Noah’s flood: the Canada connection

U of M geologist suggests Biblical story spawned by drainage of massive lake

By Randy Boswell — Winnipeg Free Press

Sunday, May 9, 2004 — ONE of the country’s top scientists believes the abrupt drainage of a super-sized glacial lake in Canada 8,000 years ago may have triggered the ancient Middle Eastern flood that inspired the story of Noah’s Ark.


McGillivray Dike, Manitoba, May 19, 1950
(J. M. Bumsted, The Manitoba Flood of 1950: An Illustrated History)

University of Manitoba geologist Jim Teller has spent much of his career studying the 4,000-year life history of Lake Agassiz, a mammoth fresh-water basin formed as the melting Laurentide glacier retreated northward at the end of the last ice age.

When Agassiz — the last major remnant of which is Lake Winnipeg — was at its widest around 6000 BC, it spanned 2,000 kilometres from present-day Saskatchewan to northwestern Quebec. It contained 30 per cent more water than is held by all of the lakes on Earth today, and seven times more than the combined volume of the five Great Lakes.

Teller has published several studies demonstrating that as Agassiz’s ice dam cracked at various places and times throughout its history, huge volumes of lake water rushed into the Atlantic, played havoc with ocean currents and produced major changes in global climate.

But, it was Agassiz’s last “catastrophic burst” — a collapse somewhere along its glacial wall followed by a lake-to-sea gusher of almost unfathomable scope and speed — that Teller thinks could have given rise to the Noah’s Ark saga and other ancient accounts of a massive flood.

I’m very reluctant to step forward and say I believe there is definitely a link,” he says. “What I am saying is, here are two interesting things: these stories of a Great Flood, on one hand, and on the other side of the world, at roughly the same time, an outburst of water of gigantic proportions. But the next step, scientifically, is a very tentative one.”

It was while researching the geology of sand dunes in the United Arab Emirates five years ago that Teller and several colleagues — Ken Glennie from Scotland, Ashok Singhvi of India and Nick Lancaster from the U.S. — first began to muse about a possible link between a pos

t-glacial rise in sea level and the famous flood story from the Book of Genesis.

And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered,” the Bible records. “Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail… And only Noah remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.”

American scientists William Ryan and Walter Pitman had already argued that the sudden flooding of the Black Sea after the last ice age probably spawned the story of Noah and similar deluge narratives dating from the dawn of recorded history.

But Teller’s team countered that a likelier scenario — and one that makes more sense geographically — is that water rushing into the Persian Gulf basin gave rise to Epic of Gilgamesh, Sumerian and Mesopotamian flood legends that were first captured in oral history and eventually set down in writing about 5,000 years ago.

The most famous of those stories is the one many religious scholars believe is the basis of the Biblical flood: the Epic of Gilgamesh, a 4,500-year-old clay tablet chronicle unearthed a century ago by archeologists near the city of Ur, at the north end of the Persian Gulf.

The Persian Gulf was dry during the last ice age, because sea level went down 120 or 130 metres and the gulf was only about 100 or 110 metres deep,” Teller explains.

In other words, the Gulf 10,000 years ago would have been occupied by ancestral Middle Eastern tribes. But as glacial meltwater pushed sea levels upward — first gradually from thinning ice sheets and then dramatically as Agassiz burst its banks around 6000 B.C

. — the Persian Gulf plain would have been quickly swamped with seawater.

When Agassiz’s glacial dam gave way, about 160,000 cubic kilometres of freshwater poured into Hudson Bay in as little as six months. Teller says coastal peoples around the world could have experienced sudden and severe flooding as a ripple effect of Agassiz’s dying outburst.

Nowhere, he adds, would those effects have been felt as profoundly as in the Persian Gulf.

Scientists have concluded that the draining of Lake Agassiz would have caused a half-metre rise in sea levels worldwide. Teller says his own “back-of-the-envelope calculations” suggest that in some part of the Persian Gulf basin that influx of water could have flooded 10-km stretches of land in a single season.

I doubt we’ll ever get at the truth of the matter,” Teller adds. “But it’s interesting speculation that these tablets were found right at the northern edge of the Persian Gulf where, you would think, anybody impacted by rising post-glacial waters would have written the story.”

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