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Perspective: Clarifying "Understanding Ice Core Science"

The Record is the official publication of the  Adventist Church in Australasia. The March 7, 2015 issue featured an article titled "Understanding Ice Core Science," by Dr Sven Ostring, on pages 16 & 17. Further discussion of this article seems vital, because it relates to a proper understanding of Genesis and an accurate understanding of the aims of science, and hence, the relation between science and the Bible.

Our clarification brings critical facts about ice cores into focus. In Greenland and Antarctica great ice sheets are present and cores have been removed in sections, which collectively reach a depth of about 3 km.  In the Greenland ice cores, annual layers can be counted back to 90,000 years before the present (BP) and there is yet more ice below.1 The isotopic composition of the ice and studies of the trapped gases have yielded much information regarding past climate. Since the ice core record extends back in time to beyond Creation Week (about 6,000 years BP), it is commendable to assess ice core findings critically as done in the Record. Others have done this before and the authors of this clarification do so in support of both science and the Bible. However, our overall conclusions differ from those of the Record. We hope these clarifying comments will be taken as constructive so that the discussion is elevated beyond argument, and that it does reveal harmony between science and the Bible. We are encouraged by a quotation from Patriarchs and Prophets:

Science opens new wonders to our view; she soars high, and explores  new depths; but she brings nothing from her research that conflicts with  divine revelation. Ignorance may seek to support false views of God by  appeals to science, but the book of nature and the written word shed light  upon each other (p. 115)."

Before critical counting of ice core layers began, sound evidence indicated that each layer almost invariably represented one year.2 The accuracy of the counting of layers has been confirmed by the layer specific occurrence of volcanic ash from dated eruptions, by geochemistry, and by sudden climate changes independently dated by other methods and also dated by the ice core layers. All these methods contributed to confirmation of counting before 2,000 BP, which was extended back to 74,000 years BP at the Toba eruption. The Greenland ice cores indicate that an ice age terminated about 11,700 years BP but the Antarctic ice cores and the ocean sediment layers, which date further back in time, indicate the occurrence of recurring ice ages.3

Because the age of the Earth revealed by ice core layers appears to be inconsistent with some theological opinions, for example, the young earth creationist (YEC) belief that the planet originated 6,000 years BP at Creation Week, attempts appear to be made to discredit ice core science. It appears that YEC have resorted to inaccurate reporting and misquotation of science articles in an attempt to support their views.  Their approach is illustrated below with reference to the published Record article.

Based on misquotation, the Record states, for example, that scientists assumed each ice core layer represented one year, that Richard Alley states we could all be fooled today by the ice core data, that laser light scattering creates serious errors in layer counting, that layer counting has not been verified beyond 2,000 years BP, and that "scientific conclusions are based on unverifiable assumptions, reductionist models and equivocal data."  The above have no valid basis and are the product of out-of-context statements, misquotation and biased views. The following quotation from the Record serves as an example:

Richard Alley has noted 'Agreement [between these parameters] does not  prove accuracy, however; perhaps all of us were being fooled in the same way.'  Alley, R. The Two-Mile Time Machine, p. 57.  He is referring to the reality that we could all be fooled by scientific assumptions and models being used to interpret the data."

Alley was not providing comment for us today as implied by the Record. He was referring to a time early in their research (ca 1990) when they were uncertain of the accuracy of the layer counts. The next sentence (omitted by the Record) in his book reads: "To check for this possibility, we needed to look for other help." They didand they found it—independently dated climate changes, and historically dated volcanic eruptions, to serve as reference points for comparison with their own data. The agreement was excellent. They were not being fooled. Richard Alley's words have been taken out of context to create doubt in the minds of Record readers. Why?

We could go on in this vein, but that only becomes tedious. It is more meaningful to assess what ice core science really tells us, especially in relation to Creation. It is relevant to note that all the science references except one quoted in the original Record article are pre-2000 vintage. The discussions are mainly of the early Greenland ice core GISP2"one ice core illustrates the process", the author saysand the Record appears to be quite critical of this pioneering work. However, six major ice cores have now been drilled in Greenland, nine in Antarctica and four in Canada, nearly all made independently and all critically assessed.  A total of nineteen ice cores drilled, and the results all correlate and are in close agreement with the pioneering work described by Richard Alley.

When one considers the entire picture more fully and more carefully, as hinted at above, a view emerges concerning ice cores that differs quite markedly from that published in the Record. The emergent view, we suggest, is one of great achievement, meticulous science and innovative ideas regarding the planet Earth. The results may not agree with some theological views, but they are an honest attempt to arrive at accurate information concerning our environment. Similar accuracy by theologians would be welcome, but often appears lacking in statements on science by YEC. A firm belief in theology does not give licence to misquote science in order to support belief. Nor does it give the right to promote, in a scriptural setting, ideas that are essentially speculative and lack a biblical basis. The post-flood ice age is an example.

The Record article initially asks an important question:

But does the history [of the earth's climate as revealed by ice cores] they are finding disprove the biblical account of earth's history?"

