Did Tectonic Activity Trigger the Ice Age?

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In the evolutionary uniformitarian (slow-and-gradual) view of earth’s history, the earth’s climate remained on a fairly even keel for hundreds of millions of years. However, it is claimed that there were some dramatic exceptions. Around 80 million years ago, the planet’s temperature supposedly plummeted, along with carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. The earth is said to have eventually recovered from that cooling event, only to swing back into the present-day Ice Age 50 million years ago.1

That’s right! You did read that correctly. Evolutionary uniformitarian geologists are saying we are still currently in an Ice Age! Perhaps you didn’t realize that when you sweated through the heat and humidity of the summer months and were told that the soaring temperatures were due to global warming or climate change!

Now geologists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology claim to have identified the likely cause of both the cooling event at 80 million years ago, and the onset of the Ice Age around 50 million years ago, as well as a natural mechanism for carbon sequestration.2 Evidently, just prior to both periods, massive tectonic collisions took place near the earth’s equator—a tropical zone where rocks undergo heavy weathering due to frequent rain and other environmental conditions. This weathering involves chemical reactions that absorb a large amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The dramatic drawdown of carbon dioxide cooled the atmosphere, they suggest, and set the planet up for the cooling event at 80 million years ago and the Ice Age beginning 50 million years ago, in the late Cretaceous and the Eocene, respectively.

The Specifics of What Supposedly Happened

There were two massive collisions of tectonic plates responsible for triggering these Ice Ages. They stemmed from the same event—the supposedly slow northward migration of Gondwana, a supercontinent that spanned the Southern Hemisphere from 300 million to 180 million years ago and became part of Pangaea. It eventually broke apart to form today’s Antarctica, South America, Africa, India, and Australia.

Around 180 million years ago, plate tectonic activity began to slowly push fragments of Gondwana up toward the northern supercontinent of Eurasia. The body of water lying between these supercontinents was called the Neo-Tethys Ocean. As the fragments of Gondwana were slowly pushed into Eurasia, that ocean was squeezed smaller and eventually closed completely.

Jagoutz and his colleagues had previously developed a model to simulate the apparent tectonic shifting that occurred in and around the Neo-Tethys Ocean as the Gondwana fragments of Africa and India were crushed up against Eurasia.3 Through analysis of ancient rocks, which resulted from the collision of India with Eurasia, located in today’s Himalayas, they claimed to have determined the sequence of events as the continents merged.

They found that 90 million years ago, the northeastern edge of the African plate collided and slid under an oceanic plate in the Neo-Tethys Ocean, creating a chain of volcanoes. And 80 million years ago, as the African plate continued advancing north, that oceanic plate was pushed farther up, over, and onto the Eurasia continent, exposing oceanic crust to the atmosphere, while simultaneously terminating the volcanoes. Then, 50 million years ago, India merged with Eurasia in a second collision in which a different region of the oceanic plate was pushed up onto that continent.

Both collisions took place in the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, an atmospheric region centered on and over the earth’s equator, in which trade winds come together to generate a region of intense temperatures and rainfall.

So Jagoutz and his colleagues wondered whether the tectonic plate collisions in this extremely tropical region may have played a part in pulling huge amounts of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, an event which may have lowered global temperatures and thus triggered those claimed Ice Ages, including the one we are supposedly still in.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reacts with them during weathering to produce carbonate minerals, thereby reducing the amount of carbon dioxide left in the atmosphere.

It just so happens that the minerals in certain types of rock, if exposed to high heat and heavy rain at the earth’s surface, undergo chemical reactions and effectively absorb carbon dioxide in this process known as silicate weathering. These rocks include basalts (volcanic rocks) and “ultramafic” rocks (so called because of the minerals they contain, such as huge amounts of olivine), which are often found within the ocean floor crust of oceanic plates. If these rocks are exposed to the atmosphere in a tropical region, their weathering under tropical conditions results in their acting as very efficient carbon sinks. In a nutshell, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reacts with them during weathering to produce carbonate minerals, thereby reducing the amount of carbon dioxide left in the atmosphere.

