Running out of puff

Low oxygen may have medical benefits—implications for the ‘Vapour Canopy’ model.

Carl Wieland and Jonathan Sarfati

31 March 2003


One of the ways scientists work is to build models, based upon their presuppositions concerning the past, to explain (interpret) the evidence of the present. For instance, through believing the historical account of Noah’s Flood in the Bible, creation scientists know that two of every kind of land animal was represented on Noah’s Ark, and the animals came off the Ark after the Flood and migrated around the Earth—so they can build models of how this migration may have occurred. Such a model might, for instance, involve the land bridge effects of the Ice Age generated by the Flood (another creationist model), and the known behavior and physiology of animals like marsupials, etc. A model like this would propose an explanation of why animals are distributed the way they are.

Models are always subject to change; they depend not only on having the correct presuppositions but also the correct understanding of operational (present-day) science. Some creation scientists have built a model (called the Vapor Canopy model) to try to tie together a number of Biblical statements and to explain various matters such as the long lifespans of people, and possibly some giantism in animals, before the Flood. This model assumes a certain interpretation of the Scripture concerning the ‘waters above’ on Day 2 of creation (a passage that is not all that clear as to what it refers).

However, many present-day creationist scientists and researchers have rejected (or greatly modified) this canopy model, based upon a different understanding of the ‘waters above’ in Scripture. The latest information concerning the effects of oxygen levels on health, as referred to here, tends to reinforce their position. This should not in any way be upsetting to creationists, but illustrates the vital processes of sound exegesis (correct interpretation of Scripture), quality scientific research, and thus the necessity to reject or modify models, even if these may be passionately held.

Oxygen and the canopy

Many canopy model supporters have made much of ‘high oxygen’ as an apparent medical benefit for some conditions. This is generally because of the link, in their understanding, to the notion that the pre-Flood world was a utopia compared to today. The weight of this hypothetical canopy of water vapour would increase the partial pressure of oxygen, which in turn would lead to a much ‘healthier’ world, including the long lifespans as recorded in Genesis, giant animals, etc.

But we have long pointed out that much of this is built on reasoning that does not depend on the truth of the Bible, and that the evidence for the medical benefits of higher oxygen partial pressures is not as clearcut as has been portrayed.

One problem for dogmatic theories about the benefits of higher oxygen partial pressures is that fact that anti-oxidants have undisputed health benefits. Now, an article in New Scientist of 8 March 2003 discusses the evidence, as well as the rationale, that hypoxia (low oxygen) may actually have health benefits. In Russia, intermittent low-oxygen therapy has been used for years to treat conditions like asthma, heart disease and chemotherapy toxicity. Others are trying it for diabetes and chronic fatigue.

Our point is not to argue for or against either high- or low-oxygen therapy, but to highlight the dangers of unthinking acceptance of the following chain of reasoning [our comments in square brackets]:

1) High oxygen is always good for you [The above evidence shows that just because of a few reports of possible benefit, this is not necessarily true, as a similar frequency of reported evidence of benefit appear to be true for low oxygen. Also, many premature newborn babies have been blinded by high oxygen concentrations, an example of where the excess oxygen acts as a poison.]


2) It must improve your lifespan [This does not necessarily follow at all, even if 1) were unequivocally true.]


3) It must have been the cause of the patriarchs’ hugely greater preFlood lifespans [again, does not necessarily follow from 2) above, even if true]


4) the preFlood world had greater oxygen partial pressure under a massive water vapour canopy, etc.

This critical analysis does not mean that we are opposed to canopy theories as such, or that they are intrinsically unbiblical. But it is vital to think clearly and critically about all such models, to separate the Biblical wheat from the man-made chaff, as it were. The reason why the well-respected creationist physicist, ICR staffer Dr Russ Humphreys, for instance, does not equate the ‘waters above’ in Genesis with some hypothesized pre-Flood canopy is, for one thing, because the Psalmist, writing long after the Flood, writes of the ‘waters above the heavens’ as if they were still there (Psalm 148:4). It’s also notable that older commentators who were staunch creationists, e.g. Calvin, Leupold, and Keil & Delitzsch all wrote of ‘the waters above’ as merely being clouds.

The Bible does not require the preFlood world to have been idyllic at all; the Fall was the point of ‘paradise lost’ and the Earth was filled with violence—and according to the fossil record, disease, carnivory and more—before the Flood. In today’s world, some trees have no tree-rings, because they come from tropical regions which lack the required seasonal variation. But most have rings. The same is true of fossilized trees from preFlood times—some do and some don’t have rings, consistent with the fact that there has been seasonal variation (consistent with Genesis 1:14) and various climate zones from the beginning. This is powerful evidence inconsistent with the ‘vast greenhouse’ theory associated with the canopy idea.

What about the long pre-Flood lifespans?

These have a much more cogent scientific explanation which emphasizes genetic factors over environmental ones (see Living for 900 Years, and the older, more technical article Decreased Lifespans: Have We Been Looking in the Right Place?). At least one can say that there is no evidence that the hypothesized subcanopy atmosphere would lengthen lifespans, and the evidence concerning Noah himself suggests that its removal had no effect (he lived another 350 years in the post-Flood atmosphere).

Some other arguments from science put forward for higher pre-Flood oxygen

1) ‘Amber inclusions of air contain higher oxygen concentrations than today.’ This is important and of interest, but we are of the understanding that the bubbles of air trapped in amber do not consistently show this. I.e. some do, some don’t. Some evolutionists have used this to argue for higher oxygen levels in the Cretaceous, for instance, as opposed to other eras. And experiments have suggested that amber does not act as a totally airtight seal, so some gas molecules may preferentially diffuse.

2) ‘Insects breathe by passive diffusion, so some of the large insects in the fossil record would not have been able to breathe unless the oxygen partial pressures were higher.’ Again, this is a reasonable and respectable claim, which some evolutionists have also made. But even reasonable claims are subject to revision as more data come in, and in this case brand new discoveries of the way insects breathe have shown that it is no longer tenable. (They actively ‘pump’ the air into their bodies—see Insect inspiration solves giant bug mystery.)

Most respected creationist researchers at the ‘cutting edge’ of Flood geology investigations no longer hold to the once-venerable ‘canopy’ theory, the best models of which involve a much-too-high temperature for the Earth’s surface (if they are to hold enough water to provide 40 days and nights of rain—see this chapter 12 from The Answers Book). It is noteworthy that some of the latest models of how the Flood catastrophe commenced have a straightforward ‘built-in’ source for the rain. Even most of those who still support the canopy have diluted it down to a ‘mini-canopy’ holding only a little water.

The bottom line

The important thing is not any man-made model, including any you might find on this Web site—interesting and helpful as all such models may be. The important thing is the truth and authority of the Bible and its history of the world. The raw outline of this history is clearly provided in Genesis—six earth-rotation days of creation around 6,000 years ago, a ruined, cursed world, and then a cataclysmic global Flood. The rest reflects the attempts of fallible humans to fill in the details, and should be something we should always hold very lightly (see ‘Hanging Loose’). And, when we do seek to justify or support various models, we should be sure that the evidence we are using is cogent, up-to-date and well researched.

As creation scientists and theologians continue to research both science and theology, creation models will continue to be built, modified and even rejected. However, the presupposition of Scripture of course always remains the same (and we have to be sure we are interpreting it correctly according to the text, literature, etc.). And as this process continues, one will find that real science in the present overwhelmingly confirms the Bible’s biology, geology, and so forth.

Update, 2010: see What about the ‘Canopy’ theory?

Published: 5 February 2006