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Impearls: 2004-07-18 Archive

Earthdate 2004-07-19

Great Floods and Woolly Mammoths

Inspired by tales of Noah's flood in the Bible, people are often alert for hints that such massive flooding has occurred in the past, sometimes pointing as evidence to indistinct stories they've heard, such as the one we consider here, of great animal death scenes.  A correspondent on a space exploration discussion group, as an example, writes as follows in this regard:

Many different cultures describe an “ark-like” event and a Noah-like man.  There is also scientific evidence that indicates that many animals were killed and transported far from their natural habitats, as though by wild, rushing water.

I replied:  I'd like to see this evidence, because it's precisely the lack of such evidence that leads science to conclude that there never was a worldwide all-embracing flood (local floods are allowed by the evidence, yes).  In particular, studies of the multitudinous islands scattered round the oceans of the world show that their various organisms arrived accidentally (in very small numbers in the case of the most remote isles) by wing, by sea, or by floating objects upon it, and then evolved for millions of years (without being wiped out by floods) in total isolation, “radiating” into a spectrum of diverse living forms, filling available ecological niches that on continents would be occupied by more conventional organisms.  A worldwide flood would have drowned the flora and fauna of these isolated islands, which manifestly has not occurred.

Moreover, the survival of radically different lineages of organisms (marsupials, giant birds, etc.) on remote continents such as Australia also demonstrates that no catastrophic flood followed by the dispersal of living forms from something like an “ark” ever took place.

Our correspondent then came back:

Woolly mammoths have been found almost perfectly preserved in arctic regions.  They were so well preserved that their last meals had still not been digested.

Why is that significant?

1)  They died so fast that they were not capable of digesting their last meal (your stomach usually continues to work if you are dying slowly of natural causes).

2)  The contents of their stomachs were temperate climate vegetation — not arctic.  Woolly Mammoths were not Tundra-dwellers, but that's where they were found.

These carcasses are about 12-13,000 years old.

The bodies exhibit signs of severe stress — as though they were tossed about in fast-rushing water and slammed against rocks.

There's your evidence, Mr. McNeil.

I'm afraid not, though those are very interesting cases.  I've already stated that regional floods are perfectly well allowed by the geological and paleontological evidence, which is all we're talking about here.  Regional floods, however massive, are a very far cry from the kind of world-embracing, topping-the-highest-mountains floods that the Noah's ark mythology conceives of.

The great volcano Mount Ararat, for example, on whose heights Noah's ark supposedly came to rest, rises to 16,864 feet (5,140 meters) above present sea level, whereas as I intimated before, oceanic island evidence proves conclusively that there has never (for many millions of years) been a flood that raised the level of the oceans by more than a few hundred feet (a hundred meters or so) above today's sea level.

On a regional basis, however, there have been some very massive floods.  Probably the granddaddy of “regional” floods occurred a few million years ago when the (natural) Gibraltar dam walling off the almost dry-as-a-bone Mediterranean basin was breached by tectonic forces and the sea re-filled over a thousand years or so in a massive intrusion of seawater which remains to this day as the Mediterranean Sea.  This occurred long before prehistoric and historic human times, however. See Philip and Phylis Morrison's book and PBS video series The Ring of Truth for a fascinating chapter concerning this event. 1

Other possibilities commonly cited include the filling of the Black Sea at the close of the last ice age, which did occur during prehistoric human times.  This flood, though very sizable, of course falls well short of Noachian in scale, and was even smaller than one would think, since the Black Sea basin was already mostly filled by a large lake prior to the straits of the Dardanelles and Bosporus being breached by rising waters at the end of the ice age.  Another example is the draining of prehistoric Lake Bonneville in what is now the western United States.  Lake Bonneville was formerly a much deeper and larger lake occupying the basin in northwest Utah and northeastern Nevada that its remnant, shallow Great Salt Lake now resides in.  During the ice age, erosion wore away the pass separating the Bonneville basin from the Snake River drainage in Idaho, whereupon the bulk of the lake quickly emptied itself in a huge flood down the Snake and Columbia rivers.

Considering the story of the frozen mammoths that was provided, however, the best examples of regional flooding that we can consider are the breaching of glacial lakes.  The example par excellence of such flooding in the United States is the massive Columbia River (so-called “Spokane”) floods from between 15,000 and 12,800 years ago, which originated as a result of the Clark Fork River of western Montana being repeatedly dammed by an intrusion of the great Cordilleran Ice Sheet which occupied the Canadian Rockies during ice age times.  As the glacier moved to block the river's exit at the present Pend Oreille Lake in northern Idaho, the Clark Fork backed up in a vast lake known as Glacial Lake Missoula until it basically filled northwestern Montana to the gills, more than 2,000 feet deep at the ice dam, and incorporating as much water, some 500 cubic miles (more than 2,000 km3), as modern Lake Ontario.

