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Journal of Creation 32(3):4–6, December 2018

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Tephra and inflated ice core ages


Figure 1. Tephra layers in the Antarctic Dome Fuji, Vostok, and EPICA Dome C cores, along with the (relative) delta deuterium signal from EPICA Dome C, as a function of uniformitarian age assignment (above) and depth (below). Dashed lines indicate greatest approximate ages/depths of core sections that were inspected for tephra layers. Dark tephra bands indicate multiple, closely spaced tephra layers. Constructed using data from references 4, 5, 6, 15, and 17. Not shown are two ‘extraterrestrial’ dust layers between 400 and 500 ka in the Dome Fuji and EPICA Dome C cores.

Creation scientists have long argued that uniformitarians are assigning far too much time to the deep ice cores of Antarctica and Greenland. Since the ice sheets started forming during the post-Flood Ice Age, these ice sheets can be no more than 4,500 years old.1 And yet uniformitarian scientists routinely assign six-figure ages to those cores.2-6

Because of low snowfall, visible (and countable) layers are generally not preserved in the deep Antarctic cores.7,8 Hence uniformitarians rely on age-depth models which assume the heights of the ice sheets have been constant or nearly constant for vast ages.9 This assumption greatly simplifies the mathematics, but it is a source of error since it ignores the ice sheet’s time of formation. This error can safely be ignored only if the ice sheet’s time of formation is negligible compared to the total time the ice sheet has been in existence.

Uniformitarians acknowledge that thick ice sheets can form in 10,000 years or less, even with the relatively low snowfall rates assumed by uniformitarian models.10,11 With greater and more widespread snowfall during the post-Flood Ice Age, this time of formation could plausibly be reduced to just hundreds or a few thousands of years. If the ice sheets have only been in existence for 4,500 years, this time of formation cannot be ignored when assigning ages to the cores. But if the ice sheet is millions of years old, then this time of formation can safely be neglected. Hence, these age models implicitly assume an old earth.

The Greenland ice cores would seem to present a stronger argument for an old earth. Their ages were supposedly obtained by ‘simple’ counting of visible layers. However, creation scientists have plausibly argued that uniformitarians are greatly over-counting the true number of annual layers, although space does not permit here a detailed discussion.1,12,13

So deep ice cores, despite popular perception, are not airtight arguments for an old earth. Moreover, one might occasionally expect to find positive evidence for the youthfulness of the ice sheets.

Tephra and ‘annual’ ice core layers

Science popularizer and creation opponent Bill Nye recently highlighted (surely unwittingly!) evidence that presumed ‘annual’ layers within the Greenland ice sheet are not necessarily annual after all. Ironically, this evidence, which involved tephra (volcanic ash and debris), was featured in a recent documentary which denigrated creation science.14

Likewise, in 2010 glaciologists described three layers of tephra discovered within the deepest parts of the Vostok and EPICA Dome C cores.15 These are thought to be the oldest volcanic deposits ever found within the ice cores. One layer was located at a depth of 2,632 m (assigned age of 358 ka) within the EPICA Dome C (EDC) core. Three others were identified in the Vostok ice core. One was located at a depth of 3,288 m (assigned age of 406 ka). Two were located about a few centimetres apart from one another at a depth of 3,311 m (assigned age of 414 ka). However, the scientists thought that these two were actually the same tephra layer that had been folded by movement of the ice.

The scientists noted the apparent infrequency of tephra layers within the deepest core sections:

“A striking feature emerging from our study is that the frequency of visible tephra in the Vostok and EDC cores decreases dramatically in the ice older than ca 220 ka (Fig. 5). The last [i.e. most recent] 220- ka sections of both records contain about a dozen discrete tephra layers while only one event is identified at EDC and two at Vostok in the interval 220–414 ka, encompassing more than two complete climate cycles. Tephra layers even disappear from 414 to 800 ka, i.e. the bottom of the EDC core.”16

They noted that this ‘dramatic’ drop in visible tephra layers was also apparent in the deep Dome Fuji core (figure 1a). Although dozens of tephra layers were visible in the upper part of the core,17 only two such tephra layers were visible in the deep part of the Dome Fuji core, thought to represent the time from 230,000 to 700,000 years ago.16 Because the Dome Fuji core is about 1,500 to 2,000 km from the Vostok and Dome C cores, they concluded that the dearth of visible tephra layers was not an artefact but a ‘regional pattern’. Although they acknowledged that not all volcanic eruptions necessarily deposit tephra on the ice sheets, and that not all tephra layers are preserved, they concluded that “these factors likely act randomly at the long timescale of our observations, and were hardly responsible for the systematic absence of old volcanic layers at the different drilling sites”.16 They also concluded that the lack of visible tephra layers could not be blamed on thinning of the ice deep within the cores, nor could it be explained by changes in atmospheric transport of aerosols during the Pleistocene. They concluded that this apparent decrease in tephra frequency might be due to less intense volcanic activity in the South Sandwich Islands in the distant past. However, this would require greatly reduced volcanic activity. In the case of the Dome Fuji core, ~500,000 years would have elapsed with no apparent tephra fallout!

