Biblical flood could be 'more than just a fairy tale'. Is another coming?

As warnings about the threat of rapid sea level-rise become increasingly urgent, one far-seeing, if dissenting, scientist has suggested it is likely the Biblical great flood did happen.

"I don't think the biblical deluge is just a fairy tale," Terence J Hughes, a retired University of Maine glaciologist living in South Dakota, told the New York Times.

"I think some kind of major flood happened all over the world, and it left an indelible imprint on the collective memory of mankind that got preserved in these stories."

A massive rift in the Antarctic Peninsula's Larsen C ice shelf seen on November 10, 2016.
NASA

A massive rift in the Antarctic Peninsula's Larsen C ice shelf seen on November 10, 2016.

In some ways, Hughes is a surprising figure to be quoted by the NYT. A Newsweek article on him three years ago, credited Hughes with predicting the likely collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet as early as 1973.

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But he is a contrarian, who doesn't consider climate change to be a great concern. In fact, according to Newsweek he sees upsides including that carbon dioxide is good for plants, thawed permafrost could be farmed, and rebuilding coastal cities would create jobs.

An iceberg floats near the coast of West Antarctica as seen from a window of a NASA Operation IceBridge airplane on ...
GETTY IMAGES

An iceberg floats near the coast of West Antarctica as seen from a window of a NASA Operation IceBridge airplane on October 27, 2016. Researchers have used the IceBridge data to observe that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may be in a state of irreversible decline directly contributing to rising sea levels.

The New York Times' interest in Hughes was as part of a series produced by a team visiting Antarctica. His quote came in an article about the risks of ice sheets melting and coastal cities being inundated by rising seas.

According to the article the great flood of the Bible - and of other early literature - happened at the end of the last ice age. Beginning 25,000 years ago ice sheets began to melt and the sea level started rising. Over thousands of years, coastlines receded by as much as 160km.

If the sea level rise from melting ice sheets under way now turned out to be as fast as the worst-case projections, "it could lead to a catastrophe without parallel in the history of civilisation," the Times said.

A 20 metre-high ice cliff forming the edge of the Wilkins Ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula is seen from a plane ...
REUTERS

A 20 metre-high ice cliff forming the edge of the Wilkins Ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula is seen from a plane January 18, 2009.

The impact of climate change on Antarctica is a key interest of New Zealand scientists, with the latest research to be presented at the New Zealand Antarctic Science Conference in Dunedin in late June.

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A study by an international team of scientists, including Kiwis, published in February 2016 suggested Antarctica's large land-based ice sheets may be more vulnerable to increasing global temperatures than previously thought.

"This research gives us a look into Earth's potential future if greenhouse gas levels continue to rise and temperatures continue to climb," one of the lead researchers, Dr Richard Levy from GNS Science, said at the time.

A combination of aerial photographs taken in February and March 2002 of parts of the Larsen B shelf in the Antarctic ...
REUTERS

A combination of aerial photographs taken in February and March 2002 of parts of the Larsen B shelf in the Antarctic show different aspects of the final stages of the collapse. The pictures show (clockwise from top L) the shelf breaking up near Foca Nunatak, a rift in the ice sheet near Cape Desengano, a cascade of water from melting ice nearly 30 metres high along the front of the shelf, and the new front edge of the shelf breaking up near Cape Foyn.

"Basically, large parts of Antarctica, particularly around the coast, will become ice-free. Melting of Antarctica's massive land-based ice sheets will likely take thousands of years, but observations certainly suggest ice sheet melt is well underway."

Levy is due to talk about Antarctic ice sheet sensitivity in a keynote address to the Dunedin conference.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted sea levels could rise by up to a metre by the year 2100, although some scientists think the increase could be greater. One US study predicted a rise of closer to two metres by the end of the century.

Broken sea ice in Antarctica in October 2016.
GETTY IMAGES

Broken sea ice in Antarctica in October 2016.

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Cracks are seen on the Fourcade glacier near Argentina's Carlini Base in Antarctica, January 12, 2017.
REUTERS

Cracks are seen on the Fourcade glacier near Argentina's Carlini Base in Antarctica, January 12, 2017.

 - Stuff

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