Probing the earth’s deep places
Interview with plate tectonics1 expert Dr John Baumgardner
John Baumgardner (B.S, M.S., Ph.D (UCLA)) is a geophysicist employed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. His work involves detailed computer modeling of the structure and processes of the earth's interior, as well as a variety of other fluid dynamics phenomena.
[Creation magazine]: Dr Baumgardner, some say that because of continental drift (the idea that the continents have broken apart and moved thousands of miles) one has to believe in ‘millions of years’.
[John Baumgardner:] Well, I believe there is now overwhelming evidence in favour of continental break-up and large-scale plate tectonic activity. The acceptance of these concepts is an amazing example of a scientific revolution, which occurred roughly between 1960 and 1970. However, this revolution did not go far enough, because the earth science community neglected and suppressed the evidence for catastrophism—large-scale, rapid change—throughout the geological record. So the timescale the uniformitarian scientists today are using is dramatically too long. The strong weight of evidence is that there was a massive catastrophe, corresponding to the Genesis Flood, which involved large and rapid continental movements. My conclusion is that the only mechanism capable of producing that scale of catastrophe and not wrecking the planet in the process had to be internal to the earth.
I am persuaded it involved rapid subduction (sinking) of the pre-Flood ocean floor, pulling the ‘plates’ apart at the beginning of the Flood, and was probably associated with the breaking up of the ‘fountains of the great deep’ described in Scripture.
[CM]: A 1993 New Scientist article spoke highly of your 3-D supercomputer model of plate tectonics.2
[JB]: There are to my knowledge three other computer codes for modeling the earth’s mantle and so on, in the world. These other three use a mathematical method not so well suited for the modern parallel supercomputers. The one I developed uses the finite element technique and performs very well on the new, very large supercomputers. So, many of my colleagues are recognizing it as the most capable code in the world.
Last year NASA funded this effort as one of the nine grand challenge projects for the next three years in their High Performance Computing and Communication initiative, and are supporting two post-doctoral researchers to collaborate with me to improve it, and apply it to study the earth.
This code is comparable to what are called general circulation models for the atmosphere and oceans, which are some of the largest codes in the world in terms of how much machine power they consume. It’s got lots of physics in it to model the details of the mechanical behaviour of the silicate rock inside the earth. My present focus is to make the representation of the tectonic plates even more realistic. So the code is in an ongoing state of development, but it’s come a long way in the last 15 years.
[CM]: We understand you’ve shown that as these floating blocks of rock push down into the material below, things get hotter, so the ‘slipperyness’ increases and there’s a runaway effect. The faster they sink the hotter they get, so the faster they can sink.
[JB]: Yes—rock that represents the ocean floor is colder, and therefore denser than the rock below it and so can sink into the earth’s interior. And the properties of the rock inside the earth, especially at the high temperatures that exist there, make it possible for the colder rock from the earth’s surface to peel away and sink in a runaway manner down through the mantle—very rapidly.
[CM]: So this ‘happens’ on your computer model all by itself, from the laws of science—over a short time-scale, not millions of years?
[JB]: That’s correct. Exactly how long is something I’m working to refine. But it seems that once this sinking of the pre-Flood ocean floor (in a conveyor-belt-like fashion down into the earth, pulling things apart behind it) starts, it is not a slow process spanning millions of years—it’s almost certain that it runs to completion and ‘recycles’ all of the existing floor in a few weeks or months.
[CM]: You’re part of a team of top creation scientists3 which is developing a model of catastrophic plate tectonics based on this mechanism, which believes the continents broke up (from a single landmass) during, not after the Flood as some have proposed.
[JB]: Yes. There is compelling evidence from the fossil-bearing sediments on the continents that the breakup occurred during the time these sediments were being deposited. We are convinced that this ‘continental sprint’ as it’s been called, was during the time of the Flood, and part of the mechanism for it.
[CM]: How did you become a Christian?
[JB]:Primarily through a verse by verse Bible study in the Gospel of John, in a college Sunday School class when I was 26 years old. It focused on the question of who is this Jesus Christ, and is he authentic or not? I had little church background prior to that point, but a lot of scientific training. I was well schooled in evolution, and it took several months before I started to realize the problems with this idea. Later, I was exposed to the evidence for a young earth and realized that the case for it was indeed solid.
[CM]: Why is six-day, recent creation important?
[JB]: I believe it’s a pivotal issue in regard to the reliability of God’s Word. It ultimately bears on the authenticity of Jesus, because Jesus put his stamp of authority on the writings of Moses, which taken at face value, indicate that the original earth was a perfect world, one which included man and woman, one in which there was no death. There were no carnivorous animals—all the animals and man were given the green plants to eat. To make sense of the history of the world as the Bible lays it out, does not allow for millions of years, but does require that there be a catastrophe which destroyed all the air-breathing land life except for that preserved in Noah’s Ark. So I believe there is no negotiation possible on this question.
[CM]: So did your current interest in plate tectonics, and continental drift, arise out of your Christian faith?
