Trace Fossils, the Flood, and 2012

Arks from the movie 2012. Note the massive waves crashing into these massive ships. How did the real Ark survive anything like that?

Do you remember the year 2012? The year that the world was supposed to end, according to the Mayan calendar? Clearly, we survived that crisis. However, the fear and panic from that (supposed) crisis has become part of our culture. Maybe the fear has been forgotten today, but it became the premise of the movie 2012, which was released in 2009.

To summarize the plot of 2012 really briefly, the world is about to experience a disaster. Some geologists have discovered that massive upheavals are about to take place. The up coming disasters include earthquakes tearing apart California; a giant, dormant volcano erupting in Yellowstone; and finally, a global flood. No, really. The climax of the movie ends with a flood covering most of the world (Africa remained the one continent that was not flooded). The story follows a family escaping one disaster after another, eventually learning about three arks that the world governments have been building in secret. They eventually sneak aboard one of the arks, finally escaping the last, catastrophic disaster.

I want to focus on the presentation of the arks, and more specifically, the flood, as it was portrayed in 2012. The arks in the movie were huge. I know the real Ark, Noah’s Ark, was a huge ship. However, the arks in the movie dwarfed the Ark. They didn’t even look like ships. They looked more like giant space ships, minus any wings or rockets. These arks were made of steel, rather than wood.

The arks were held in place by giant struts. The struts were designed to release the arks once the flood waters had reached high enough. The struts were necessary in order to prevent the flood waters from tossing the arks about before they were ready to launch. As 2012 was a disaster movie, there had to be some last minute malfunctions that nearly prevented the arks from launching properly. The struts nearly didn’t hold: one of the arks was nearly swept away by the advancing waters.

As I watched 2012 and saw the unfolding near-disaster, I began to wonder, “Wow! How did Noah’s Ark survive? If these giant, steel ships barely survived the onslaught of a global flood, how did Noah’s Ark fare?” Obviously, the immediate answer is that 2012 is a movie and not reality, yet I still wondered, how devastating was the Flood and how did the Ark withstand the force of the waters rushing upon it?

We can begin answering this question by doing a simple calculation to determine how quickly the water of the Flood rose up on the Earth. To begin, how long did it take for the Flood waters to reach their peak height? There are two ideas about this. The first, and probably most familiar, is that it took 40 days for the waters to reach their peak. This is based on Genesis 7:17-20,

The flood continued forty days on the earth. The waters increased and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters prevailed and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep.

The other idea is that it took 150 days for the water to reach its peak. This idea also comes from Genesis 7. Continuing where we left off in the previous passage and continuing to verse 24, we read,

And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. And the water prevailed on the earth 150 days.

That ends chapter 7, and chapter 8 begins with God remembering Noah, and the fountains of the great deep and the windows of heaven being closed. So, depending on how this passage is interpreted in chapter 7, either the rising of the floodwaters lasted 40 days and the waters remained at its peak for another 110 days (for a total of 150), or the first 40 days were the most intense part of the flood, but the waters continued to rise until the 150th day. In our analysis of the severity of the Flood, we will use both numbers and compare them.

Now for the extent of the Flood. We agree that the Flood was global, but how high did it rise? We can see in the previous passages that the waters rose 15 cubits above the mountains. The 15 cubits is either 22.5 feet (using the standard cubit) or 26.25 feet (using a royal cubit, the same cubit that Answers in Genesis used when building the Ark at the Ark Encounter). Let us say 24 feet as a good estimate for how high the waters rose over the mountains. Now the question is, how high were the mountains before the Flood?

Unfortunately, we do not know how tall the antediluvial mountains were. None of them are described in scripture and none have been identified from the rock record, to my knowledge. Let us instead use today’s mountains as a proxy for the pre-Flood mountains. Today’s tallest mountain is Mount Everest, which rises 29,032 feet above sea level. Let us use this as an estimate for the tallest mountain found before the Flood. Note that Mount Everest is part of the Himalayas, a mountain range that was created when the subcontinent of India collided with Asia. This likely happened during the Flood, and thus Mount Everest, or at least the beginnings of what would become Mount Everest, may have actually appeared during the Flood itself. Likely, Mount Everest has continued to rise in height as India continues moving into Asia, so its modern height is probably an overestimate for the height of mountains during the Flood.

What we have now is that the Flood waters rose 29,032 + 24 = 29,056 feet in 40 days or 150 days. Using a time of 40 days, the water rose an average of 726.4 feet a day. That is a lot, however, that is “only” 30.27 feet an hour and about six inches a minute. Again, don’t get me wrong, six inches a minute is fast, especially when you consider that this is the average rate at which it rose across the entire earth.

Let us put this six inches a minute into perspective. One of the most devastating tsunamis happened in 2004. Initiated by a massive underwater earthquake off of the island of Sumatra, the tsunami caused devastation around the Indian Ocean, and its effects were felt across the globe.[1] The inundation of the tsunami on land varied based on how close the land was to the epicenter of the earthquake. The greatest run ups occurred in Sumatra itself. Run up refers to how high in elevation the water rose. Basically, it is the difference between the highest the water rose during the tsunami relative to normal sea level. Surveys after the tsunami showed run ups over 20 meters (about 65 feet) along the northwest coast of Sumatra. The highest run ups were 51 meters (167 feet).[2]

I had a hard time finding information describing how long it took for these run ups to occur. I found that in India, the tsunami came in three waves, each separated from each other by five minutes. Moreover, the first wave was still receding when the second and third waves were arriving on land.[3] That would be 15 minutes for all three waves to pass. Given that the waves built up on one another, let us use 15 minutes as an estimate for how long it took for the tsunami to reach its peak run up.

