Catastrophic Plate Tectonics

By Jon Covey, BA, MT (ASCP)
Edited by Anita K. Millen-Covey, MD, MPH, MA

If this world were created in six standard days, modified by the curse after Adam’s sin, and mauled by a global flood, what would it look like today? If this world, which many evolutionists claim, were the result of uniformitarian processes over billions of years, what would it look like? If this world were the result of multi-continent catastrophes, as evolutionary neo-catastrophists suggest, what would the aftereffects be? How could we decide which theory was nearest the truth?

A report in the journal Science concluded that 540 million years ago the supercontinent Rodinia suddenly cracked apart. The plates comprising the earth’s crust then moved and rotated much more rapidly than previously thought. Almost simultaneously, a new supercontinent, Gondwanaland, formed. [Kirshvink]

Supercharged Plates

The beginning of the Cambrian, about 540 million years ago, was a time when animal life seems to have exploded, perhaps associated with or following changes in the composition of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. Kirschvink et al. compiled paleomagnetic data from several continents and suggest that this was also an unusual time for plate tectonics. The data imply that all of the major continental plates rotated and moved rapidly during the Early and Middle Cambrian.

For example, Australia evidently traversed about 90 degrees in latitude within 30 million years. The authors suggest that the motion can be explained by rapid rotation of Earth’s mantle and lithosphere. [Brooks]

Heralding the report, The Los Angeles Times said this event might have set off the most prolific explosion of life in the planet’s history. [Cole] The Times said that the dramatic diversity of life that suddenly appeared in the fossil record about 530 million years ago–the so-called Cambrian explosion–produced the ancestors of virtually all living things on Earth today. Researchers have not been able to explain this sudden appearance of so many disparate body plans. Obviously, Joseph Kirschvink (a Cal Tech geologist) and his colleagues think the sudden movement of crustal plates sparked the previously inexplicable explosion of life:

We propose that rapid continental motions during the Cambrian period…occurred during the same time interval as the Cambrian evolutionary diversification and therefore the two events may be related. [Kirschvink]

The Times quotes Kirschvink as saying:

Life diversified like crazy about a half-billion years ago, and nobody really knows why. When we started assembling a real picture, it suddenly became apparent that this burst of motion was synchronous. The continents were moving at the same time…. That was the key insight.

The Times says Kirschvink speculates that relatively sudden transportation of species living in warm regions to cold ones, and vice versa, would have forced the kind of rapid adaptation to changing environments that drives evolution. He says that emerging traits are more likely to survive in small inbreeding populations, which is a great script for increasing diversity. This is in keeping with one of Stephen Jay Gould’s versions of punctuated equilibrium (please don’t ask which one), which might be in keeping with George Gaylord Simpson’s concept of quantum evolution. [Simpson, 1983]

According to evolutionists, the best way to get diversity of life is to kill as much of it as possible. This seems to be the theme of David Raup’s Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck? (1991) Do your level best to wipe out life and life will respond by evolving a richer smorgasbord of delectable creatures.

Back to Eyewitness Observation vs. Speculation

Both creationists and evolutionists have speculated about the separation of Gondwanaland into the current arrangement of continents. Creationists begin their speculation based on an eyewitness testimony. Moses, leader of the Children of Israel, reported that God told him He created the earth and caused dry land to appear out of the waters. According to Moses, God said, “Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear.” [Gen. 1:9] Since the waters were gathered into one place, the land must have been also in one place. Later testimony says that the earth was divided many years later. [Gen. 10:25]

Creationists say diversity follows pre-existing disparity of the many created body plans (phyla). Art Battson’s has a series, On the Origin of Stasis. His work shows that the fossil record is contrary to the standard evolutionary explanations. Evolutionists state that diversity proceeded from a single common ancestor. The Cambrian fossil record is a record of disparity involving as many as 75-100 different phyla. The disparity seen in the early Cambrian represents almost every phylum that has ever existed. Duane Gish, in all his public debates with evolutionists, says that the sudden appearance of many new life forms at the beginning of the Cambrian is what we would expect if creation is true. This fact bothers evolutionists, and they have long been looking for an explanation for the sudden appearance of such a rich and varied fossil record.

Evolutionists speculate how all the diversity of the Cambrian came about. Kirschvink evaded the real problem. Where did the disparity come from? Once the disparity exists, it is not difficult to explain the great diversity. We creationists explain the present diversity after the Flood based on basic animal kinds taken aboard the ark. Rapid diversification took place after the Flood when the animals returned to the land. Ken Ham asks, “If there was a worldwide flood, what should we expect to see?”

Then he asks, “What do we see?”

Billions of dead things buried in rock layers laid down by water all over the earth.

Many evolutionists regard the Bible as myth and allegory. Strange that after all these years, scientists who rejected catastrophe and embraced uniformitarian geology, sometimes for no better reason than to deny the Bible, are now embracing a catastrophic scenario to explain geology and evolution. This is strange because creationism teaches that the world’s geological features and species diversification happened in a few thousand years. The difference is evolutionists believe these things took place in sudden spurts, each separated by millions of years.

Creationists speculate that the Flood produced the fossil segregation patterns, e.g., trilobites in the Cambrian, dinosaurs in the Jurassic, etc.

