Mountain-Building Quiescence in Earth’s “Middle Age”

Uniformitarian storytellers aim to interpret earth’s “Middle Age” while ignoring the only eyewitness to our planet’s catastrophic past: God.

by Dr. Andrew A. Snelling on March 19, 2021
Featured in Answers in Depth
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Most geologists today are uniformitarians; that is, they believe that past geological processes occurred uniformly in the past at much the same intensities and rates as today, punctuated of course by storms, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis. So, erosion of the landscape, transport of sediments, and their deposition in layers elsewhere has always been slow and gradual. Similarly, the earth’s tectonic plates have moved in the past to form mountains at the same snail’s pace as they do today. And radioactive decay is assumed to have always occurred at today’s measured rates, so the earth has been supposedly dated at about 4.56 billion years old.

All this makes for engaging storytelling with much hand-waving, but it’s all based on the assumption that “the present is the key to the past.” In reality, this is purely a belief, however reasonable sounding it seems. That is because there were no geologists to witness, measure, and record the geologic processes back in the remote past to verify for us today that this assumption is correct. However, this belief has become so ingrained in today’s global culture that very few stop to question the stories most modern geologists tell us about the earth’s remote past. After all, our everyday experience is that the processes around us are very slow and gradual.

A Geologic Puzzle

Geologists have used these assumptions to construct what seems to be a very compelling story about the earth’s history. But they still have many puzzles to solve where some aspects of the conventional storyline don’t “add up” or where there are apparent gaps in the narrative. One of these puzzles is why it took so long for complex multi-cellular organisms to evolve from the first simple cells. After all, chemicals somehow produced the first simple cells about 3.5 billion or more years ago, based on the evidence of stromatolites (mounds and columns built by sediment-trapping mats of bacteria) in rocks supposedly that old. But then it wasn’t until about 635 million years ago that complex multi-cellular organisms (such as the worm- and jellyfish-like Ediacaran creatures) suddenly evolved.

Similarly, as the story appears to go, the earth suffered a billion-year-long period of quiescence in its “middle age” from 1.8 to 0.8 billion years ago when the earth’s mountains “literally stopped growing” while erosion wore down existing peaks to stumps.

Similarly, as the story appears to go, the earth suffered a billion-year-long period of quiescence in its “middle age” from 1.8 to 0.8 billion years ago when the earth’s mountains “literally stopped growing” while erosion wore down existing peaks to stumps.1 As the science news report stated, the earth’s mid-life crisis was not a receding hairline, but a receding skyline! And just as the earth’s mountains apparently failed to grow, the simple life-forms in the oceans failed to evolve, or at least, they evolved incredibly slowly. Geologists have been puzzled by this particularly bleak eon dubbed the “boring billion.”

An Apparent Reason

However, some new ingenious investigations have apparently shed some light on this strange puzzle. Reporting recently in the journal Science, Ming Tang of the Peking University in Beijing, China, and his collaborators demonstrated how they used measurements of the rare earth element europium in detrital zircon grains to track mountain-building processes through the earth’s history.2 Their rationale was quite simple, based on some apparently sound present-day observations.

Most of today’s continents have relatively flat topographies that aren’t too much above sea level, except for the mountain belts that are on the edges of the earth’s tectonic plates. It appears that in the recent past these mountain belts formed as a result of these plate edges colliding, though supposedly at today’s snail’s pace. The compression of such collisions buckled the crustal rock layers, thus thickening the earth’s crust and raising the mountains to their high elevations. The compression also heated the rocks so that at depth they melted to form magmas that rose into the mountain belts and crystallized as large bodies of granites which further inflated the elevations of the resulting mountains. The granites of the Yosemite area in the Sierra Nevada mountain belt of California are a good example.

Within granites are crystals of the mineral zircon (ZrSiO4 or zirconium silicate), consisting of atoms of the element zirconium linked to silicon and oxygen atoms. Because of the size and charge of the zirconium atom, other atoms can substitute for it in the zircon crystal lattice, such as atoms of uranium (U) and rare earth elements like europium (Eu). Tang and his collaborators had previously reported on how zircon crystals formed in granites at different depths had different amounts of Eu substituted in their crystal lattices.3 They had used this property to calibrate the amount of Eu substituted in zircon crystal lattices versus crustal depth and thus thickness. They demonstrated how they could analyze for their europium content the zircon grains eroded out of granites in streams washing off the Himalayas and determine how thick the crust of that area was when the zircon crystals formed. At the same time the ages of the zircon grains were determined using the U in the same zircon grains via the uranium-lead (U-Pb) radioactive dating method.

So, when mountain belts are uplifted as a result of the thickened crust, that also increases the efficiency of their erosion. In time, mountains are eroded down to remnants with lower heights, and thus the crust where they are gets thinner with time. The erosion removes zircon grains from the granites in the mountains, and they are washed down streams. They are then called detrital zircons. Because of their hardness, detrital zircon grains survive weathering and erosion to be chemically intact. Collected from streams around the world, their chemistry thus records the history of the granites that formed when mountain belts formed with thickened crust.