Post-Flood Ice Age: another possibility

Of course, the creation model provides another possibility. Because uniformitarian age-depth models (incorrectly) assign vast ages to the greatest depths of the long Antarctic cores, this results in an apparent decrease in the frequency of tephra layers at greater core depths. Of course, this is exactly what is observed.

In fact, when the tephra layers are plotted as a function of depth, rather than time, the spacing between the deepest tephra layers is not nearly as pronounced (figure 1b), although tephras are generally still absent from the very deepest core sections. Heavy snowfall early in the post-Flood Ice Age, with decreasing snowfall at later times, might cause volcanic eruptions to appear somewhat less frequent at the greatest depths. It may be that this observed pattern is the result of both factors.


The Vostok, EPICA Dome C, and Dome Fuji cores are the only three deep Antarctic cores with assigned ages greater than 400,000 years whose tephra layers have been thoroughly studied, and all three cores show a dramatic decrease in the apparent frequency of their deepest tephra layers. Coincidence, or an indication of a systematic error in uniformitarian age models? This apparent decrease of volcanic tephra layers is exactly what one would expect if uniformitarian age models are assigning hundreds of thousands of years of fictitious time to the deep core sections.

Skeptics have long seen the deep ice cores as an unanswerable argument for an old earth. However, creation scientists have already provided a plausible defence against this claim.1,12,13 Creation researchers should now go on ‘offence’, working to show that the creation model provides a superior framework for interpreting the ice core data. These deep Antarctic tephra layers are a step in that direction.

References and notes

  1. Oard, M.J., The Frozen Record, Institute for Creation Research, Santee, CA, 2005. Return to text.
  2. Meese, D.A. et al., The Greenland Ice Sheet Project 2 depth-age scale: methods and results. J. Geophysical Research 102(C12):26411–26423, 1997. Return to text.
  3. Yau, A.M., et al., Reconstructing the last interglacial at Summit, Greenland: insights from GISP2, PNAS USA 113(35):9710–9715, 2016. Return to text.
  4. Basile, I. et al., Volcanic layers in Antarctic (Vostok) ice cores: source identification and atmospheric implications, J. Geophysical Research 106(D23):31915–31931, 2001. Return to text.
  5. Narcisi, B. et al., Characteristics and sources of tephra layers in the EPICA-Dome C ice record (East Antarctica): implications for past atmospheric circulation and ice core stratigraphic correlations, Earth and Planetary Science Letters 239:253–265, 2005. Return to text.
  6. Jouzel, J. et al., Orbital and millennial Antarctic climate variability over the past 800,000 years, Science 317(5839):793–797, 2007. Return to text.
  7. Palerme, C. et al., How much snow falls on the Antarctic ice sheet? The Cryosphere Discussions 8:1279–1304, 2014. Return to text.
  8. Dating by forward and inverse modelling, Centre for Ice and Climate, Niels Bohr Institute, iceandclimate.nbi.ku.dk/research/strat_dating/forward_inv_modelling/, accessed 3 May 2018. Return to text.
  9. Cuffey, K.M. and Paterson, W.S.B., The Physics of Glaciers, 4th edn, Butterworth-Heinemann, Burlington, MA, p. 617, 2010. Return to text.
  10. Wilson, R.C.L., Drury, S.A., and Chapman, J.L., The Great Ice Age: Climate change and life (2005 electronic version), Routledge and the Open University, London and New York, p. 69, 2005. Return to text.
  11. Caltech Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, class lecture notes, web.gps.caltech.edu/classes/ese148a/lecture18b.pdf, accessed 3 May 2018. Return to text.
  12. Hebert, J., Ice cores, seafloor sediments, and the age of the earth, part 2, Acts & Fac ts 43(7):12–14, 2014. Return to text.
  13. Hebert, J., Thick ice sheets: how old are they really? Acts & Facts 44(6):15, 2015. Return to text.
  14. Hebert, J., Bill Nye, PBS highlight young-earth evidence, icr.org/article/bill-nye-PBS-young-earth, 27 April 2018. Return to text.
  15. Narcisi, B., Petit, J.R., and Delmonte, B., Extended East Antarctic ice-core tephrostratigraphy. Quaternary Science Reviews 29:21–27, 2010. Return to text.
  16. Narcisi et al., ref. 15, p. 25. Return to text.
  17. Kohno, M., Fuji, Y., and Hirata, T., Chemical composition of volcanic glasses in visible tephra layers found in a 2503 m deep ice core from Dome Fuji, Antarctica, Annals of Glaciology 39:576–584, 2004. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments

