Catastrophic Plate Tectonics

June 9, 2007

(Sorry for the long wait on new articles. I have hesitated in writing this because it’s very important and I don’t want to screw anything up. Here goes.)
Today, I’m going to give a quick summary of a theory called Catastrophic Plate Tectonics, which was primarily developed by Dr. Baumgardner during his time at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Dr. Baumgardner’s primary work was in developing a program called TERRA which is used by many scientists to model plate tectonics and physics in the core tracking temperature, viscosity, movement and other elements important to understanding the interior of our planet. The people who produced the movie “The Core” could have learned a lot from talking to Dr. Baumgardner. One of the reasons that he was interested in creating TERRA was to test a theory that the Genesis Flood was primarily a catastrophic geophysical event. The result of his intensive research has been the development of Catastrophic Plate Tectonics (CPT), which is probably the most comprehensive scientific theory of the Genesis Flood today.

Starting Evidence
mapcc-cropped.jpgIf we look at a map of the Earth today you will notice that one either side of the Atlantic Ocean the continents look as though they would fit together quite neatly. If you are fortunate enough to have a map that shows the texture of the sea floor it also become obvious that the mid-Atlantic ridge or Marianas trench conforms to the same shape. This has led many people to the fairly reasonable conclusion that the continents were at one point joined together in one place, forming a super-continent.

At today’s rates this divergence would take millions of years, assuming the rates have never changed. The assumption that today’s rates are exactly the same as they have always been is a philosophical standpoint called Uniformitarianism. This naturally leads to extremely slow processes and long lengths of time, because today’s rates are slow. In contrast, Young-Earth Creationists tend to side with Catastrophism, stating that the “history of any one part of the earth, like the life of a soldier, consists of long periods of boredom and short periods of terror” (Ager 1973). This is seen clearly every time a long dormant volcano suddenly erupts, transforming the landscape, as did Mt. Saint Helens in 1980. Is it possible that tectonic plates have not always moved at the rate your fingernails grow? Take a look.

Deformation Physics
Laboratory tests have shown that materials like silicate minerals (the stuff the mantle is made out of) can have hugely varying degrees of viscosity depending on the temperature and amount of force that is applied to them. For these type of materials pressure can reach a threshold where the change in viscosity makes movement easier, and the friction from movement generates heat, which in turn lowers the viscosity even more in a thermal runaway pattern. This is not just a little bit of slipping, but a massive change in the way a solid material behaves. “A point many people fail to grasp is that these weakening mechanisms can reduce the silicate strength by ten or more orders of magnitude without the material ever reaching its melting temperature” (Baumgardner). If you really want to look at all the advanced math involved in material physics they’re covered in plenty of detail in the technical paper “Runaway Subduction as the Driving Mechanism for the Genesis Flood”. I’m not a geophysicist so I’ll be doing the summary for the average Joe (who has graduated college with a degree in Natural Sciences). With this information in mind, here’s the scenario of the Genesis Flood according to Catastrophic Plate Tectonic Theory.

Catastrophic Plate Tectonics
An overview of CPT can be found in a joint effort technical paper on the ICR website. The overview itself is easily 10 pages, so here are the highlights: The starting condition for this scenario is that the Pre-Flood ocean floor was a thick layer of cold crustal rock. The Earth is extremely hot on the interior and the cold ocean floor was denser than the mantle it was sitting on because of the temperature difference. This is a classic case of potential energy for anyone that’s had Physics 101. Personally, this scenario reminds me of the same temperature instability that drives our weather, we have heating at ground level and cold air aloft, but heat rises and cold air sinks. Thus we have weather, most of the time it’s a calm circulation, but if the conditions are right you get a thunderstorm (this is just a personal analogy).

Cold material accumulating at the phase change boundary between the upper and lower mantle finally reached critical mass and the entire plate began diving towards the core. “Subducting slabs locally heated the mantle by deformation, lowering the viscosity of the mantle in the vicinity of the slabs. The lowered viscosity then allowed an increase in subduction rate, which in turn heated up the surrounding mantle even more. We believe that this led to a thermal runaway instability which allowed for meters-per-second subduction, as postulated and modeled by Baumgardner”(ICR Article). As the front end of the ocean plate was falling towards the core it pulled the attached tectonic plate carrying the continents with it.

This would have torn the Pangaea super-continent in two, opening up the mid-Atlantic ridge which was freshly exposed molten rock. Water would begin rushing in to fill this massive trench below sea-level and consequently be vaporized by the molten rock, producing super-sonic steam jets reaching miles into the air. The vaporized ocean water would cool in the atmosphere and fall back to the planet as rainfall. As the cold material was dropping into the mantle, hot material would rise up along the trailing edges, causing seafloor expansion, and creating the distinctive streaking pattern we see on the ocean floor. The continents could have been moving at speeds up to 35 miles per hour, all the while torrential sheets of rain are covering the land in water.


