When I first read Genesis 1 at age 17, the plate tectonics theory was in its infancy. Researchers were still not certain whether continents had always existed on Earth’s surface or if the planet had transitioned over several billion years from a water world into its present state, where continents cover 29 percent of its surface. I remember wondering at that time if, while science had not disproved anything written in Genesis 1, it would actually advance to proving that Genesis 1 got both the descriptions and the chronological order of creation events correct? Uppermost in my mind back then was whether or not the new science of plate tectonics would vindicate Genesis 1’s statements about the continental landmasses being formed on creation day 3.
Two years later, I had the privilege of taking a newly designed geophysics class from Jack Jacobs and Don Russell, two of the founders of plate tectonics theory. The course used the textbook they had written with J. Tuzo Wilson.1 There I learned about the emerging strong evidence that Earth has had a long history of powerful plate tectonics that gave rise to continents, mountain ranges, and volcanoes. I recognized that this model of Earth’s history was at least broadly consistent with the biblical description of creation day 3.
However, Genesis 1 implies that the majority of continental landmass growth occurred within a short time period when Earth was about half or a little less than half its present age, which could correlate to the first part of day 3. So the question becomes, does Earth’s geological history support such rapid landmass growth?
In 1982, geoscientists used major element chemistry of lutites (fine-grained sedimentary rock consisting of clay or silt-sized particles or both) to infer that much of the continental landmass formation occurred 2.1–2.5 billion years ago.2 Then in 2016, geoscientists used radiometric dating and the oxygen-18 to oxygen-16 (O-18/O-16) isotope ratio of shale deposits around the world to more accurately determine that indeed the bulk of continental landmass formation occurred about 2.5 billion years ago.3 Figure 1 shows the continental landmass growth as a percentage of Earth’s total surface area based on the O-18/O-16 ratio. I have been using this figure in my talks and books on the concordance of Genesis 1 with the established scientific record.
Figure 1: Growth of Continents as a Percentage of Earth’s Surface Area Based on O-18/O16 Ratios Alone. Image credit: Hugh Ross
In the May 2018 issue of Nature, a team of geologists and geophysicists led by Ilya Bindeman provided the most accurate constraint, to date, on the emergence of continents over the past 3.7 billion years. They are the first team to use triple-oxygen isotope ratio analysis on shale deposits from all continents.4 Shales are useful for this kind of research because they are the dominant sedimentary rock on Earth and they are the products of chemical and physical weathering of landmasses. Hence, shales are an excellent proxy for how much of Earth’s surface is comprised of landmasses.
Unlike previous studies, Bindeman’s team analyzed both the O-18/O-16 ratio and the oxygen-17 to oxygen-16 (O-17/O-16) isotope ratio in the shale deposits. Theirs is also the most extensive sample of shale deposits. They analyzed shales from 278 outcrops and drill holes on all seven continents. The combined use of two isotope ratios enabled Bindeman’s team to determine exactly how the shale deposits were formed. This knowledge allowed them to accurately reconstruct Earth’s past surface conditions. Figure 2 shows the growth history of Earth’s continental landmasses based on the data presented in the Bindeman team’s paper.
Figure 2: Growth of Continents as a Percentage of Earth’s Surface Area Based on O-18/O16 and O17/O16 Ratios. Image credit: Hugh Ross
Figure 3: Continental Landmass Coverage at Different Times. Image credit: Hugh Ross and Wikipedia Commons
Figure 3 shows rough maps of the extent of continental landmasses on Earth’s surface at three different times. The full paper published in Nature includes a gorgeous image showing, in accurate detail, first the extent of Earth’s landmasses previous to 2.45 billion years ago, showing only two mini-continents or cratons, and second the extent of Earth’s landmasses after 2.32 billion years ago, showing the extent of Kenorland, the first supercontinent. The two maps show that in less than 0.13 billion years, landmass coverage expanded by about 13 times.
The formation of Kenorland permitted, for the first time, recycling of nutrients from the landmasses to the oceans and back sufficient enough to sustain longterm advanced life. Kenorland’s rapid formation also coincided with the Great Oxygenation Event, which I describe in detail in my book Improbable Planet.5 The Great Oxygenation Event was critical for paving the way for sustaining longterm advanced life.
The more accurately determined growth history of Earth’s continents is more consistent with the implication in Genesis 1:9 that nearly all continental landmass growth occurred within a short time period when Earth was about half or a little less than half its present age. The research achieved by Bindeman’s team affirms that the more we learn about science and the record of nature, the more reasons we gain to trust the Bible as the inspired, inerrant, authoritative Word of God.