Invoked Miracle #3).

It is proposed that the mantle’s viscosity at [the time of the flood] was lower than at present to permit rapid sinking of the lithosphere into the mantle … John R. Baumgardner, “3-D Finite Element Simulation of the Global Tectonic Changes Accompanying Noah’s Flood,” Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Creationism (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Creation Science Fellowship, Inc., 1990), p. 35.

He then claims this is how the global flood began, but that is incorrect. The Bible says the flood began on the “day all the fountains of the great deep burst open” (Genesis 7:11). Catastrophic Plate Tectonics would not produce “fountains of the great deep” any more than a very large and hot volcanic eruption on the ocean floor would produce a jet of water shooting out of the ocean’s surface. [See the statement by Henry M. Morris in Endnote 8 on page 456.]

Invoked Miracle #4: Temperatures cannot drop below absolute zero (-460°F), so it is impossible for anything colder than a blazing hot 260°F to drop 720°F! (460 + 260 = 720) This is not, as the title of Baumgardner’s paper ironically claims, a “constructive quest for truth.”

Baumgardner admits that miraculously freezing and sinking so much rock creates another problem. As cold rock sinks, hot rock deep in the earth must simultaneously circulate up to the earth’s surface. The heat is so great that it would take millions of years for just half of that heat to radiate from the earth. Therefore, he requires Invoked Miracle #5: God must have removed that heat, because the global flood happened, and the earth’s surface is not extremely hot.

CPT requires other miracles. The hydroplate theory requires no convenient miracles. The flood and its many consequences follow from the laws of physics and three starting assumptions, for which there is clear biblical support. [See page 123.]

Another example of invoking a miracle to solve a scientific problem occurred in ICR’s RATE Project (Radioisotopes and the Age of The Earth). After spending 1.5 million donated dollars over 8 years, the long-awaited RATE study claimed that God must have removed an unbelievable amount of heat; otherwise, all oceans would have evaporated. [See “Understanding Accelerated Decay” on page 539, and Larry Vardiman et al., Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth, (El Cajon, California: Institute for Creation Research, 2005), pp. 761–762.] “The Origin of Earth’s Radioactivity” on pages 354–401 answers these questions without claiming self-serving miracles.


Comment: As for Miracle #4, Baumgardner may be referring to the temperatures in the mantle of the earth. The minimal temperature at the surface of the mantle is probably about 500 degrees Centigrade. Thus the temperature in the mantle could drop by 720°F (400 K), especially deeper in the mantle. Concerning Miracles #1 and #2, the reason for this drop in temperature is Baumgardner’s belief that parts of the pacific crust fell through the mantle to the core. The lower parts of the crust are denser than the mantle, so they could have fallen through it. These parts of the crust would have been cooler than the rest of the mantle, introducing a temperature difference. There is reason to believe that the subducted crust is still cooler than the surrounding mantle:

Yet another type of evidence for recent global tectonic catastrophe is the large magnitude of the temperature anomalies inferred for the rock near the bottom of the mantle. One of the most robust features of lateral mantle structure provided by the field of seismic tomography over the last 15 years is a ring of dense rock at the bottom of the mantle roughly below the perimeter of today’s Pacific Ocean (Su, Woodard, & Dziewonski, 1994). The location of this ring correlates closely with the locations inferred for much of the subducted ocean floor since the early Mesozoic in the geological record. It is also consistent with location of the cold downwelling flow in the 3-D calculation of the previous section. … The issue here is the large difference in density, and presumably temperature, between these cold and hot regions. The density difference is estimated to be on the order of 3–4% (Grand, 1997; Su et al.). This translates, assuming these regions have a similar chemical composition, to a temperature difference on the order of 3000–4000 K! (Baumgardner, Catastrophic Plate Tectonics: The Physics Behind the Genesis Flood, page 7)

As for Miracle #3, an increase in the decay rate might have heated the mantle during the flood

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