This question was not addressed directly and consequently not answered, so perhaps we can venture an answer, which is: No! In fact, ice core studies and other science support the Bible as we discuss below, and this science also assists in defining creation theology.

There is a problem in the interpretation of Genesis 1:1-3. Is Genesis 1:1-2 part of Creation Week? This question appears to have perplexed theologians for centuries and no resolution seems to be in sight.  Although several lines of Scriptural evidence, discussed clearly by Davidson,4 indicate that Genesis 1:1-2 occurred before Creation Week of Genesis 1:3-2:4, an unequivocal resolution has not been achieved.4

That suggests it is time to consult God's other (second) book, the book of Nature. When this is done, a clear resolution appears and the harmony of science with the Bible is confirmed. Thus studies of ocean floor sediments, the dating of rocks by modern methods, and now the ice core record, establish that the planet Earth was created "in the beginning" (Genesis 1:1), long before Creation Week of Genesis 1 dated by genealogies at 6,000 years BP (Genesis 5 and 11).

The above diverse studies also provide support for the biblical interpretations of Davidson [] that suggest a temporal separation of verses 1-2 and verse 3 of Genesis 1 (the "Gap" proposal). Davidson notes that Scripture gives no indication how long the "Gap" period was between creation of the universe and Creation Week, of Genesis 1.  He suggests "millions or billions of years" which would accord with science.  Davidson places Genesis 1 in a broader perspective when he said4:

Furthermore, if the passive gap interpretation is correct (as I have argued above), then the creation of 'the heavens and the earth' during the span of time termed 'in the beginning,' encompassed the whole galactic universe, including the planet Earth in its 'unformed and unfilled' condition (Gen 1:2)."

Returning to the question above that we set out to answer, clearly the ice core science does not disprove any biblical history. The science is in accord with the Gap concept and the occurrence of Creation Week on an "old" Earth. The ice core science is also in accord with the Bible regarding Creation Week as a recent event. Based on biblical chronologies (Genesis 5 and 11), this occurred 6-7,000 years BP. Ice core studies indicate that the last glacial period (Ice Age, glacial maximum about 23,000 years BP) ended 11,700 years BP and the low and very variable temperatures of the glaciation would not be compatible with life in Eden prior to the Fall when temperatures were "mild and uniform" (Patriarchs & Prophets, p. 61). The last 1,300 years of the Ice Age (termed the Younger Dryas) have been further characterised by the ice core studies.  For over a millenium, the earth was locked in cold, dry and windy conditions that greatly affected climate and plant growth throughout the Northern Hemisphere.5 However, after the end of the Ice Age and at the beginning of the Holocene, temperatures gradually increased, stabilised about 10,000 years BP and remained remarkably constant thereafter. Based on ice core studies, it is reasonable to propose that Creation Week occurred after 10,000 years BP. 

Thus ice core studies have given insight concerning the time when Creation Week occurred on an "old" earth and the climate on the planet in relation to Creation Week. Creation theology has been clarified by ice core science, which is in accord with Scripture.


References:

  1. K.K. Andersen and 49 colleagues, Nature, v. 431, pp. 147-151 (2004).  See also: A. Svensson and 7 coworkers, Journal of Geophysical Research (Atmospheres) v. 110, D2 (2005).
  2. R.B. Alley and 11 colleagues, Journal of Geophysical Research, v. 102, pp. 26,367-26,381 (1997).
  3. L. Augustin and 55 colleagues, Nature, v. 429, pp. 623-628 (2004).
  4. R.M. Davidson, "Understanding the 'When' of Creation in Genesis 1-2", in Bryan W. Ball, (Ed.), In the Beginning, Science and Scripture Confirm Creation, Pacific Press Publishing Association, Nampa, Idaho, U.S.A., 2012, Ch. 7, pp. 97-113. 
  5. R.B. Alley and P.U. Clark, Annu. Review Earth and Planetary Science, v. 27, pp. 149-182 (1999).

 

D. Stuart. Letham was awarded a PhD (Birmingham, UK) in organic chemistry in 1955.  His subsequent research work included the purification, determination of structure and synthesis of the first naturally occurring cytokinin, compounds that induce cell division in plants.  They occur in plants at the level of 1 part per billion (see Letham, Annual Review of Plant Physiology 1967, 1983).  He is the author of over 190 refereed papers in biochemistry and plant physiology journals.  He retired from the Australian National University 1992 as Professor Emeritus.

Col J. Gibson worked in accounting in industry for a decade before taking an academic position as a senior lecturer in accounting at universities in Australia, New Zealand, and the University of South Pacific (Suva, Fiji).  As a natural naturalist from an early age he has been active, as a hobby interest, in helping many professional scientists in fieldwork, and now in retirement still acts as a citizen scientist, which includes field observations and bird photography.

Both authors have discussed the Science/Creation subject for the past few years and thought it was time (obviously after reading a particular Record issue as noted in this article) to put some of their thoughts on this interface into the public arena for others to consider and comment.

 

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