Tang and his collaborators collected data on the europium contents of thousands of detrital zircon grains of different U-Pb ages from around the world to thus reconstruct the record of mountain-building with time. They plotted the europium contents of detrital zircon grains and thus crustal thicknesses through the earth’s supposed 4.56-billion-year history. The peaks in the graph corresponded to thickened crust and thus when mountain belts formed, and the troughs corresponded to when they were subsequently eroded down to remnants.

Graph

They found a clear correlation, as would be expected, between the collisions of the earth’s tectonic plates and the formation of mountain belts. Thus, early in the earth’s 4.56-billion-year history, back in the so-called Archean some 3 billion years ago, huge, towering mountain belts were formed as the first supercontinent, called Nuna-Rodinia, was assembled. Then there was a very long period of some 2 billion years during which those first mountain belts were eroded. Subsequently when the Nuna-Rodinia supercontinent started to break apart about 0.8 billion years ago in the so-called Neoproterozoic, the crust began to thicken again, and eventually there were tectonic plate collisions that formed Pangaea, which broke apart to form today’s continents that collided very recently to form today’s mountain belts.

So, what has all this got to do with the earth’s mid-life crisis in its “boring billion” eon when simple life-forms in the oceans apparently failed to evolve? Simply this! After the first mountain belts formed 3 billion years ago, they were eroded, at first rapidly due to their great elevations. But then erosion slowed down as those former mountain belts got steadily eroded down to remnants. By 1.8 billion years ago those mountain belt remnants were so low in elevation that erosion had almost come to a standstill. As a consequence, streams were sluggish and carried such low concentrations of dissolved life-giving nutrients down to the oceans to feed whatever life was in the oceans that there was a widespread famine followed by a collapse in primary productivity. That largely stalled supposed biological evolution.

At the end of the “boring billion,” all that changed when the mountain-building quiescence ended with the break-up of the Nuna-Rodinia supercontinent about 0.8 billion years ago. With increased erosion again, enough nutrients were once more washed into the oceans to catalyze surges in biological productivity and led to the supposed evolution of the Ediacaran and Cambrian metazoans. The happy ending to this story is that efficient mountain-building appears to have been maintained ever since, and we eventually evolved from those metazoans to now discover and replay this story!

The Biblical Explanation

Of course, there’s a big “catch” to the story above. Amidst a lot of hand-waving, there are lots of assumptions, and there are no eyewitnesses who provided written records to verify that the details of that story actually happened.

Of course, there’s a big “catch” to the story above . . . there are lots of assumptions and no eyewitnesses.

Not least among the assumptions are those on which the U-Pb radioactive dating method is based to provide the supposed billions of years ages for the detrital zircon grains and the mountain belts from which they were eroded. These assumptions include knowledge of the starting compositions of the zircons, specifically the amounts of the various daughter and common Pb atoms in the zircons when they formed, and the constancy of the decay rate of parent U atoms at today’s measured rate through those supposed billions of years.4 However, the problems with these assumptions have been well documented.5 Furthermore, there is evidence that the patterns in radioactive ages of rocks are due to the systematic acceleration of decay of U and other radioactive atoms during at least one catastrophic global event in the earth’s past.6

Furthermore, we do know of an extremely reliable eyewitness who has observed all of the earth’s history and who had provided us with a recorded account. God the Creator who never lies (Titus 1: 2) has told us that he created the earth in six literal days (Exodus 20:11). And on the third day of creation, he formed the dry land by gathering together into the one place the waters that had totally covered the earth, thereby implying that the land which he then vegetated was also in one place as a supercontinent surrounded by ocean basins. That creative process must thus also have involved raising the rocks from under the waters of the first two days of creation. Maybe that involved tectonic plates colliding to produce the first supercontinent with mountain belts on it. And as the supercontinent and its mountains rose from under the water, they were eroded rapidly to mature the landscape7 before he vegetated it all and then created the creatures to inhabit the land, sea, and air in preparation for his special creation of the first man and woman on the sixth day. Furthermore, rather than this all occurring billions of years ago and taking hundreds of millions of years to produce that supercontinent, the Genesis account in the Bible (God’s written Word) says it all happened in three literal days only 6,000 or so years ago, according to genealogies of human history woven through his written record.

After God completed his work of creation, he tells us the earth’s mature landscape was relatively stable and inhabitable as man multiplied on the earth over the next 1,650 or so years. But the first man and woman had disobeyed God’s instructions, and so in punishment the earth was cursed. From then on, man continued to rebel against God. His wickedness eventually became so abhorrent to God that he brought the judgment of the global cataclysmic flood in which he said he would destroy the earth with man (Genesis 6–9). That catastrophic geologic upheaval was triggered by all the fountains of the great deep being broken up, followed by intense global rain for 40 days and nights so that by day 150, there was a global ocean again covering all the high mountains and hills under the whole heaven. It would seem most likely that the supercontinent God had formed on day three of creation was broken up, and during the cataclysmic flood, the tectonic plates moved rapidly across the globe, colliding in various places.8 The end result was when the waters receded and there was a new world of seven continents with the new mountain belts on them that we still see today.