Thus Jagoutz and his colleagues hypothesized that the two collisions involving Africa and then India colliding with Eurasia brought basaltic and ultramafic rocks up from the ocean floors and onto land, creating carbon sinks to reduce the atmospheric carbon dioxide content 80 and 50 million years ago. At the same time, both collisions would also have effectively turned off sources such as many volcanoes that had been emitting carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere.

To know whether such a sequence of events could directly reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, these researchers investigated the weathering rates of different rock types, including granites, basalts, and ultramafics. Such rates have been calculated by other researchers. They describe the way rocks weather and erode as they utilize carbon dioxide in making carbonate minerals in place of the original silicate minerals, given exposure to a certain amount of rainfall under hot weather conditions.

Jagoutz and his colleagues then applied these weathering rates to their model’s estimates of the amounts of the oceanic crustal plates that were pushed up onto Africa and India, at 80 and 50 million years ago respectively. After determining the amount of carbon dioxide sequestered by the weathering of these rocks, they calculated the total amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide at different times, from 100 million years ago to around 40 million years ago.

The team thus found that the atmospheric carbon dioxide content dipped dramatically at precisely the time the two collisions occurred. The levels of carbon dioxide also mirrored the temperature of the oceans during this interval, which fell as the atmospheric carbon dioxide content fell.4 Therefore, Jagoutz claimed that one reason these two collisions had such an extreme effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide may have been the fact that each continent continued moving north, exposing new basaltic and ultramafic rocks to tropical weathering, “like a bulldozer that brings fresh rock to the surface.”5 And the net result was that global temperatures fell so dramatically that Ice Ages engulfed the planet.

What Really Happened

While the scenario presented by Jagoutz and his colleagues might seem plausible, it is all based on the assumptions that the earth’s geology has evolved slowly over long ages of time and that only natural geologic processes at the rates we observe them operating at today were responsible. Yet they are ignoring the eyewitness testimony of the Creator Himself, who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and never tells lies.

In Genesis 1, God has specifically told us He created the earth, its inhabitants, and all its celestial neighbors in only six literal (ordinary) days, not over billions of years. And this all happened only about 6,000 years ago. So those rocks that are foundational to the continents cannot be billions of years old.6

Scientists cannot possibly explain how God created the earth because God’s supernatural methods are as much beyond scientific investigation as Jesus’ miracles of creating wine from water (John 2:1–11) and instantly calming a storm (Matthew 8:23–27). Yet we know without a doubt that Jesus’ miracles happened because He did them in front of eyewitnesses. Therefore, since the same Jesus is the Creator Himself (John 1:1–3; Colossians 1:16–17; Hebrews 1:1–3), we know that the earth was supernaturally created in six literal days because that is what He told us He did.

Furthermore, Genesis 6–8 tells that about 1,650 years after God created the earth, He judged it because of man’s wickedness with a cataclysmic, globe-engulfing Flood. The Apostle Peter described it as “the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished” (2 Peter 3:6), while Jesus taught that “the Flood came and took them all away” (Matthew 24:39).

The earth was totally transformed geologically during the Flood by cataclysmic, watery, geologic processes, which no longer operate on the same scale and at the same rate today.

Thus the earth was totally transformed geologically during the Flood by cataclysmic, watery, geologic processes, which no longer operate on the same scale and at the same rate today. So the mantra of modern-day evolutionary geologists that the present is the key to the past cannot possibly be true. In fact, the Apostle Peter warned us against such latter-day scoffers who would justify their willful rejection of the cataclysmic, globe-engulfing Genesis Flood by declaring that “all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:3–6).

As for the specifics of what happened during the Flood, which can be used to evaluate and explain the claims made by Jagoutz and his colleagues, Genesis 7:11–12 describes the Flood, beginning with “all the fountains of the great deep” breaking up so that the “windows of heaven” were opened to pour down torrential rainfall all over the globe for forty days and nights. The waters rose and prevailed across the earth for 150 days so that all the high hills under the whole of the heaven and the mountains were covered, and all air-breathing, land-dwelling creatures perished (Genesis 7:18–24). By the time the waters had drained off the earth and the new land surface had dried out, this Flood event had lasted for around a year.