This interaction as well as other possible mechanisms would create mega-tsunamis that could carve up huge amounts of sediments and deposit massive sediment layers in successive waves on the continents. An easy way to picture what is must have looked like to be under water during all of this is being trapped in a continent scale washing machine. Currents would pull back and forth, scraping off layers and redepositing them. Evidence of massive water catastrophe including cross-bedding, varied sediment sizes, and large scale erosion (Grand Canyon) is all over the planet. I unfortunately, do not have time to explain all of flood geology, nor am I qualified.

magnetic_reversal_animation.gifThis model also incorporates magnetic pole reversals as a natural consequence of plate CPT. Remember that the seafloor was also spreading at this time, and so recorded the reversals as they were happening. I’m not really able to summarize this point so here’s the block quote:

“One important consequence of mantle-wide flow would have been the transportation of cooler mantle material to the core/mantle boundary. This would have had the effect of cooling the outer core, which in turn led to strong core convection. This convection provided the conditions necessary for Humphreys’ [40,42] model of rapid geomagnetic reversals in the core. As the low electrical conductivity oceanic plates subducted, they would be expected to have split up the lower mantle’s high conductivity. This in turn would have lessened the mantle’s attenuation of core reversals and allowed the rapid magnetic field reversals to have been expressed on the surface. Humphreys’ [40,42] model not only explains magnetic reversal evidence (as reviewed in [41]) in a young-age creation time scale, but uniquely explains the low intensity of paleomagnetic and archaeomagnetic data, the erratic frequency of paleomagnetic reversals through the Phanerozoic, and, most impressively, the locally patchy distribution of sea- floor paleomagnetic anomalies [41]. It also predicted and uniquely explains the rapid reversals found imprinted in lava flows of the Northwest [21, 22, 2, 15].”

This major geologic catastrophe would draw to a close as the original ocean floor was completely subducted, and settled to the bottom of the mantle, next to the core. The potential energy driving this whole interaction would be spent and things would begin to equalize. The mountains like the Rocky Mountain Range were formed as the crust was lifted up isostatically, from debris that collected underneath the crust during subduction. In layman’s terms there’s basically less dense stuff that gets stuck underneath the crust, then bobs up like a cork. The equalization after this event took a long time and was the driving force behind other processes like the Ice Age that I’ll talk about in later articles.

Supporting Evidence
The predictions of Catastrophic Plate Tectonics have turned out to be it’s strongest point. The mantle was originally thought to be a homogeneous blob. Years after Dr. Baumgardner developed his theory, high resolution seismic data revealed that there are actually cold lumps sitting at the bottom of the mantle next to the core where it should be the hottest. This information can be found in numerous secular scientific articles and scientists are now looking at incorporating runaway subduction into their models. Large cold anomalies in the deep mantle and mantle instability in the Cretaceous, The fate of slabs inferred from seismic tomography and 130 million years of subduction.

Dr. Humphrey’s model of magnetic field reversals predicted that these reversals happened very rapidly, in the midst of lots of volcanic activity. This would mean that we should find lava flows that exhibit opposite polarity in very thin layers. This predictions has now been confirmed by several secular scientists looking at evidence in Steens Mountain Oregon, U.S.A. This would indicate that magnetic pole reversals happen very rapidly. Dr. Coe reports numbers like 6 degrees per day based on how fast these lava flows should have cooled. (Coe, R S. and M. Prevot. 1989. Evidence suggesting extremely rapid field variation during a geomagnetic reversal. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 92:292-298)

There is other corroborating evidence that I can’t get into but it merits future research. The composition of the seafloor is very different from the continents and almost all fossils occur on land (even marine fossils). The ocean plates look more recent than the fossil layer. There is also evidence that Venus has undergone a similar catastrophe. If anyone would like to do further research on these topics I’d be happy to add it to the page.