This biblical eyewitness account of earth history explains the observations derived from the analyses of detrital zircon grains and the conclusions about the changes in crustal thicknesses coinciding with the supercontinent cycle and the formation and erosion of mountain belts. Until the curse resulting from man’s fall from innocence, there had been no death of any sentient life, as God had provided the plants to animals and man for food. So, it is hardly surprising that there are no fossils in the rocks making up the original (Nuna-Rodinia) supercontinent formed during the creation week, apart from microscopic bacteria, algae, and stromatolites. By the end of the creation week the landscape had been eroded down to maturity.

Then the so called “boring billion” eon was the period between the creation week and the flood when living conditions were conducive for man to multiply and fill the earth.

Then the so-called “boring billion” eon was the period between the creation week and the flood, when living conditions were conducive for man to multiply and fill the earth. There was no evolution of life in the pre-flood oceans because God had already fully stocked them with an abundance of creatures to reproduce after their kinds.

Finally, the global flood cataclysm was unleashed by God to destroy the earth because of man’s exceeding wickedness, but then to rejuvenate it with new continents in place of the supercontinent, each with new mountain belts, just as the detrital zircon analyses show. Even in judgment, God was merciful in using the flood to prepare the earth for man’s habitation of it in the post-flood era we still live in.

Conclusion

No matter how sophisticated the equipment used to analyze detrital zircon grains and assign vast ages to them, what their investigations reveal about the past is only as good as the assumptions used . . . 

Without humbly submitting to the absolute authority of God’s inerrant Word with its eyewitness record of the earth’s history, uniformitarian geologists will be always simply hand-waving as they propose stories to explain the evidence we observe in the present. They are like the forensic scientists trying to piece together what happened in some past criminal event, but who are always trumped in the courtroom by the testimony of witnesses who were there and saw the event. No matter how sophisticated the equipment used to analyze detrital zircon grains and assign vast ages to them, what their investigations reveal about the past is only as good as the assumptions used to interpret the analytical data.

God’s eyewitness account reveals that uniformitarian assumptions are wrong, and those who use them are “willingly ignorant” because they choose to ignore that God created the earth and everything in the universe and that he destroyed the earth by a mountain-covering global cataclysmic flood (2 Peter 3:3–7). Sadly, while their storyline may seem elegant and compelling, by ignoring God’s Word they will be “always learning and never able to arrive at knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3: 7) because “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1: 7a) and “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm111: 10a).

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Footnotes

  1. Brandon Specktor, “Earth’s Mountains Disappeared for a Billion Years, and then Life Stopped evolving,” Live Science, February 12, 2021, https://www.livescience.com/earth-mountains-disappear-boring-billion.html.
  2. Ming Tang, Xu Chu, Jihua Hao, and Bing Shen, 2021. “Orogenic Quiescence in Earth’s Middle Age,” Science 371: 728–731.
  3. Ming Tang, Wei-Qiang Ji, Xu Chu, Anbin Wu, and Chen Chen, “Reconstructing Crustal Thickness Evolution from Europium Anomalies in Detrital Zircons,” Geology 49, no. 1 (2021): 76–80.
  4. Andrew A. Snelling, “Radiometric Dating: Back to Basics,” Answers 4, no. 3 (2009): 72–75.
    Andrew A. Snelling, “Radiometric Dating: Problems with the Assumptions,” Answers 4, no. 4 (2009): 70–73.
  5. Andrew A. Snelling, “Determination of the Decay Constants and Half-Lives of Uranium-238 (238U) and Uranium-235 (235U), and the Implications for U-Pb and Pb-Pb Radioisotope Dating Methodologies,” Answers Research Journal 10 (2017): 1–38.
    Andrew A. Snelling, “Problems with the U-Pb Radioisotope Dating Methods—1. Common Pb,” Answers Research Journal 10 (2017): 121–167.
    Andrew A. Snelling, “Problems with the U-Pb Radioisotope Dating Methods—2. U and Pb Mobility,” Answers Research Journal 11 (2018): 85–139.
    Andrew A. Snelling, “Problems with the U-Pb Radioisotope Dating Methods—3. Mass Fractionation,” Answers Research Journal 12 (2019): 355–392.
  6. Andrew A. Snelling, “Radiometric Dating: Making Sense of the Patterns,” Answers 5, no. 1 (2010): 72–75.
  7. Andrew A. Snelling, “Thirty Miles of Dirt in a Day,” Answers 3, no. 4 (2008): 28–30.
  8. Steven A. Austin, John R. Baumgardner, D. Russell Humphreys, Andrew A. Snelling, Larry Vardiman, and Kurt P. Wise, “Catastrophic Plate Tectonics: A Global Flood Model of Earth History,” Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Creationism (1994): 609–622.
    John R. Baumgardner, “Catastrophic Plate Tectonics: The Physics Behind the Flood.” Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Creationism (2003): 113–126.

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