Within the layers of sedimentary rocks deposited by the Flood are the buried and fossilized remains of the destroyed creatures and plants.7 So instead of those fossils requiring 600 or so million years to be buried and fossilized, it happened in the Flood year and its immediate aftermath.

But what was the mechanism responsible for the Flood, enabling the ocean waters to rise and flood the continents, as well as depositing all the sedimentary layers across the continents full of marine creatures? The breaking up of the “fountains of the great deep” is the clue! Many Flood geologists believe this is a description of the rupturing of the earth’s crust along linear pathways across the floor of the pre-Flood ocean basins all around the globe, rupturing that eventually continued onto the land to also break apart the pre-Flood supercontinent.8 The resultant crustal plates then were moved catastrophically across the globe, colliding with one another at different stages during the Flood to make new temporary supercontinental configurations such as Gondwana, which also became part of Pangaea.9 As the Flood ended, the plate movements slowed down; but the final collisions were taking place to produce the continental configuration we have today and the mountain ranges. New emerging land surfaces were shaped as the Flood waters drained back into today’s ocean basins, eroding mountains, carving canyons, and dumping the resultant sediments out over the continental shelves surrounding the new continents.

Then there was the one, and only, Ice Age, which happened after the Flood and because of the Flood.10 However, that post-Flood Ice Age was not caused by a drop in the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide content. Instead, the volcanic waters added to the Flood waters from the fountains of the great deep heated up the ocean waters during the Flood. So when the Flood ended, the ocean waters were warmer, which resulted in greater evaporation of water vapor, which circulated in the winds toward the poles. At the same time, residual, violent, volcanic eruptions put dust and aerosols into the atmosphere, which reduced the sunlight getting through the atmosphere, especially at the poles. This combination resulted in heavier snowfalls over cold land surfaces toward the poles, which accumulated as ice due to the snow not melting in the summers. The ice sheets increased until the snowfall eased due to the ocean waters progressively cooling down. Eventually the post-Flood Ice Age ended, and we are no longer in an Ice Age since the polar ice sheets no longer cover much of Canada and the northern USA as they once did.

Putting the Pieces of This Puzzle Together

How then do we understand the research findings and claims made by Jagoutz and his colleagues?

First, the context of what they are attempting to describe is within the Flood year only about 4,300 or so years ago, not 80 million and 50 million years ago.

Second, the continental plate movements described by Jagoutz and his colleagues did happen during the Flood year, but at a catastrophic rate as the plates moved at meters per second—that is a brisk walking pace! Thus the plate movements had the momentum and therefore the energy so that when they collided the edge of one plate could be pushed down under (subducted) or up over (obducted) the edge of the other plate, or the sedimentary rock layers on both edges crumpled and buckled to produce a mountain range.11 So the collision of Africa with Eurasia produced the European Alps and the mountain ranges through Turkey and across Iran, while the collision of India with Eurasia produced the Himalayas.

Third, because of the timeframe over which these collisions happened—a few weeks during the Flood compared to the tens of millions of years claimed by Jagoutz and his colleagues—there was insufficient time for the claimed tropical weathering of the basalts and ultramafics to have occurred and soaked up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thus producing global cooling and Ice Ages.

Now this does not preclude the likelihood of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere fluctuating during the Flood and even dropping at these two brief stages in the Flood year. But such fluctuations would not have been due to the tropical weathering of basalts and ultramafics. Instead, it would have been due to variations in the carbon dioxide output of volcanoes and the drawdown in atmospheric carbon dioxide due to limestone and dolomite precipitation. Furthermore, by this stage of the Flood year, the waters would have started retreating to expose dry land again. And on that dry land, plants would have started to grow again from cuttings and seeds that had been floating on the waters. Thus the plants would start soaking up carbon dioxide again from the atmosphere via photosynthesis and expelling oxygen, resulting in dramatic changes to the atmosphere’s composition.

