The geological story told by Iceland

Iceland is a volcanic island in the North Atlantic Ocean, slightly below the Arctic Circle. The island is situated on a mid-ocean ridge at the boundary between the North American plate and the Eurasian plate. In Iceland, we find evidence of horizontal movements, in which two plates spread apart as the crust dilates with intrusion of new magma. Iceland, however, is also associated with a mantle plume (a narrow stem of upwelling of magma from deep in the mantle) that has maintained volcanism high and vigorous [1]. Spreading creates some sort of symmetry in the buildup of the island (although slightly distorted by the mantle plume) with the youngest rocks situated on the ridge and the older rocks away from the ridge on both sides (Figure 1).


Figure 1: A simplified map of the geology of Iceland showing the spreading ridge in orange and the volcanic systems where volcanism takes place. Older volcanic terrains lie on both sides of the ridge. From

The rocks forming the island are mostly stacks of solidified lava flows. The lava flows are inclined towards the spreading ridge, exposing a continuous sequence of lava flows that date from the middle Miocene to the present. In the oldest part of the sequence, found in the glacially carved fjords of eastern and western Iceland, the lava flows are intercalated with sediments and deposits with plant remains of large trees not found in Iceland today [2]. Continuing upwards in the sequence, we find volcanic products and sediments that are linked to the Ice Age (Plio-Pleistocene) [3], and then on top of the sequence at the ridge we find young lava flows and sediments formed after the Ice Age (Holocene).

The earliest volcanism in Iceland is regarded as being mostly of so called flood basalt type, that is, large outpourings of magma from fissures, forming lava flows that covered widespread areas [4], [5]. Around the world, we find several provinces with flood basalts that indicate events of great turmoil in earth’s mantle in the past. Some of these lava flows in these provinces have volumes 100’s to 1,000’s of km3. These events are difficult to explain in conventional uniformitarian terms, but fit well into catastrophic creationist models e.g. [6], [7] that place this volcanism in conjunction with the biblical Flood and its aftermath. Flood basalt volcanism has only recently caught the attention of scientists, and ongoing volcanic activity in Iceland could help in deciphering the effects of such colossal volcanism. For example, the eruption of Laki in 1783-84, which is regarded by many geologists as a small flood basalt eruption, created a lava flow field of about 15 km3 in 8 months (common sizes of modern eruptions are <0.1 km3), and released about 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide (about three times the annual industrial output in Europe in 2016), triggering temperature drops in Europe of about 1-3°C [8], [9]. The cooling resulted in bad winters and summers leading to poverty and famine in Europe and the death of thousands of people [10], while famine and fluoride poisoning of the surface waters in Iceland caused the death of over 50% of the livestock. The 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano was observed to trigger algae blooms under the ash plume [11], while elevated levels of sulfuric acid, HCL, HF, and metal concentration were measured in snow and precipitation in the Holuhraun eruption in 2014-15 [12]. Furthermore, although not an observation from Iceland, volcanic emissions of CO2 can result in artificial radiocarbon ages (excessively old ages) caused by excess CO2 concentrations in the volcanic grounds [13]. These examples demonstrate that the secondary effects of volcanic eruptions can be many, and we expect the environmental pressure of the flood basalt volcanism around the world in earth’s past history to have been enormous, something that creationists should explore in light of the volcanism associated with the biblical Flood and its aftermath.

Iceland has a wide variety of volcanic products, created in volcanic events ranging from effusive lava outpourings to explosive eruptions [14]. Considering that the largest glaciers in Europe are found in Iceland, some of the volcanic eruptions in Iceland occurred and will occur under glaciers (Figure 2).


Figure 2: A view over Landmannalaugar in central south Iceland. The thick rhyolite lava flow centered in the photo (see cars on campsite for scale) is named Laugahraun and erupted around 1477. The light colored mountains surrounding Laugahraun are also of rhyolitic composition but are from eruptions under ice during the ice age.

When magma erupts under water/ice it fragments generating tephra and volcanic breccia, which reworked and remobilized in the water form volcanic sediment deposits [15]. Later, these deposits are modified and hardened by hydrothermal alteration and become what geologists call hyaloclastites. Thus, hyaloclastite deposits preserve evidence of transport by currents and gravity flows indicative of relatively rapid formation within the watery environment of these subglacial eruptions. The process of alteration in the hyaloclastites was thought to require a long time but took only a few years to happen in Surtsey Island that emerged from the sea in an eruption in 1963-67 [16]. Therefore, subglacial eruptions may be a good analogue to very dynamic, high-energy watery environments with rapid sedimentation, reworking, transportation and hardening of sedimentary deposits.

Another interesting phenomenon observed in Iceland is the generation of large volumes of meltwater with geothermal activity and volcanism under glaciers. These meltwaters can burst in high-energy catastrophic flooding events. Outburst floods from eruptions in the glacially covered Katla volcano are estimated to have reached flow rates >200,000 m3/s (which is the flow rate of the Amazon river) [17]. The force of such raging waters carve canyons in hours and leave vast sedimentary flood plains. The canyons of the touristic Gullfoss and Detifoss waterfalls, and the “sandur” deposits (sand plains) in south Iceland are a witness to these glacial outburst floods.