William S.
Hello CMI.
Thank you for great articles, they have been quite revealing to me over the years.
My comment on the ice depth is really quite simple.
Taking the "lost squadron" example from WW2.
The air craft were located at a depth of 91 meters after 70 years.
Given an assumed constant ice build up over the last 4,500 years (since Noah's flood), this puts the projected (estimated) ice depth at about 5,600m at today's date.
There is no justification here of "long ages"

This is, of course, based on an actual observed event with the assumption of a constant ice build up
Nathan G.
Such evolutionary nonsense needs to be taken with a healthy dose of common sense.

1) Water runs downhill, even when in the form of a glacier. Ice flows horizontally downslope. Even glass in very old windowpanes flows downwards over time.

2) Glacier Girl and the lost squadron in Greenland were buried 75 meters under the ice in only 50 years. Even if this observed accumulation rate is too high (roughly 4-5 feet per year) as a worldwide generalization for an average glacier, glaciers aren't millions of years old.

3) The Lost Squadron moved three miles towards to ocean in only 50 years. This is an average of 316 feet per year. The "old" ice would calve off as an iceberg in a very short time, being replaced by fresh ice upslope. So why are the ice cores being treated as gazzillions of years old? How fast do other large glaciers flow to the sea, even in Antarctica?

4) Even climate change fanatics admit that earth was up to 15 degrees warmer and had up to 40,000 ppm of carbon dioxide in the past according to their (incorrect) evolutionary world view. So why didn't the poles and glaciers all melt in extended warm periods in the past? We observed the Roman and Medieval Warm Periods with wheat and grapes being grown in Greenland, etc. Could even massive glaciers survive under such conditions for possibly thousands of years? Nope. You want long ages, you have to take the good with the bad. And extended WARM periods belong to Milankovitch cycles (even if Milankovitch has been soundly debunked by evolutionists themselves!).
D.R. C.
Curious if there is enough carbon in these tephra layers to check for C-14. Also wondering how these layers line up with known eruptions through history.
Shaun Doyle
Carbon dating typically only works with living materials, since they are high enough in carbon content to measure (diamonds also work, since they are essentially pure carbon). See What about carbon dating?
Dan M.
The Uniformitarian model doesn't even have a workable scenario for the onset of an ice age, (see Michael J. Oard). Varying distance from the sun, (Milankovitch theory) doesn't solve the problem, it adds another, (too cold for evaporation). Also to empirically prove the model, they would need 100,000's year-old weather and eruption reports to back it up. They have no real idea of conditions in the distant past; they just make it up as they go along according to the uniformitarian assumption. Also what about the pliability of ice, (ice flows) at that pressure and depth? This would obscure any deep historical record as stated in the article, so we have to rely on written reports and there is only one. I liken ice core reading to reading tea leaves, it is not empirical science. As Dr. Hebert said, the creationist model makes more sense of the data although it is also an assumption. We assume the bible is the real story of our past and as far as I'm concerned, it explains, all, things very well. Most of all, the rebellious nature of man to doubt God!
Guy L.
I am in Canada and when we have a snow storm, violent winds make swirls, pilling up snow unequally. This is more than common, it is the rule. They create unequal snow deposits so that my driveway is covered by 2 or 3 inches (5 to 8 cm) of snow on some areas while we may have more than 3 or 4 feet (1 to 1.3 m) on other area. If a volcano would be near by, it is easy to imagine how air (snow) would be contaminated and how swirls could be present, which would create these ''apparent' layers. The little canyon created at Mt- St-Helen could also be used as an analogy to show practically how layers can form by natural process very rapidly and no relation between the number or years and the number of layers. This fact is a fact (no contestant about it anymore, since we have seen it, but who would have said so before it was done?).

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