But what about the main claim made by Jagoutz and his colleagues, which was in the title of the ScienceDaily news report: was tectonic activity the trigger for the Ice Age? Note again that there was only one Ice Age, which occurred after the Flood and as a consequence of the Flood. The only unequivocal evidence we have for an Ice Age is on today’s earth surface, such as the polar ice caps and mountain glaciers, and the rubble left behind by the ice sheets and glaciers when they retreated, such as moraines, drumlins, and erratics. The claimed evidence for past ice ages is characteristic of submarine landslides and catastrophic debris flows.12

Nevertheless, the post-Flood Ice Age was triggered by tectonic activity—the very rapid tectonic activity during the Flood cataclysm. As already indicated, volcanic activity was catastrophic during the Flood as a result of the earth’s crust splitting open and being ripped apart and of the crustal plates hurtling across the globe and colliding with one another. The scale of that volcanic activity was orders of magnitude beyond any volcanic eruptions we experience today, as evidenced by the ginormous quantities of much thicker volcanic rock layers spread over vaster areas in the geologic record.13 As already indicated, all this catastrophic volcanic activity had by the end of the Flood heated up the ocean waters and filled the atmosphere with dust and aerosols, which together produced the conditions necessary for the post-Flood Ice Age.

Conclusion

Your starting points determine how you interpret the evidence! If one ignores God’s Word (as most evolutionary geologists do) or simply dismisses it as essentially irrelevant to deciphering earth’s history (as all old-earth Christian geologists do), then today’s slow-paced, natural geologic processes are all that have ever shaped the earth and produced its rocks and mountain ranges. On the other hand, if one holds up God’s Word as the absolute authority in all it says, especially including the eyewitness testimony of the Creator Himself about the earth’s early history, then there were two very brief periods when nearly all geologic activity occurred: first, the creation of the earth and the foundation rocks of the continents in six literal (ordinary) days; and second, the year-long, cataclysmic, globe-engulfing Flood during which the earth’s surface was totally reconstructed with new continents and new mountains, covered by water-deposited sedimentary rocks containing the buried and fossilized remains of the judgment-destroyed creatures and plants.

All scientists actually have the same evidence.

All scientists actually have the same evidence—in this case the same rocks and the same patterns and contents of those rocks, the same indicators of past continents and their tectonic movements, and the same record of past atmospheric composition changes. But the different frameworks in which this evidence is interpreted results in radically different conclusions about how many ice ages really happened and how exactly the tectonic activity triggered an ice age. Yet there really is only unequivocal evidence for the one Ice Age, which occurred post-Flood as a consequence of the tectonic activity during the Flood. The evidence overall is more consistent with what God’s Word tells us, because its truthfulness is guaranteed by the Creator Himself.

Footnotes

  1. Jennifer Chu, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Ancient Tectonic Activity Was Trigger for Ice Ages: Continental Shifting May Have Acted as a Natural Mechanism for Extreme Carbon Sequestration," ScienceDaily, April 19, 2016 at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160419104155.htm.
  2. Oliver Jagoutz, Francis A. Macdonald, and Leigh Royden, “Low-Latitude Arc-Continent Collision as a Driver for Global Cooling,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113 no. 18 (2016): 4935–4940, doi:10.1073/pnas.1523667113. The ScienceDaily report incorrectly referred to both events as “Ice Ages,” whereas Jagoutz and his colleagues in their PNAS paper only referred to the latest event as the Ice Age.
  3. Oliver Jagoutz, Leigh Royden, Adam F. Holt, and Thorsten W. Becker, “Anomalously Fast Convergence of India and Eurasia Caused by Double Subduction,” Nature Geoscience 8 (2015): 475–478.
  4. The temperatures of the ocean waters and the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere in the past can be theoretically estimated. For example, analyses of the ratios of oxygen isotopes (oxygen atoms of slightly different atomic weights) in the shells of fossilized marine creatures buried in the different sedimentary layers can be used to make such estimates, because the creatures appropriated whatever ratio of oxygen isotopes was available to them when they built their shells, which was dependent on the water temperature at the time. Similarly, one can look at carbon isotopes in the same shells. Also, sometimes air bubbles are trapped in mineral crystals, so the composition of the air in those bubbles represents the atmospheric composition at the time.
  5. Oliver Jagoutz, as quoted by Jennifer Chu, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Ancient Tectonic Activity Was Trigger for Ice Ages.”
  6. Andrew A. Snelling, “Thirty Miles of Dirt in a Day,” Answers 3, no. 4 (October 1, 2008): 28–30, https://answersingenesis.org/geology/sedimentation/thirty-miles-of-dirt-in-a-day/.
  7. Andrew A. Snelling, “Geologic Evidences for the Flood. Part I. An Overview,” Answers 2, no. 4 (September 18, 2007): 81–83, https://answersingenesis.org/the-flood/geologic-evidences-for-the-genesis-flood/.