Heat Issues
thermometer.jpgThere is one major problem with CPT that Dr. Baumgardner openly admits in his interview in New Scientist (Lone voices special: God said, let the dry land appear, New Scientist, Dec 2006). If that much magma had been exposed it would have released enough heat to vaporize the ocean’s on the planet. The planet would not have had enough time to cool down by now. Originally, he thought that the steam jets had enough energy to reach into space and thus release the heat out into space (which would also explain a reduced atmospheric pressure). But the calculated velocities of the steam jets aren’t high enough. Dr. Baumgardner believes that the heat was removed miraculously, since the Bible indicates that God directly intervened during the Flood and it appears that the geological processes can be explained. The issue of heat goes farther when you account for RATE’s results that suggest that a massive amount of nuclear decay took place during the Flood. Nuclear decay releases heat and whatever process caused the nuclear decay appears to be universal, indicating it would affect the entire planet (including interior) as well as other planets like Venus and Mars. This totals to a gargantuan amount of heat, (I believe it’s far more than CPT) that is essentially unaccounted for. It’s interesting to note that in the creationist model the Ice Age takes place directly after the Flood, so there’s apparently something going on with temperature stabilization.

So what happens if you find evidence that something truly absurd has happened? I’m inclined to label it an unknown physical process that requires further scientific inquiry. I am told that scientists love to find data that contradict their theory, because it encourages further work. I am further told that science is constantly changing and that’s what makes it so great, both would apply in this case. But to satisfy anyone’s curiosity, Dr. Humphreys and Dr. Chaffin proposed that the accelerated nuclear decay was caused by spatial expansion, which would also result in massive loss of heat, enough to ice over the planet if energy isn’t added to the system. Researchers almost certainly don’t have the full picture yet, but heat does not constitute a show-stopper when taken in the larger context.

There have been several models of the Flood, but Catastrophic Plate Tectonic Theory stands out in that it is the only theory that has been mathematically modeled thoroughly, with a fair amount of supporting evidence. It is widely accepted among many creation scientists and has a fair amount of respect in secular circles as well. The summary’s summary goes as follows: runaway plate subduction triggered a global flood. The rain waters were vaporized ocean waters that came in contact with exposed molten rock. Seafloor spreading and continental movement created massive tsunamis and deposited tons of sediment. Magnetic reversals occurred during seafloor spreading because of turbulence in the core. The violent portion of the flood ended when the cold seafloor material reached the core/mantle boundary, at which point he mountains rose up and ocean floor deepened isostatically. Waters receded naturally and formed our current day oceans.

I hope that was a useful summary to all that have not heard of Catastrophic Plate Tectonics. I apologize if there are any errors. For further reading you can look at the original papers I have listed for your perusal. I’d be happy to answer any questions that I can since anyone can leave a comment.

Further Comments: It looks like on this article I did a good enough job that no one wanted to pick on it.  There should be enough information for anyone if you take the time to read it all.  Please keep in mind that collecting and linking all those articles and supporting evidence takes a lot of time for me.  I’ve spent a day or more on some of these.  Just because I don’t link tons of supporting evidence in some article doesn’t mean it isn’t there.  You just have to do your own homework.  Ideally, this article should be coupled with an overview of the RATE project (radiometric dating).  While they were developed separately, when taken together they present a complete picture of the mantle movement, heat generation, heat dissipation, and effects on radiometric dating.  Though the researchers in RATE were not aware of it at the time, their conclusion that there was a lot of radioactivity during the Flood meshed perfectly with Dr. Sanford’s observation on Genetic Entropy and the amount of mutations present in the human population.  I know most people will take each article at a time, mentally criticize it, then move on to the next.  But taken as a whole there really is a very large degree of interconnectivity that I don’t see elsewhere.  When you stick to a short time scale there is more than one thing happening at a time.  Billions of years give you the elbow room to ensure that no theory has to impinge on another.



  1. I’m aware of the Talk Origins criticism. Most of it is based on a basic failure to understand the model so I didn’t even mention it. For your benefit, a point for point:
    * “Island chains, such as the Hawaiian islands, indicate that the ocean floor moved slowly over erupting “hot spots.” Radiometric dating and relative amounts of erosion both indicate that the older islands are very much older, not close to the same age as catastrophic tectonics would require.”
    – Radiometric data is actually totally consistent with the idea that there was accelerated nuclear decay during the Flood. In fact, nuclear decay may have been what caused the whole process, they are directly linked. See RATE.

    * “Catastrophic plate tectonics says that all ocean floor should be essentially the same age. But both radiometric dating and amounts of sedimentation indicate that the age changes gradually, from brand new to tens of millions of years old.”
    – Same radiometrics, same answer. The ocean floor would have been laid down during the decay process, so yes it would predict this.

    * “As sea-floor basalt cools, it becomes denser and sinks. The elevation of sea floors is consistent with cooling appropriate for its age, assuming gradual spreading.”
    – While I can’t lay a hand on the numbers at the moment CPT necessitates rapid cooling. This objection is based on the fundamental assumption that rates have always been the same (Uniformitarianism) which CPT is certainly not espousing.

