Most of my favorite trips from childhood (and adulthood) involved mountains—backpacking in Bridger Wilderness Wyoming; rafting the Arkansas River through Brown’s Canyon, Colorado; enjoying the ski slopes of Monarch Pass in the Colorado Rockies. All of these destinations, including my most recent excursion to the Grand Tetons (just south of Yellowstone National Park), feature mountain peaks reaching well over 12,000 feet above sea level.
Colter Bay in the Grand Tetons.
Recent research shows that for half of Earth’s history such vistas did not exist. The processes that formed the Earth left it with a surface and interior much hotter than today. Collisions during the late heavy bombardment maintained this hellish state. Extreme heat makes most materials less rigid and sturdy. Consequently, the rocky substance that comprises Earth’s crust was too weak to permit the formation of mountains any larger than about 7,500 feet. Over time, Earth radiated enough heat away that the crust grew much stronger. Between 2.8 and 2.5 billion years ago, it became strong enough to support mountains taller than 7,500 feet.
This dating is significant because of how tall mountains affected Earth’s atmosphere and geochemistry. Around this same time, our planet’s atmosphere changed to a state containing a permanent oxygen component (although initially only a few percent of present levels). Yet the geological record indicates that up to 300 million years elapsed between the time when oxygen-producing bacteria came into existence and when the permanent oxygen component appeared. The simultaneous formation of tall mountains and this atmospheric constituent may help explain this gap.
As I wrote in the January 2009 issue of our new magazine, New Reasons to Believe, the abundance or lack of nutrients affects the activity of oxygen-producing bacteria. In particular, the lack of the element molybdenum severely limits bacterial activity. The erosion of continental crust provides the primary source of this element, and tall mountains greatly facilitate erosion. The increase of molybdenum in the geological record coincides with the time that the crust became strong enough to support mountains above 7,500 feet. Subsequently, the oxygen content of the atmosphere increased to the current 20 percent level that complex life, like human beings, requires.
Genesis 1 describes a process where God transformed an initially uninhabitable, water-covered world to an environment teeming with life. One overriding purpose of this transformation is to provide an abundant, beautiful place for humans to reside. The intricate interaction of biological (oxygen-producing bacteria), astronomical (Earth radiating heat away into space), geological (plate tectonics building tall mountains), and chemical (erosion of nutrients like molybdenum) processes fits perfectly with the careful, purposeful progression Genesis 1 describes.