    Andrew A Snelling. “High and Dry Sea Creatures: Flood Evidence Number One,” Answers 3, no. 1 (December 7, 2007): 92–95, https://answersingenesis.org/fossils/fossil-record/high-dry-sea-creatures/.

    Andrew A. Snelling, “The World’s a Graveyard: Flood Evidence Number Two,” Answers 3, no. 2 (February 12, 2008): 76–79, https://answersingenesis.org/fossils/fossil-record/the-worlds-a-graveyard/.

    Andrew A. Snelling, “Transcontinental Rock Layers: Flood Evidence Number Three,” Answers 3, no. 3 (May 7, 2008): 80–83, https://answersingenesis.org/geology/rock-layers/transcontinental-rock-layers/."

    Andrew A. Snelling, “Sand Transported Cross Country: Flood Evidence Number Four,” Answers 3, no. 4 (October 1, 2008): 96–99, https://answersingenesis.org/geology/sedimentation/sand-transported-cross-country/.

    Andrew A Snelling, “A Deeper Understanding of the Flood—A Complex Geologic Puzzle,” Answers 9, no. 2 (April 1, 2014): 70–74, https://answersingenesis.org/geology/a-complex-geologic-puzzle/.

  8. Andrew A. Snelling, “A Catastrophic Breakup–A Scientific Look at Catastrophic Plate Tectonics,” Answers 2, no. 2 (March 20, 2007): 44–48, https://answersingenesis.org/geology/plate-tectonics/a-catastrophic-breakup/; and Andrew A. Snelling, “Plate Tectonics–The Reality Behind a Theory,” Answers 11, no. 1 (January 1, 2016): 52–55, https://answersingenesis.org/geology/plate-tectonics/plate-tectonics-reality-behind-theory/.
  9. Andrew A. Snelling, “Noah’s Lost World,” Answers 9, no. 2 (April 1, 2014): 80–85, https://answersingenesis.org/geology/plate-tectonics/noahs-lost-world/.
  10. Michael J. Oard, “Where Does the Ice Age Fit?,” Chapter 16 in The New Answers Book 1, edited by Ken Ham, Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2007, 207–219, Where Does the Ice Age Fit?. Andrew A. Snelling, “The Post-Flood Ice Age—A Consequence of the Flood,” Earth’s Catastrophic Flood: Geology, Creation and the Flood, pages 769–778, Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2009.
  11. Andrew A. Snelling, “Noah’s Lost World,” Answers 9, no. 2 (April 1, 2014): 80–85, https://answersingenesis.org/geology/plate-tectonics/noahs-lost-world/; and Andrew A. Snelling, “Plate Tectonics–The Reality Behind a Theory.”
  12. Michael J. Oard, Ancient Ice Ages or Gigantic Submarine Landslides? Creation Research Society Monograph No. 6, Creation Research Society, St. Joseph, Missouri, 1997.
  13. Andrew A. Snelling, “Volcanoes—Windows into Earth’s Past,” Answers 5, no. 3 (2010): 66–69, https://answersingenesis.org/geology/natural-features/volcanoes-windows-into-earths-past/.

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