Therefore, Iceland provides insight into several geological processes of great relevance to creationists working on developing models for processes that might have occurred during or after the biblical Flood. Going from plate tectonics, the ice age, flood basalt volcanism and its secondary effects, to catastrophic erosion and sedimentation, all these themes are displayed in an unspoiled environment immersed with natural beauty.



[1]Bjarnason, I., 2008, An Iceland hotspot saga, Jökull, 2008, 58, 3-16.

[2]Denk, T.; Grímsson, F. and Kvacek, Z., 2005, The Miocene floras of Iceland and their significance for late Cainozoic North Atlantic biogeography, Botanical Journal of Linnean Society, 149, 369-417.

[3]Geirsdóttir, Á., 2011, Chapter 16 – Pliocene and Pleistocene Glaciations of Iceland: A Brief Overview of the Glacial History, Jurgen Ehlers, P. L. G. and Hughes, P. D. (Eds.), Quaternary Glaciations – Extent and ChronologyA Closer Look, Elsevier, Volume 15, 199-210.

[4]Walker, G. P. L., 1959, Geology of the Reyðarfjörður area, Eastern Iceland
Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 1959, 114, 367-391.

[5]Oskarsson, B. V. and Riishuus, M. S., 2014, The mode of emplacement of Neogene flood basalts in eastern Iceland: Facies architecture and structure of simple aphyric basalt groups, Volcanol. Geotherm. Res., 2014, 289, 170-192.

[6]Austin, S. A.; Baumgardner, J. R.; Humphreys, D. R.; Snelling, A. A.; Vardiman, L. and Wise, K. P., 1994, Catastrophic plate tectonics: A global flood model of earths History, Walsh, R. E. (Ed.), Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Creationism, 609-621.

[7]Baumgardner, J. R., 2003, Catastrophic plate tectonics: The physics behind the Genesis flood, Ivey Jr., R. L. (Ed.), Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Creationism, 113-126.

[8]Thordarson, T. and Self, 2003, Atmospheric and environmental effects of the 1783-1784 Laki eruption: A review and reassessment, Geophys. Res., 2003, 108, AAC 7-1-AAC 7-29

[9]Wikipedia – The Laki eruption.

[10]Grattan, J.; Durand, M. and Taylor, R., 2003, Illness and elevated human mortality in Europe coincident with the Laki Fissure eruption, Oppenheimer, C.; Pyle, D. M. and Barclay, J. (Eds.), Volcanic degassing, GeologiGeological , London, Special Publications, 213, 401-414.

[11]Achterberg, E. P.; Moore, C. M.; Henson, S. A.; Steigenberger, S.; Stohl, A.; Eckhardt, S.; Avendano, L. C.; Cassidy, M.; Hembury, D.; Klar, J. K.; Lucas, M. I.; Macey, A. I.; Marsay, C. M. and Ryan-Keogh, T. J., 2013, Natural iron fertilization by the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption, Res. Lett., 40, 921-926.

[12]Gíslason, S., 2015, Environmental pressure from the 2014-15 eruption of Bárðarbunga volcano, Iceland, Geochemical Perspectives Letters, 1, 84-93.

[13]Pasquier-Cardin, A.; Allard, P.; Ferreira, T.; Hatte, C.; Coutinho, R.; Fontugne, M. and Jaudon, M., 1999, Magma derived CO2 emmisions recorded in 14C and 13C content of plants growing in Furnas caldera, Azores, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 92, 195-207.

[14]Thordarson, T. and Larsen, G., 2007, Volcanism in Iceland in historical time: Volcano types, eruption styles and eruptive history, Journal of Geodynamics, Hotspot Iceland, 43, 118-152.

[15]Schopka, H. H.; Gudmundsson, M. T. and Tuffen, H., 2006, The formation of Helgafell, southwest Iceland, a monogenetic subglacial hyaloclastite ridge: Sedimentology, hydrology and volcano-ice interaction, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 152, 359-377.

[16]Jakobsson, S., 1972, On the consolidation and palagonitization of the tephra of the Surtsey volcanic island, Iceland, Surtsey Research Progre. Rep. VI, 121-129.

[17]Tomasson, H., 1996, The jokulhlaup from Katla in 1918, Annals of Glaciology, 22, 249-254.




Posted in Catastrophism, Genesis Flood, Geology, Plate Tectonics | Leave a comment

Questions: their role in discovery


When we are seeking answers, it matters a great deal what questions we ask. That seems obvious, but asking the right questions does not always happen automatically. And one of the important questions is “can I expect to know the answer to this question?”

I am especially thinking of questions and answers relating to faith and science: questions about origins and geological history. First of all, consider two very different questions. If I am skipping flat stones across a pond, and want to know the best angle for the stone to hit the water, I can do experiments to answer that question. Someone did the experiments, and even published the answer in the prestigious scientific journal Nature! There is a vast range of such questions that can be answered with experiments or observations. If I want to know where my grandfather was in the year 1896, and there is no written record, how would I find the answer to this question?