Evolutionists note five major periods of mass extinction in the fossil record. Raup refers to these periods as mass killings. [Raup] He mentions that the best documented of the Big Five came at the end of the Cretaceous (when the dinosaurs died off). He says:

Also, sediments from the Cretaceous are widely distributed because it was a time when continents were flooded by shallow seas, leaving a good marine record on the present land surface. [Raup, p. 66; my emphasis]

The Floodwaters came mainly from the ocean as a result of violent upheaval by plate tectonics and volcanic eruptions (part of the fountains of the great deep). This initiated rapid, runaway subduction of the oceanic crust deep into the mantle, and upwelling of melted mantle which filled the ocean basins with hot magma and created unimaginable quantities of steam. The displaced ocean waters swept over the continents and deposited marine sediments on all the continents.

here are more marine sediments on the land than land sediments. The five mass killings are the result of major depositions from transported biomes driven by plate tectonism during the Flood. The seemingly rapid diversification that followed each mass killing is nothing more than continued, but lesser, deposition of sediments containing the multitude of diverse species. The fossils of the five major killings and the periods of lesser killings that followed them represent the organisms living immediately prior to the Flood’s onset. The fossils from most of the geological periods represent Flood kills in which creatures were buried suddenly, preserving their remains.

ICR Scientists Develop Catastrophic Plate Tectonic Theory

Several years ago, Steve Austin and his colleagues, at the Institute for Creation Research, worked out a model of the global flood based on catastrophic plate tectonics. Now evolutionary geologists have decided that the breakup of the original supercontinent was catastrophic, although not on the scale suggested by Austin and his colleagues. [Austin]

The Cambrian explosion represents the initial stages of the Flood when the first layers of marine sediments were laid down on the continents after the ocean waters swept across them. Probably, in those initial stages, the continents were together. This probably explains why geologists such as Derek Ager (see The Nature of the Stratigraphic Record, 1993)are able to trace distinctive deposits over several continents often separated by wide ocean basins. Some of these widespread deposits come from later geologic periods, meaning many millions of years according to evolutionary reckoning. If the early Cambrian marks the beginning of continental redistribution, how can the same deposit of sandstone or limestone bridge several continents? At some point, one has to say that regardless of whatever tremendous catastrophes distributed those deposits, the widening ocean basins would prevent multi-continental involvement from the same event.

According to Austin and other ICR scientists, creationist catastrophic plate tectonics theory began in 1859 when Antonio Snider proposed that rapid plate movement occurred during the Flood. Evolutionists attribute the theory of plate tectonics to Alfred Wegener in 1915 (very few ever mention Snider). [Tarbuck] Modern plate tectonic theory hangs on the ideas of continental drift and the uniformity of present processes extrapolated over billions of years.

ICR scientists begin their explanation with a pre-Flood earth consisting of core, mantle, and crust. There were two types of crust: continental and oceanic. Oceanic crust was made of denser materials (mafic) than continental crust (sialic).

As the Flood began, gigantic slabs of ocean floor broke loose from their moorings with the continental crust and slid beneath the continents (perhaps the result of asteroid bombardment that disrupted the earth’s crust). These slabs deformed the mantle. This produced heat and decreased the viscosity of the mantle around the descending oceanic slabs. The more liquid (less viscous) mantle allowed the plates to fall faster and faster. This created more heat, increasing mantle flow. They called this self-feeding process thermal runaway. By the time the slabs reached the earth’s core, about 60 days later, their speed was about five meters per second.

John Baumgardner, one of the ICR scientists, ran a computer program to simulate this process. As the slabs fell through the mantle and generated heat (the slabs remained relatively cool), great plumes of molten mantle rose up to the earth’s surface and erupted through enormous fissures, ejecting unimaginable quantities of fast-moving lava, which ran into ocean basins. This heated the ocean water, increasing evaporation. The water vapor from the ocean added to the rain already pouring down from the water above the “firmament,” and later became the source of moisture for the ice age snows.

Certainly, much of what creationists say is speculative, but they have an advantage. God, who was perpetrator of the Flood (called Jehovah’s Genocide) [Morris] and its only surviving eyewitness, told Moses what happened. Although many scientists disregard this, observation is a necessary step in the scientific method. God saw the Flood and Moses recorded what God told him.

The creationist catastrophic plate tectonic model is tied to the Flood. It has explanatory power and predictive success. It clarifies certain Scriptures and explains some physical data that the conventional plate tectonic theory doesn’t explain.


Austin, S. A., J. R. Baumgardner, D. R. Humphreys, A. A. Snelling, L. Vardiman, K. P. Wise, “Catastrophic Plate Tectonics: A Global Flood Model of Earth History,” Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Creationism, R. E. Walsh, ed., Pittsburgh, Creation Science Fellowship, Inc., pp. 609-621, 1994.

Brooks, H., “Supercharged Plates,” Science 277:453, 1997.

Cole, K.C., “Shift in Earth’s Crust, Diversity of Life Coincide,” The Los Angeles Times, p. A3, July 25, 1997.

Kirschvink, J. L., R. L. Ripperdan, D. A. Evans “Evidence for a Large-Scale Reorganization of Early Cambrian Continental Masses by Inertial Interchange True Polar Wander,” Science, 277:541, 1997.

Morris, S., Los Angeles Harbor College physics professor, speaking in behalf of evolution at our meeting for June 1993. J. A. Covey spoke in favor of creation at this meeting.

Raup, D. M., Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck?, New York, W. W. Norton & Company, p. 13-14, 1991.

Simpson, G. G., Fossils and the History of Life, New York, Scientific American Library, pp. 166-172, 1983.

Tarbuck, E. J., and F. K. Lutgens, The Earth: An Introduction to Physical Geology, 2nd edition, Columbus, Merrill Publishing Company, p. 392, 1987.

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