Catastrophic Plate Tectonics – review by Terry Hurlbut

Catastrophic plate tectonics is today the most popular theory of the Global Flood among consistent advocates of creation. This theory seems, on the surface, to be self-consistent. But it borrows far too many concepts of initial conditions from conventional geology. Worse yet, it projects at least four miracles, or express deviations from natural law, that must occur.


John R. Baumgardner has an excellent record as an investigator. He understands the young-earth model and at least some of the evidence that supports it. To cite one example, in 2003 he exposed a key flaw in radiometric, and especially radiocarbon, dating.

Any creation advocate will remember Andrew Snelling’s 1997 paper challenging the coordination of radiometric dates by various methods. Snelling showed that fossilized life forms, like wood, will sometimes have apparent ages, from radiocarbon dating, significantly “younger” than the rock that surrounds them. That paper was one of several that prompted the Radioisotopes and the Age of The Earth (RATE) Group to form and investigate radiometric dating generally.

Naturally the uniformitarian establishment cried foul. Snelling ought never have sent those wood samples in without first describing in full where he found them. And in no event should he have tried to date a wood sample buried in million-year-old rock.

Baumgardner, in 2003, reviewed the literature and discovered a dirty secret: conventional investigators are always finding radiocarbon in Phanerozoic fossils, though by every conventional principle they should find no such thing. When they find such radiocarbon, these investigators allege contamination of the samples. But Baumgardner went further: he sent his own samples in for analysis and found the same amounts of radiocarbon. The contamination excuse clearly has worn too thin.

Still, Baumgardner’s analysis has a problem, one that pervades his work: he has no workable theory for the origin of carbon-14 or of any other heavy or radioactive isotope. He assumes, along with most members of the RATE Group, that an episode of accelerated nuclear decay produced higher levels of carbon-14. That conclusion is logical as far as it goes. But: what caused that accelerated decay? Baumgardner simply does not know. Nor does he pretend to know. His analysis severely weakens the uniformitarian argument. But his own argument is weak as long as he has assumes that carbon-14 was as much a part of creation as was carbon-12.


A few definitions are in order here. They will help explain the catastrophic plate tectonics model and its key flaw.

Radioactive: used to describe any element, or isotope (see below), that emits subatomic particles, high-energy photons, or both. In the process it transforms, or transmutes (Latin trans- across and muto, mutare, mutavi, mutatum to change) into another element.

Isotope (Greek isos the same and topos a place): one of two or more pure substances that occupy the same place in the Periodic Table of the Elements but have different atomic weights. One usually names an isotope by naming the element and quoting the particular isotope’s atomic weight. Thus, hydrogen-1, hydrogen-2, hydrogen-3, carbon-12, carbon-14, uranium-235, uranium-238, and so on.

Heavy isotope: any isotope heavier than the predominant, or most commonly found, isotope of any element. The opposite of a heavy isotope is a light isotope. Most non-predominant isotopes of stable elements are heavy. But most non-predominant isotopes of radioactive elements are light.

Radioactive isotope: self-explanatory. We use it of an isotope of an element whose predominant isotope is stable.

Tectonic plate: a separate part of the earth’s crust on which a continent rests.

Subduction (from the Latin sub- under and duco, ducere, duxi, ductum to lead): an alleged process in which the edge of one continental plate dives beneath another.

Examination of the Catastrophic Plate Tectonic Theory

Happily, Dr. Baumgardner keeps an Internet site with links to his published work, so anyone can read it. This includes a link to an on-line forum, or debate, on the Answers in Genesis site, and his three most recent papers.

His first paper in1994 set forth the basic theory. He considered (or at least claimed to consider) four competing theories of the Global Flood:

  • Collapse of a water-vapor canopy

  • The near-miss of a large comet with the earth

  • Rapid expansion of the earth

  • The Hydroplate Theory of Walter T. Brown: rupture of the earth’s crust from a subcrustal ocean under pressure.

He then chose his own theory: runaway subduction of the Pacific Basin plate under the North and South American plates to the east, and the Asian and Australian plates to the west. He concluded that, once some influence heated the earth’s mantle, it would become less viscous, and let the overlying continental plates, especially the Pacific Basin plate, sink into it. That would heat the mantle even further, and prompt more sinking, until finally the process would “run away.” The process would end with the edge of the Pacific plate slipping beneath the edges of other plates – the classic definition of subduction.

To be more specific, Baumgardner assumes the earth had one large super-continent (Pangaea, the conventional name) and one large ocean, the Pacific. He further assumed the Pacific Ocean held all the water today’s oceans hold all together. After the Pacific plate dived under the other plates, those plates broke apart and moved rapidly toward the Pacific Ocean. The tremendous rains of the Flood came when the ocean floor got hot enough to vaporize part of the Pacific Ocean.

Baumgardner first proposed this theory in 1986. And in that paper he set the tone for a key flaw in his future work:

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.

To be more specific: somehow the rate of nuclear decay must accelerate, to light the fire in the mantle that started the runaway process. But then the plates, and the mantle, had to cool – rapidly – so that the plate would sink, and the Flood waters would return to their basin.