    * “Guyots are flat-topped underwater mountains. The tops were eroded flat from a long time at the ocean surface, and they sank with the sea floor. Catastrophic tectonics does not allow enough time for the sea mountain to form, erode, and sink.”
    – This is statement of fact that people weren’t around to observe. CPT is just a theory and so is any other historical science model. So they’re saying a massive flood can’t account for…. erosion?

    * “Runaway subduction does not account for continent-continent collisions, such as between India and the Eurasian plate.”
    – This one is just flat wrong. I’ve personally seen the code for TERRA which has multiple subroutines for doing things like calculating torques on continents based on collisions. I seriously doubt anyone at Talk Origins has ever taken the time to look at TERRA code. Furthermore, the conventional theory that they go on to espouse is most likely modeled using TERRA if they did model it in any depth.

    * “Catastrophic plate tectonics has no plausible mechanism. In particular, the greatly lowered viscosity of the mantle, the rapid magnetic reversals, and the sudden cooling of the ocean floor afterwards cannot be explained under conventional physics.”
    – Dr. Baumgardner’s paper, Nature(published in evolutionary technical journals with evolutionist coauthors) explains thoroughly the laboratory experiments done that demonstrate a billion fold reduction in viscosity. Actually, it’s the slow rates of deformation that are hard to demonstrate experimentally because the movement would be so slow as to be imperceptible except over several months of operating expensive machinery.

    Magnetic reversal is still a poorly understood area and currently under a lot of speculation. Dr. Humphreys theory of magnetic reversal provides an active mechanism (heat convection in the mantle) as well as explaining the preferred longitudes of reversals, something I have never heard anyone else explain. (Reversals tend to circle around the Pacific, the primary area of subduction).

    * “Conventional plate tectonics accounts for the evidence already and does a much better job of it. It explains innumerable details that catastrophic plate tectonics cannot, such as why there is gold in California, silver in Nevada, salt flats in Utah, and coal in Pennsylvania (McPhee 1998). It requires no extraordinary mechanisms to do so. Catastrophic plate tectonics would be a giant step backwards in the progress of science.”
    – Going from a theory with momentum that is supported by the majority of the scientific establishment to a theory that the person did not even take the time to understand would be a massive step backwards. However, theories like CPT use all the same equation and data as conventional theories so the shift is not so much in progress as adopting different axioms.

    Here’s a piece of data to consider: We have a record of magnetic reversals stretched across the ocean floor. Normal, solid state magnets like the ones on your refrigerator lose their strength over time. After 15,000 years that magnetism should be totally gone. This process is actually speeded up when the magnet is held in opposition to another magnetic field. So we’ve got all this South facing polarized rock on the ocean floor. Magnetic reversals are theorized to happen every 40,000 years with the last one over 74,000 years ago. So how are these magnetic strips still around?

  2. Another piece of data to considerabout paleomagnetism. In geological jargon, the magnet on your refrigerator is massive (meaning non-crystalline, not large). Its magnetic domains are aligned simply because it was placed in the field of a strong magnet for a time and its molecules aligned somewhat. Flipping of magnetic domains in a massive solid has a half-life, similar to what happens for radioisotopes or amino acids.

    The sea floor cooled slowly enough to form small crystals of ferromagnetic compounds that are evident in thin sections. In a crystal, all the molecules are permanently aligned in a specific direction, and the ferromagnetic crystal grows along the lines of the current magnetic field of the earth. When the rock cools, the crystal is permanently frozen in that alignment, along with all the other ferromagnetic crystals. Barring radical metamorphosis, they will continue facing that way until the rock melts again. The magnetc alignment of the rock can last for millions, even billions of years.

  3. Thanks Mark,
    I actually find this rather interesting. I can see the difference between a massive magnet and crystalline magnet, so the comment on stability makes a lot of sense. I just want to summarize to make sure I got it right:
    1. Still liquid magma has a chance to align to the earth’s field and form crystals.
    2. Those crystals have an inherent magnetic field in the crystal structure itself.
    3. Demagnetizing would require physical rotation of atoms that would violate the crystal lattice, upheld through inter-molecular bonds.
    4. Molecular bonds are orders of magnitude stronger than magnetic fields, ergo the magnet is almost perfectly stable.

    Did I get that all right? That seems like a pretty good explanation. So I think that would mean physical jostling (earth quakes) wouldn’t demagnetize the crystals but extreme heat would. I know one issue is that it’s a lot easier to show that something is unstable over a short period of time than stable over a long period of time. Though I think if I could see some experimental data that magnetic crystals hold up to a large amount of abuse I’d be satisfied with that explanation.

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