The difference between these two questions is that skipping stones is a process that can happen now, any time we choose to seek answers to our questions about it. But my grandfather’s experiences happened in the past, and we can’t repeat those experiences to study them. There are some events or processes that we can never know unless a reliable eyewitness tells us about them. Some examples are the time I carried a can of gasoline for my empty Chevrolet gas tank and tore my pants wide open on the fence along the freeway, the murder of Robert Kennedy, or the creation of the world. These are all events in history, and we can only know they happened if someone tells us about them.

If our questions are about events in geological history, can’t we do research to answer them? Yes we can, but with definite limitations. If we want to know how a particular layer of sandstone was deposited, we can study how sand is deposited in modern rivers, deserts, or the ocean. This can help us develop hypotheses about the deposit of the sandstone in question, but since we cannot go back in time and watch the sandstone form, our hypotheses will always remain as only hypotheses. Careful study can eliminate the least likely hypotheses, but it may be that none of our hypotheses are correct.

I enjoy asking questions about geological history or about the origins of living organisms, but it is not realistic to think we can ever be sure of the answers to many of these questions. The only written record of this history is found in the Bible, and it only addresses the most basic questions about ancient history. It is OK to have unanswered questions, since it will be impossible for us to find all the answers about history.

When we are seeking to understand the larger issues about biological origins or geological history, we all bring an individual mindset (set of assumptions) to the table. We can refer to this mindset as a worldview. One worldview accepts the Bible account of origins as a true description of history. A very different worldview assumes that the Bible does not give an accurate history, there is no creator or designer, and life has evolved on earth for millions of years (naturalism). These worldviews influence, and often control, the questions we will ask and the range of answers that we will think of. This has far more influence on science than is commonly realized.

Several colleagues and I spent a decade of research on the Eocene Bridger Formation in SW Wyoming, a rock unit containing thousands of fossil turtles and mammals. If we had approached this research from the usual naturalistic worldview, it would have led to questions like the following:

Did this rock formation with its fossils accumulate in five millions years, or in perhaps four million years?

During Eocene time, which of the mammals evolved first, the brontotheres, or the creodonts?

But since we were working within a biblical worldview, we asked questions like the following:

Did this rock formation accumulate slowly, or very rapidly?

Did it accumulate quickly during the global flood?

Did it accumulate slower, over perhaps a few hundred years, after the global flood?

Why are there such massive accumulations of fossil turtles?

Were the turtles killed and buried quickly, or over extended time?

A worldview based on a literal biblical worldview broadened our thinking to include new questions that would not be suggested, and in fact would not be allowed within a naturalistic worldview. We were also very much aware of the interpretations of the rocks given by naturalistic scientists, and deliberately sought to compare the two views and ask which gave better explanations of the evidence. We were not there when the rocks formed, so proving our hypotheses was not a possibility, but our worldview opened our eyes to see things that were not noticed by others, and suggested new, constructive questions, like those listed above (also see Origins Number 64, p. 6-20. 2015). Thus our biblical approach was a benefit, not a hindrance to the research. This has been my experience in all my geology/paleontology research. The approach described here can result in careful research and publications in scientific research journals, and new scientific insights (e.g. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 162:171-209, 2000). God is the most knowledgeable geologist ever, and, contrary to the prevailing worldview, following his biblical outline of history can give us a scientific advantage.

 Leo field photo 96 jpg

Leonard Brand, PhD, Loma Linda University

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Coping with Difficult, Unanswered, and Unanswerable Questions

Difficult, unanswered, and unanswerable questions are often catalysts for paradigm shifts in technology, medicine, and in personal and community value systems.

Challenging questions important to Christian value systems are often about origins, evolution, pain and suffering, age of the earth, and various creation scenarios. Christian education has a responsibility to help individuals learn how to honestly cope with difficult questions in ways that fortify their trust in the biblical worldview. Sometimes, this means learning that the answer to a question may not exist, may exist while being currently unavailable, or that the question may be considered in alternative ways.

A Difficult Question is one that has a tentative answer and might later be determined to be Unanswerable or have an answer different from what has been accepted.

An Unanswered Question as yet has no proposed answer, but we think we can eventually discover an answer.

An Unanswerable Question is one for which we have no way to obtain information/data for formulating an answer.

Some Answers Can Wait

There are profound messages in the story of Job. Job wanted to question God about many things that were happening. God agreed to let this happen but first he posed questions to Job. Job where were you when I did this? Explain how I did this? And, Job had no answers and accepted a relationship that transcended getting all the answers. There were things behind the scenes that Job didn’t understand. Job eventually expresses his commitment to serving God even if God choose to slay him. Job’s relation with God was a faith-based experience that transcended any Difficult, Unanswered, and Unanswerable Questions posed by his tormentors or by God.