Given a rise of 167 feet in 15 minutes, the average rate of the water rising in one of the most devastating tsunamis is 11 feet per minute. Granted, that is the maximum run up. If we use 65 feet, the rate is 4 feet 4 inches per minute. Even if we use the run up rate in India, which was around 4 meters[4] (13 feet), we “only” get a rise of 10 inches per minute. That is still greater than our calculated rate of rise of the floodwaters. Thus, the rise of waters of 6 inches per minute is comparable to a tsunami, but not a tsunami wave near the epicenter.

If we use 150 days to peak the peak of the Flood, the rate is even lower. Now, the waters rose an average of 193.7 feet per day, 8 feet per hour, and 1.6 inches per minute. The bathtub in my house can fill at about 1 and a quarter inches per minute. I just went and checked it. Thus, the low end of the rise of the floodwater is comparable to a bathtub filling up. Again, considering the scale of the Flood (global) and that it eventually covered every bit of land, this rate had devastating consequences, but if you were living during it, the gradually rising waters would be more of a nuisance, as you would have to keep moving to higher ground every once in a while to get away from the water.

Keep in mind that in both estimates for the rate of rise, we are looking at the average rate of rise. We know how high it rose, we know how long it took to reach its peak, so we know how quickly it rose if we spread out the rising waters over the entire time. Almost certainly, there were moments when the Flood water rushed onto the land punctuated by moments when the waters were stationary (or even possibly, receding). Where on the globe the water were rushing up and where the waters were temporarily stagnant probably varied from place to place. One area of the world would be experiencing a local tsunami while a distant region would have little happening except for a persistent rain. Thus, the Flood was likely not a persistent, global tsunami, boiling and roiling over the land, overwhelming everything in its past. Again, the end consequence of the Flood is that everything drowned, but if the Flood waters rose “gradually,” then life could have persisted, for at least a time, during the Flood.

In fact, we see evidence of this in trace fossils. Now, a fossil is a trace or remains of a living thing preserved in the rock record. We typically think of an organism’s body, be it a petrified log or a dinosaur’s skeleton, as a fossil. However, traces, marks, and things left behind by an animal, are also fossils. These are called trace fossils. The most familiar type of trace fossil are fossil footprints.

Fossil tracks a pretty common. I will mostly speak of dinosaur tracks, as they are the type I am most familiar with. While some dinosaur trackways may have been made by dinosaurs seeking higher ground to escape the floodwaters, it is interesting to note that there is little evidence that the dinosaurs were hurrying. For example, most estimated speeds of medium to large theropods (theropods are the carnivorous dinosaurs) based on their trackways are 5 to 10 km/hr.[5] (3.1 to 6.2 mile/hr.). That is a gentle stroll, not a panicked rush. There is also a trackway in the Paluxy River that has been interpreted as showing an Acrocanthrosaurus attacking a sauropod.[6] There are even traces that appear to show dinosaur courtship dances![7] Then there are dinosaur nests. Now, not all dinosaur eggs are found in nests: quite a few are found crushed and grouped together in a single layer. However, there are also dinosaur nests found complete with eggs inside the nests. As these are found in layers that are believed to be Flood deposits, the dinosaurs must have made the nests, and laid the eggs, during the Flood.

From all of this, we can conclude that dinosaurs were not worried about the rising floodwaters. They were moving about in an unhurried manner, they were hunting each other, they were performing courtship rituals, they were building nests and laying eggs. They were doing this while and after floodwaters had buried animals in other places on the globe.

The evidence from dinosaur trace fossils coincides with what we concluded about the average rate at which the Flood rose: the average rate was rather slow. Sure, there were tsunamis here and flash floods there, but there were also times when the floodwaters were barely, or even not rising at all. During these quiet interludes, life continued for creatures during the Flood.

Going back to the movie 2012, the reason I wondered how Noah’s Ark survived the waters rushing upon the earth is because I had a wrong perspective about the Flood. Seeing an extremely violent flood on screen tricked me into thinking that the real Flood must also have been extremely violent. Instead, the Flood likely had its moments when it was violent, yet it also had its moments when it was quiet. It would have been a lot more complex than a single, gigantic flash flood rushing universally upon the land.

Thoughts from Steven

[1]NOAA “Tsunami Wave Run-ups: Indian Ocean 2004”, retrieved from -wave- on June 21, 2022


[3]S. Seshachalam, N. Thangadurai, A. Switzer, V. Mohan, and T. Ayyamperumal (2007) “Erosion and sedimentation in Kalpakkam ( N Tamil Nadu, India) from the 26th December 2004 tsunami” Marine Geology 240: 65-75


[5]R. E. Molnar and J. O. Farlow (1990) “Carnosaur Paleobiology” in The Dinosauria, David, Wishampel, Peter Dodson, and Halszka Osmólska, eds. University of California Press, Berkeley, California, pg. 218

[6]David Thomas and James Farlow (1997) “Tracking a Dinosaur Attack” Scientific American 277(6): 74-79

[7]Martin Lockley, Richard McCrea, Lisa Buckley, Jong Lim, Neffra Matthews, Brent Breithaupt, Karen Houck, Gerard Gierliński, David Surmik, Kyung Kim, Lida Xing, Dal Kong, Ken Cart, Jason Martin, Glade Hadden (2016) “Theropod courtship: large scale physical evidence of display arenas and avian-like scrope ceremony behaviour by Cretaceous dinosaurs” Scientific Reports, 6: 18952

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