That Baumgardner would anticipate the RATE Group, and even Austin’s 1996 paper on excess argon at the Mount Saint Helens lava dome, is remarkable in itself.

In 1990 Baumgardner returned to the theme. In addition to the runaway subduction, he proposed the Mid-Oceanic Ridge systems formed when various continental plates pulled apart and allowed magma to break through to the surface.

This 1994 paper bears the signatures of Baumgardner, Steven A. Austin, Andrew Snelling, Russell Humphreys, Larry Vardiman, and Kurt Wise. It is probably the most comprehensive description to date of the catastrophic plate tectonic theory. In that paper, Baumgardner et al. propose the Flood took place between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods of the geological column. What laid down the fossils beneath that layer, they don’t say. And they make this key assumption about the initial conditions of the earth:

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.

A challenge to the catastrophic plate tectonic theory

Michael Oard directly challenged catastrophic plate tectonics, beginning in April of 2002. He identified two of the worst problems with it:

Catastrophic plate tectonics seems to be sped-up plate tectonics, a paradigm assumed too quickly and with many uniformitarian assumptions, including ‘precise’ radiometric and fossil dates. New geophysical data sets on subduction zones are contrary to plate tectonic expectations and indicate that subduction is unlikely. Without subduction, plate tectonics and catastrophic plate tectonics is impossible, unless the Earth expands.

Actually Oard understood only half the story about uniformitarian assumptions. Catastrophic plate tectonics assumes radioactive elements in the earth’s crust as an initial condition of the Flood. The more telling argument Oard made was to cite new evidence that subduction did not occur. (Indeed, Walter T. Brown asserts subduction cannot occur.) Oard presented more problems with the model:

  • How did the tectonic plates start moving?

  • How can they handle the heat of gravitational settling?

  • What happened before the Mesozoic “era”?

Oard proposed a new kind of tectonic action he called vertical tectonics. He offered little explanation, except to credit the process with the formation of the great mountain chains of the earth. Oard also suggested giant meteor strikes triggered the Flood.

Baumgardner disputed Oard’s charge of not suggesting a mechanism. Oard stuck to his story: catastrophic plate tectonics “assumes too much uniformitarianism.” In reply Baumgardner seems to have gotten terrifically angry with Oard and accused him of failing to offer alternative explanations when called for. But in the process Baumgardner admitted one other problem with this theory:

The initial shape and extent of plates, including the distribution of continental crust, is specified as an initial condition. In the case presented here, the initial plate configuration is an approximate reconstruction of Pangea based on present-day continents and data from the present-day ocean floor. 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 kilometres is introduced around most of the perimeter of the supercontinent. Otherwise, the initial temperature within the interior of the model is laterally uniform.

Say what?!? A drop of four hundred Kelvins? That’s four times the spread between the freezing and boiling points of pure water at one standard atmosphere. Why is this necessary? Because in essence, something had to cool the rock to make it dense – and brittle. This cooling would break up the crust into plates, and they would be dense enough to sink. But at the same time the mantle is getting hotter to make it less viscous.

Oard defended himself by:

  • Repeating his objection that Baumgardner assumed too much from uniformitarianism, and

  • Now saying Baumgardner had changed his story.

Specifically: now Baumgardner placed the Flood at the close of the Cenozoic period.

But while Oard accused Baumgardner of borrowing too heavily from uniformitarian geology, he made a similar mistake. He assumed without warrant that meteoroids were a part of the pre-Flood solar system. Gigantic asteroid or meteoroid impactors are a prominent feature of uniformitarian astronomy. (For instance, a Mars-sized impactor is somehow supposed to have formed the Moon from the early Earth, and destroyed itself in the process.)


Catastrophic plate tectonics is weak for two reasons:

  1. It assumes without warrant that conditions on earth (and under it) today are the same as or similar to conditions prevalent before the Global Flood.

  2. It invokes at least two miracles this referee can identify, that produce contradictory results.

Other referees have found other flaws in this model. To be more specific, the heat problem needs yet another miracle to account for the cooling of the mantle after the Flood, so it is once more as viscous as ever.

But the assumption of initial conditions in common with uniformitarianism is the fundamental weakness. It is also a common-enough mistake other creation advocates make. Carl E. Baugh makes the same mistake in proposing his own Global Flood trigger and mechanism. So also does the RATE Group. That’s why the RATE Group could never explain fully their findings of non-coordinating and inconsistent radiometric dates. (Though John Baumgardner, a close associate of the RATE Group, should still rely on radiometric dates to place the Flood within the geological column. Once again he inconsistently applies some of his own insights.)

Catastrophic plate tectonics cannot be compatible with the Hydroplate Theory. Baumgardner attacked it directly, but that’s a minor problem. The larger problem: Walter T. Brown did not assume any initial conditions from uniformitarianism. That includes the presence of radioactive elements – because in Brown’s model radioactive elements, and heavy isotopes of stable elements, formed during the Flood, not during creation. Furthermore, his model assumes no miracles beyond the obvious miracle of creation itself.


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