 Recognizing that some questions are not answerable can help us cope with our own questions, and lead us to trust the information given us by a loving and trustworthy God.

 – The finite will never completely understand the infinite. –

Robert D. Moon Jr. PhD

Posted in Biblical and Theological Perspectives, Philosophical and Historical Perspectives | Leave a comment

Alpine ophiolites: Remnants of a lost ocean

In 1813, French geologist Alexandre Brongniart published a paper on the mineralogical classification of rocks[1] where he introduced the new name “ophiolite” for a suite of dark rocks rich in the mineral serpentine. The name was coined from the Greek words for “snake” and “rock,” which seemed fitting, given the smooth dark green appearance of ophiolites, vaguely reminiscent of snake-skin (Fig. 1).


Fig. 1: Close-up view of serpentinite (a component of ophiolitic rocks). Coin for scale is 1 cm in size. Totalp ophiolitic nappe, Parsennfurga, Switzerland.

European geologists throughout the 19th and early 20th century were relatively well acquainted with these dark rocks, first identified in several parts of the Apenninic and Alpine mountain chains but also occurring in other regions of the world. Ophiolites were generally interpreted as igneous rocks, forming from the solidification and differentiation of magma or from volcanic effusions.

While studying ophiolites in the early 1900s, German geologist Gustav Steinmann made some important observations that contributed to a better understanding of the origin of these rocks. Steinmann noticed that ophiolites were consistently in contact with layered strata made of limestone, clay, and chert, a silica-rich rock.[2] Sediments of similar composition (lime, clay, and silica ooze) had been recently retrieved from the deep seafloor, during the earliest oceanographic expeditions. Steinmann was aware of this, and he became convinced that ophiolites and the associated sediments must have formed on the deep ocean floor.

If this was true, however, why were rocks from the deep ocean floor occurring several kilometers above sea level in the middle of the Alps? This was puzzling because, at the time, continents and oceans were thought to have remained in a fixed position since their original formation. At the most, it was believed, only continents’ edges could fold to form a narrow oceanic depression, called “geosyncline”. Perhaps, alpine ophiolites were remnants of a geosyncline separating Africa from Europe (Fig. 2). Developing this idea, the Swiss geologist Émile Argand was the first to suggest that a large collision between the drifting continents of Africa and Eurasia had trapped and uplifted the deep rocks of the intervening geosyncline,[3] a model that became a clear precursor to the modern theory of plate tectonics.


Fig. 2: An Illustration of the geoscyncline separating Europe (left) from Africa (right). Ophiolites are represented as black lensoidal instrusions of magma in the geosyncline. Fiigure published in 1924, in the book of R. Staub, “Bou der Alpen.”

However, It would take 40 more years to develop a fuller understanding of the riddle of Alpine ophiolites. In the 1960s, a wealth of new information from the study of oceanic floors revealed that, in the Earth’s past, oceans had been dynamically created instead of being fixed and permanent.[4] It was discovered that the composition and structure of the oceanic crust was very similar to what seen in ophiolitic complexes.[5] The notion of geosynclines at the edges of continents was abandoned and replaced with the concept of plate margins at zones of oceanic subduction and seafloor spreading. Eventually, it became clear that ophiolites were not magmatic intrusions localized in a geosyncline but true slices of oceanic crust trapped in powerful collisions of tectonic plates.

The ophiolites found among the alpine peaks bear witness to the tortuous path of discovery and dynamic development of scientific concepts. They also represent a tangible record of mighty forces being at work in the past. In the pages of Scripture, we find an account of the Earth’s surface being affected by God’s powerful action at the creation and at the flood. Even if revelation does not address the subject of ophiolites, experiencing the gigantic plate motions revealed by these rocks generate a distinct impression that an unfathomable power has been active in the history of our planet and will be active again (2 Pt 3:5-7).

Suggestions for further reading:

Bernoulli, D., & Jenkyns, H. C. (2009). Ancient oceans and continental margins of the Alpine‐Mediterranean Tethys: Deciphering clues from Mesozoic pelagic sediments and ophiolites. Sedimentology, v. 56, 149-190.

Moores, E. M. (2003). A personal history of the ophiolite concept, in Dilek, Y., and Newcomb, S., eds., Ophiolite concept and the evolution of geological thought: Boulder, CO, Geological Society of America Special Paper 373, 17-29.

[1] Brongniart, A. (1813). Essai de classification minéralogique des roches mélangées, Journal des Mines, v. XXXIV, 5-48.

[2] Steinmann, G. (2003). Die ophiolithischen Zonen in den mediterranen Kettengebirgen (The ophiolitic zones in the Mediterranean mountain chains). Bernoulli, D., & Friedman, G. M., translators, in Dilek, Y., and Newcomb, S., eds., Ophiolite concept and the evolution of geological thought: Boulder, CO, Geological Society of America Special Paper 373, 77-91.