[JB]: Entirely. I recognized that this was probably one of the most burning Bible apologetics issues in my century, and as far as I could see there was no one working on it. I sensed the call of God actually. While giving lectures on creation/evolution at university, I realized one of the biggest deficiencies in the creationist position was this lack of an alternative geological model, in particular one accounting for large- scale tectonics. I was 34 when I went back to get a Ph.D. in a field that I previously had not had a single course in. I believe Christians with scientific talent need to be encouraged—just like they’re encouraged to become missionaries—to go and get the credentials and the training they need, and work at a professional level in these fields. God has opened incredible doors for me and others.
[CM]: We published a careful exposé of the claims made by a Ron Wyatt, and more recently by one Jonathan Gray, concerning an alleged ‘Ark site’—an almond-shaped formation in Eastern Turkey. In trying to attack our article, they often quote statements from you supporting this possibly being the Ark site. This was before your research at the site caused you to definitely conclude this could not be the Ark. They say you now oppose their claims for fear of losing your job.
[JB]: Ron’s claims here are just as bogus as his claims about that site. Far from hiding my creationism, I’m well known for it (especially through letters in the local newspaper) in this scientific community, which has more Ph.D.s per capita than any other place in the U.S. My employer and my colleagues know exactly where I stand.
[CM]: You gave a poster presentation on this ‘runaway rapid continental drift’ mechanism at the American Geophysical Union meeting in 1994, so at least some of the 6,000 scientists there would have seen it. What was the feedback?
[JB]: Many people were interested in the numerical techniques I used for such a calculation, because it’s a significant computational challenge. Almost no one seemed to appreciate the implications of it. Actually, this concept of ‘runaway subduction’ [rapid sinking of the ‘plates’ as described earlier] has been in the literature for over 30 years. It was picked up in the geophysical community in the early 1970s, but for some reason the interest disappeared. People in my field are not ignorant of this possibility, it’s just not seriously explored.
[CM]: Why do you think that is?
[JB]: Well, there’s no real motivation to pursue it. Some toyed with the idea that such runaway effects might have been involved in recent volcanism in the south- western US But in their framework, they’re not really looking for worldwide effects.
[CM]: So their framework of thinking is really like blinkers, preventing a full consideration of all the relevant evidence?
[JB]: That’s correct, exactly. The same kind of uniformitarian ‘glasses’ prevent them from giving much attention to the evidence for catastrophism in the sedimentary record. Such basic philosophical biases profoundly affect the way science approaches problems and weighs the evidence. So it’s not simply ‘facts speaking for themselves’—the framework one starts from can and does profoundly affect the conclusions that are drawn.
[CM]: Dr Baumgardner, thank you very much.
Photo by Russell Humphreys
Seafloor ‘zebra-stripes’ don’t mean slow and gradual.
The mid-ocean ‘ridges’ are undersea mountain chains with volcanoes at the boundary between two ‘plates’ of the earth’s outer shell. It is believed that here, molten magma from below can well up as the plates move apart, making new oceanic crust—a process called ‘seafloor spreading’. As the new crust cools down, it ‘freezes’ within it the direction of the earth’s magnetic field at that time.
When instruments measuring magnetism are towed (on the ocean surface) across these ridges, they detect bands of alternating magnetic direction, like a ‘zebra-stripe’ pattern, with each side of the ridge mirroring the other. This is interpreted to mean that as new seafloor had gradually formed on each side of the ridge, the earth’s magnetism had slowly reversed many times, over millions of years. However, DR Baumgardner says this pattern does not mean the spreading was slow. He says,
‘From an estimate of the viscosity of the outer core, where the currents associated with the earth’s magnetism exist, there is no reason why the magnetic field can’t reverse rapidly. Moreover, there is field evidence that it has reversed rapidly, within weeks.’4
In addition, drilling the sea floor has shown that, regardless of the overall direction of the magnetism detected from the surface, the magnetic direction within a drill core frequently varies widely.5 This is less consistent with slow spreading than with a rapid welling up of new magma during a period of rapid reversals; the magma in contact with the surface will reflect the direction at that time, but by the time the deeper magma cools a few weeks later, the direction has switched again—and so on for deeper levels.
- Plate tectonics: The concept that the earth’s outer shell consists of separate, huge ‘plates’ on which the continents ride, capable of movement relative to one another. Return to text.
- ‘How a supercontinent went to pieces’, New Scientist, January 16, 1993, p. 19. Return to text.
- In alphabetical order: Drs Steve Austin, John Baumgardner, Russell Humphreys, Andrew Snelling , Larry Vardiman, Kurt Wise—sometimes affectionately known as the ‘Gang of Six’. Note that the chapter on continental drift in CSF’s The Answers Book (one of the co-authors of which is a member of this team) is being modified, in the light of many new findings, for future editions. Return to text.
- R.S. Coe, M. Prevot and P. Camps, ‘New evidence for extraordinarily rapid change of the geomagnetic field during a reversal’, Nature 374:687–692, April 20, 1995. The finding (by highly respected experts in paleo-magnetism) of ‘astonishing’ rates of reversal, has now been duplicated more than once. Return to text.
- 5J.M. Hall and P.T. Robinson, ‘Deep crustal drilling in the North Atlantic Ocean’, Science 204:573–586, 1980. Return to text.