Ice, however, is a disastrous material out of which to construct a dam because ice floats, and as the lake behind the dam fills, eventually the ice dam starts to float, whereupon the vast weight of water behind it tears the dam apart and in this case emptied those 500 cubic miles of backed-up water down the Columbia River valley in as little as 48 hours, the waters roaring across eastern Washington State (a wide region known, as a result of the stupendous water erosion, as the “channeled scablands”), and leaving icebergs stranded further down the Columbia River gorge as much as 1,000 feet (300 meters) above the present river level.  Think a few mammoths might have been carried off by that?  Then the moving glacier would proceed to close off the Clark Fork river valley once again, and some 60 years later the whole process would repeat — over a period of thousands of years, again and again, many dozens of times.  See John Eliot Allen and Marjorie Burns' Cataclysms on the Columbia for an entire book devoted to this subject. 2

Glacial lakes and associated large-scale flooding were common on the extremities of ice-age ice sheets, and the instances of frozen mammoths from Siberia that were cited are cases in point.  The rivers of Siberia all run exclusively northward, which means even now that the upper courses of Siberian rivers at spring melt flow extremely vigorously while their lower reaches are still locked in ice, producing sizable floods every year.  These alone are sufficient to kill herds of unwary animals, such as caribou or (if there still were any) mammoths.  However, during the ice age, though the Siberian region was mostly free from ice sheet cover (a matter of the balance of precipitation vs. annual melt, not so much of cold), its rivers flowed towards the then-perpetually frozen Arctic Ocean, and on the way the waters backed up in numerous vast glacial lakes.  When those lakes were breached, tremendous downstream flooding would ensue — even more capable of extinguishing life in the mass than the situation we see today.

As for the question raised of how quickly the animals died, when you're killed in a raging torrent typically you do die very quickly, no time for your stomach to digest its contents then.  Moreover, since the subarctic ground, even today, is perpetually frozen in permafrost, you're then very quickly frozen, resulting in the preservation of almost fully intact corpses (not mere skeletons) of mammoths which have been discovered.

There's no need to suppose, however, that the mammoth remains in Siberia which have been found were carried to their final resting spots over any very great distances.  As we saw in the case of the Glacial Lake Missoula floods, the torrent can rage for hundreds of miles, but we need not presume so for the Siberian mammoths found, nor is any extensive distance traveled required to fit the evidence.  One of the intact mammoth corpses was found by the banks of Siberia's Lena River, for example, and there's no particular reason to think that it and others originated very far from where they were found.

Our correspondent asserts that “the contents of their stomachs were temperate climate vegetation — not arctic.  Woolly Mammoths were not Tundra-dwellers, but that's where they were found.”  On the contrary, woolly mammoths did live in the subarctic region — amidst “tundra” — throughout the ice age, but our correspondent is quite correct that the animals' stomachs contain vegetative matter that doesn't grow there today.  Where he errs is presuming that what survives today on the north Siberian plain is the same as what flourished there during the ice age.

It is now believed (as a result of pollen samples and other evidence) that those huge areas maintained during the ice age a rich herbal vegetative and even grassland cover (growing atop permafrost) which supported vast herds of megafauna, much like the African savanna does today, but which plant cover subsequently retreated as a result of the profound ecological changes associated with the ending some 10,000 years ago of the age of ice, being replaced by a much poorer regime.  Thus, mammoths discovered alongside the Siberian rivers probably ate the food found in their stomachs not very far from where they died and their frozen bodies were subsequently exposed. 3, 4

UPDATE:  2004-07-23 14:50 UT:  Added reference to Morrisons' Ring of Truth.


1 Philip and Phylis Morrison, Chapter Four: “Clues,” The Ring of Truth: An Inquiry into How We Know What We Know (book and video series), Vintage Books, a division of Random House, New York, 1987; pp. 154-179.

2 John Eliot Allen and Marjorie Burns, Cataclysms on the Columbia, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, 1986.

3 Adrian M. Lister and Andrei V. Sher, “The Origin and Evolution of the Woolly Mammoth,” Science, Vol 294, Issue 5544 (issue dated 2001-11-02), pp. 1094-1097 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1056370].

4 Eske Willerslev, et al., “Diverse Plant and Animal Genetic Records from Holocene and Pleistocene Sediments,” Science, Vol 300, Issue 5620 (issue dated 2003-04-17), pp. 791-795 [DOI: 10.1126/science.1084114].


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