[3] Argand, E. (1916). Sur l’arc des Alpes occidentales. Eclogae Geologicae Helveticae, v.14, 145-191; Argand, E. (1924). Des Alpes et de l’Afrique. Bulletin de la Societe vaudoise des Sciences naturelles, v. 55, 233–236.

[4] Hess, H. H. (1962). History of Ocean Basins, In Engel, A.E.J., James, H.L., & Leonard, B.F., eds., Petrologic Studies: A Volume to Honor A.F. Buddington: New York, Geological Society of America, 599-620.

[5] Dietz, Robert S. (1963). Alpine serpentines as oceanic rind fragments. Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 74, 947-952.


Ronny Nalin, PhD

Geoscience Research Institute

Posted in Geology, Philosophical and Historical Perspectives, Plate Tectonics | Leave a comment

“Living with the Exceptional”

There is one small molecule that makes our world unique and special. What is it? Water! Sure, other planets and moons in our solar system may have (or had) water and even more than Earth, but it is rare to find liquid water on the surface of a planet.(Kramer 2015, Wenz 2015)  Let’s consider one of water’s well studied properties: density. The density of pure water can be precisely known to five decimal places as a function of temperature between 0 and 100 oC.(Dean 1999)


Water ice cubeWater’s solid phase has a density that is less than the liquid phase. This is very normal to us since this is what makes ice cubes float! However, there are important chemical trends to understand that most materials go through as they transition from solid to liquid to gas phases.   The typical density relationship between solid to liquid to gas is a fairly consistent decrease. Most substances show about a 1.2x (20%) decrease in density going from the solid to liquid phase with an additional 800x (80000%) decrease in density going from a liquid to a gas.(Dean 1999, Lide 2003)  This is easily explained by showing that the intermolecular distances increase with rising temperature. The expansion results from an increase in kinetic energy of the particles which overcomes the attractive intermolecular forces holding the shape and structure characteristic of each phase. This explanation works for most materials, except water and a few elements.

H2O density graphI know of eight materials that exhibit an unusual density change going from a liquid to a solid in that the interatomic distance increases in the solid phase, i.e. the solid phase is less dense than the liquid phase! Seven out of eight materials are elements, or single atom type substances: Ga, Bi, Ge, Si, Pu, Sn & Sr.   However, there exists one compound, which I have been able to find, that also fits this description: H2O. When water freezes, its volume expands by about 9% creating an airy, open lattice structure resulting from hydrogen bonding interactions between the oxygen of one molecule to the hydrogen atom of an adjacent one. This 9% expansion is higher than most of the eight other materials that have this same property. Other substances that have strong hydrogen bonding interactions, such as ammonia, acetic acetic, or hydrofluoric acid, do not exhibit this behavior.   Other substances that are very polar like water also do not exhibit this behavior such as dimethylsulfoxide or formamide. There appears to be no other molecule that has this property. I have had students searching for a few years to find another COMPOUND that has the solid phase less dense than the liquid phase.   Even with the motivation of extra credit, the search continues for another compound that behaves like water. Even if a few others are found, this property is very, very rare.

It is amazing how normal this property is for us. Ice cubes float to the top of drinks; ponds and lakes form ice on the surface, and icebergs sail on the ocean surface. However, this is NOT the normal chemical behavior for most substances. Our everyday chemical experience is with the exceptional rather than the normal. It is hard for us to think of a floating ice cube as something unique, but it truly is.

Another amazing property of water is that liquid water’s density increases as it cools and reaches a maximum density at 4 oC. This gives the additional fortuitous property of cold water sinking as it gets colder, but to a point, then it becomes less dense and rises up. This temperature-density difference is responsible for creating the mixing effect that stirs the great bodies of water. Cold water falls to the bottom and helps push warm water to the top. This means that the whole body of water will need to cool down before ice forms in substantial amounts. This phenomena is a common experience for those of us living near the Great Lakes as we all wait to see when ice forms and if the whole lake will be ice covered.

Floating ice helps protect aquatic creatures in the winter time. This is because ice also behaves as a decent thermal insulator which further thermally protects liquid water once an ice layer forms. If you are not convinced about ice’s capacity to hold heat (i.e. high heat capacity = good thermal insulator), please read about Frederic Tudor who was an American businessman and merchant who shipped ice all over the world. Ice can serve to protect life from thermal variations, but can also be a problem. Ice cover that lasts too long and is too extensive can lead to low dissolved oxygen levels resulting in huge numbers of fish dying, commonly referred to as “winterkills”. It would seem like water should get less and less dense as it cools, but the reality is just the opposite. If any of these properties were different, ice formation would be more prolific, and it would seal oxygen away and decrease light for plants to make oxygen in the water. Another nice thing about ice floating is that ice at the surface means it is warmed up first and melted as the temperature increases. This helps the solid phase to disappear quickly as opposed to accumulating on the bottom.

Liquid water on the surface of a planet is a rare feat but having ice float on water is an even rarer chemical experience. The density of water and ice provide a unique relationship, between the solid and liquid phases of the same material, and this just so happen to be very supportive of life on planet Earth. Next time you see ice cubes floating in water, please pause and consider how unusual this experience is really supposed to be.



By Ryan T. Hayes, Ph.D.,

Associate Professor at Andrews University


Dean, J. A., Ed. (1999). Lange’s Handbook of Chemistry, McGraw-Hill.

Kramer, M. (2015). “Jupiter’s Moon Ganymede Has a Salty Ocean with More Water than Earth “. Retrieved June 14, 2016, from

Lide, D. R., Ed. (2003). CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. Boca Raton, Florida, CRC Press.

Wenz, J. (2015). “23 Places We’ve Found Water in Our Solar System.” Retrieved June 14, 2016, from



Posted in chemistry, Design | Leave a comment

Fossils of the Galápagos: A review with implications for creationist models

Volcanic outcrops in the Galápagos Archipelago do not appear to provide the wealth of specimens found in other fossil-rich localities around the world. However, fossils are indeed present in the Galápagos Islands. This brief review addresses the where, what, when, and why of fossils in the Galápagos Islands and closes with a discussion of their potential contribution to the development of models on origins.

Where are fossils found in the Galápagos Islands?

1) Sediments that were deposited in shallow waters around the islands and were subsequently uplifted above sea level often contain fossils of marine organisms (such as mollusk shells) [1].

2) Lava tubes. Lava tubes form during volcanic eruptions, when the top of a lava flow cools and solidifies but hot melt continues to flow underneath. When lava drains from these tube-like conduits, an empty space is left underground. These tunnels and fissures often contain sediment with fossil remains of terrestrial vertebrates [2].

3) The interior of some of the islands is characterized by a more consistently humid climate. Here, small lakes and bogs, formed within inactive volcanic craters, can be found. The sediments filling the bottom of these small depressions contain fossil plant material [3, 4].

What kind of fossils are found in the Galápagos Islands?—The fossils found in the emerged shallow marine deposits are dominated by marine invertebrates such as bivalves, gastropods, bryozoans, corals, and barnacles [1, 5-7]. Not visible with the naked eye but very abundant in the sediments are also microfossils of other planktonic and bottom dwelling, small (< 2 mm), shelly animals, such as foraminifers and ostracods [5]. Rare, but sometimes found in these sediments, are skeletal fragments of marine and terrestrial vertebrates such as birds, lizards, and sea lions [1, 5, 7] (Fig. 1).

fig 1

Fig. 1: The carcass of a sea lion llies partly decomposed on a beach, Seymour North Island, Galápagos. Scale in cm. Skeletal elements from carcasses can be incorporated in beach deposits and eventually become fossilized.

Fossils collected from the lava tubes include tens of thousands of bones and bone fragments of birds, reptiles, and mammals, as well as shells of land snails [2, 8, 9]. The vertebrate remains include specimens of the most iconic Galápagos species, such as the giant tortoise, land iguana, finches, and mockingbirds, together with species of rodents, snakes, lizards, geckos, bats, and birds. Interestingly, most of these bones represent remains of preys regurgitated by Galápagos Barn Owls, a species that roost and nest on ledges in the lava tubes. Bones from larger organisms (such as giant tortoises), on the other hand, represent animals that fell and died trapped in the tubes (Fig. 2).

Fossil plant material recovered from bog and lake sediments mostly consists of microscopic pollen and spores [3, 4]. However, small-size macroscopic remains (such as seeds and plant fragments) have also been found [10].

lava tube composite

Fig. 2: A) Openings connecting to underground lava tubes, Isabela Island, Galápagos. Opening foreground has a diameter of ~50 cm. B): Carcass of a cat found inside the lava tube connected to the opening illustrated in A). Trapping and death in lava tubes in one of the processes that result in fossilization of terrestrial vertebrates in the Galápagos Islands.

When did the fossils of the Galápagos Islands form?—The question of age is a sensitive issue for creationists. There are two approaches to dating a geological object, such as a fossil or a rock. The first, called absolute dating, aims at assigning a numerical age to the object. The second, called relative dating, tries to establish if the object is younger or older than other objects but without assigning a specific numerical age.

Absolute ages in geology are based on radiometric dating methods. Radiometric ages have values that suggest a very long chronology for life on Earth, creating a potential conflict with the Scriptural record [11]. For this reason, creationists tend to reject these absolute values, looking for alternative ways of explaining these results. In general, however, there is an acceptance that the relative order of the dates (younger vs older) can be a reliable indicator of relative age, irrespective of the absolute values. In the Galápagos Islands, radiocarbon ages obtained from some of the fossil bones are almost invariably younger than 8 ka [12], with just a couple of exceptions giving values of around 20 ka [2, 8]. Radiocarbon ages of organic matter associated with the fossil plant material are also consistently younger than 26 ka [4, 13], with the exception of one layer dated as older than 48 ka [3]. Fossils in marine deposits are considered younger than 2 Ma [14], based on radiometric ages of volcanic rocks interbedded with the deposits [1]. In the standard, long-age chronology these dates correlate with the very top intervals of the geologic column (Pleistocene and Holocene). In summary, a mixed approach of absolute and relative dating seems to suggest that Galápagos fossils formed during the most recent part of Earth history, being restricted to the top layers of the geologic column.

Why are paleontologists interested in studying fossils of the Galápagos Islands?—Fossils of the Galápagos are explored as an archive of past life and ecology in the islands. Topics being pursued by paleontologists include: a) documenting patterns in species diversity and morphological trends, with potential insight on the origination of the endemic fauna and flora [2, 15]; b) studying the impact on the ecosystem of the introduction of non-native flora and fauna, with implications for ecology and conservation [2, 10]; and c) reconstructing past climatic trends and events in the island and in the tropical Pacific ocean system [3, 4].

Implications for creationist models—Although not as iconic and well known as their living counterparts, fossils of the Galápagos Islands can indeed offer some valuable contributions to the discussion of origins when approached from a creationist perspective. The following points summarize some of the most significant considerations.

Correlation with Biblical Chronology: One of the key question asked from a creationist perspective would be if the Galápagos fossils formed before, during, or after the biblical flood. Two important elements inform a possible answer that probably most creationists would embrace. First, the fossils appear to be relatively young, being found in deposits that are often within recent features of the landscape (e.g., lava tubes, craters) and associated with Pleistocene and Holocene radiometric ages. Secondly, the fossil assemblages consist almost completely of modern species, and not of extinct types [8, 15]. Most creationists would agree that modern species differ from pre-flood species, as they adapted to new environmental conditions after the flood. Therefore, when considering these two aspects, a reasonable conclusion in a creationist model would be that these fossils formed during the post-flood era.

Stasis and Rates of Evolution: From the time of Darwin, modern species in the Galápagos have been presented as a paradigmatic illustration of speciation and origin of new species from a common ancestral form. However, currently known fossils in the Galápagos do not significantly corroborate this narrative. The overwhelming majority of recovered fossils belong to known modern species, with very few examples of extinct forms [2, 6, 15, 16]. Therefore, rather than documenting gradual change, the Galápagos fossils illustrate stasis. It could be objected that transitional fossil series are not observed because the fossil record of the islands is fragmentary and represents only the most recent time interval. However, this is a suggestion based on data we do not have. What is observable does not capture evolutionary transitions.

Order in the fossil record: Different types of fossils are not distributed randomly in the geologic column but follow a specific pattern of appearance and disappearance. Fossils of the Galápagos can be used as a model to explore why various types of fossils are not all mixed up in the strata but have a certain order. Two main factors seem to be at play: time and space. There are no fossils of dinosaurs or African lions in the Galápagos. We know that African lions are not extinct, but they live only in the African continent. Therefore, the reason why lions did not fossilize in the Galápagos is linked to their geographic distribution (space). On the other hand, dinosaurs are extinct. Therefore, it could be that they never fossilized in the Galápagos because they were not present on Earth at the time of formation of Galápagos fossils (time). The presence or absence of certain groups of organisms in time and space determined the ordered distribution of fossils, both in creationist and evolutionary interpretations of the fossil record.

The Process of Fossilization: Fossils of the Galápagos can be used to show how the process of fossilization depends on both the characteristics of an organism and its depositional environment. For example, the marine creatures best represented in the Galápagos fossils are those with shells and hard parts. Soft-bodied animals, like sea cucumbers, have much lower probability of being fossilized. The environment of deposition is also crucial for fossilization. For example, volcanic lavas are not favorable for the preservation of dead organisms, but if traps where sediment can accumulate are present (e.g., the lava tubes) fossils can be found even in volcanic terrain. Furthermore, terrestrial environments (e.g., lakes and bogs) are more likely to preserve fossils of terrestrial organisms (e.g., land plants) and marine environments will tend to be dominated by fossils of marine organisms. Using the Galápagos Islands as a case study, one could conclude that fossilization is certainly not ubiquitous and does not preserve all types of organisms but even in unfavorable environments (e.g., volcanic provinces), fossilization is not as unlikely as one would think. Depicting the fossil record as highly fragmentary and incomplete might be a mischaracterization of a very rich archive of past life forms.



  1. Hickman, C.S. and J.H. Lipps, Geologic youth of Galápagos Islands confirmed by marine stratigraphy and paleontology. Science, 1985. 227(4694): p. 1578-1580.
  2. Steadman, D.W., et al., Chronology of Holocene vertebrate extinction in the Galápagos Islands. Quaternary Research, 1991. 36(1): p. 126-133.
  3. Colinvaux, P.A., Climate and the Galapagos Islands. Nature, 1972. 240(5375): p. 17-20.
  4. Collins, A.F., M.B. Bush, and J.P. Sachs, Microrefugia and species persistence in the Galápagos highlands: a 26,000-year paleoecological perspective. Frontiers in Genetics, 2013. 4: p. 269.
  5. Finger, K.L., et al. Pleistocene Marine Paleoenvironments on the Galapagos Islands. in GSA Abstracts with Programs. 2007.
  6. Ragaini, L., et al., Paleoecology and paleobiogeography of fossil mollusks from Isla Isabela (Galápagos, Ecuador). Journal of South American Earth Sciences, 2002. 15(3): p. 381-389.
  7. Johnson, M.E., P.M. Karabinos, and V. Mendia, Quaternary Intertidal Deposits Intercalated with Volcanic Rocks on Isla Sombrero Chino in the Galápagos Islands (Ecuador). Journal of Coastal Research, 2010: p. 762-768.
  8. Steadman, D.W., Holocene vertebrate fossils from Isla Floreana, Galápagos. Smithsonian Contirbutions to Zoology, 413: 104 pp.
  9. Chambers, S.M. and D.W. Steadman, Holocene terrestrial gastropod faunas from Isla Santa Cruz and Isla Floreana, Galapagos: evidence for late Holocene declines. Transactions of the San Diego Society of Natural History, 1986. 21(6): p. 89-110.
  10. Coffey, E.E.D., C.A. Froyd, and K.J. Willis, When is an invasive not an invasive? Macrofossil evidence of doubtful native plant species in the Galápagos Islands. Ecology, 2011. 92(4): p. 805-812.
  11. A discussion of creationist approaches to radiometric dating is beyond the scope of this paper, but a useful summary can be found at
  12. ka = thousands of years before present
  13. van Leeuwen, J.F., et al., Fossil pollen as a guide to conservation in the Galápagos. Science, 2008. 322(5905): p. 1206-1206.
  14. Ma = Millions of years before present
  15. James, M.J., A new look at evolution in the Galapagos: evidence from the late Cenozoic marine molluscan fauna. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 1984. 21(1‐2): p. 77-95.
  16. Steadman, D.W. and C.E. Ray, The Relationships of Megaoryzomys curioi, an Extinct Cricetine Rodent (Muroidea: Muridae) from the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. Smithsonian Contributions to Paleobiology, 51: 24 pp.
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The Cenozoic

The Cenozoic is the uppermost of the three major divisions of the Phanerozoic, the other two being the Mesozoic and Paleozoic (Fig. 1). The term Cenozoic (or Cainozoic) means “recent life”, implying that the fossils encountered in these layers are more similar to modern species. Geologists divide the Cenozoic into three major systems, being, from bottom to top: the Paleogene, the Neogene, and the Quaternary. The Paleogene, is further subdivided into Paleocene, Eocene, and Oligocene, the Neogene into Miocene and Pliocene, and the Quaternary into Pleistocene and Holocene.

geol column

Figure 1: The mayor subdivisions of the geologic column.

Lower Paleocene layers are characterized by low diversity of terrestrial fauna and flora and of marine organisms, but diversity increases upwards through the layers. Plant fossils look very similar to modern species of tropical, sub-tropical and deciduous plants, including cacti and palm trees. Most fossils of mammals are only known from teeth and partial skeletons of small insectivores, herbivores, and carnivores. Most notable are the marsupial mammals, which make up more than 50% of the mammal species in the Paleocene layers of the southern continents.

Eocene fossils are recognizable as having body plans similar to living species. Geologic data suggest that there were no ice caps covering Earth’s poles and that latitudinal differences in temperature were small. Warm climate predominated in many regions of the planet facilitating the growth of large forests on Earth from pole to pole, recorded now as extensive fossil deposits of tropical to subtropical plants even in Arctic regions (Fig. 2). Tropical rainforests grew even in northern latitudes of North America and Europe. Toward the end of the Eocene, the evergreen forests were replaced by grasslands, plains and deciduous trees in North America, Eurasia and the Arctic. Similar changes happened in Antarctica, which became covered with tundra.

Minolta DSC

Figure 2: A perfectly fossilized palm frond associated with fish, from the Eocene Green River Formation, North America. This type of flora is indicative of a more subtropical climate than at present.

The first fossil representative of most of the modern mammal orders appear in the lower layers of the Eocene. A remarkable feature about these fossil mammals is their very small size compared to similar faunas of contiguous Paleocene and Oligocene deposits. Some reptiles, however, were very large, including Titanoboa, a large snake found in South America, and other reptilian megafauna. Birds are also abundant in Eocene layers, as well as fossil insects preserved in amber. Eocene layers also preserve many vertebrate fossils that lived in the oceans, including large carcharinid sharks, Basilosaurus (a large marine mammal), and sirenians.

The Oligocene sedimentary layers preserve a record of decline in temperatures, expansion of ice sheets, and global sea level fall. Important mountain building activity took place during the Oligocene, including areas such as the European Alps and western United States. In general the fossil fauna of the Oligocene, both on land and in the ocean, resembles that of modern organisms, except in South America, where large-sized litopterns, notoungulates and toxodonts (extinct orders of hoofed mammals), and extinct marsupial types lived. Some of these groups are found fossilized even in overlying strata, up to the Pleistocene (Fig. 3).

Miocene deposits record further cooling of the Earth and the extension of ice caps on both hemispheres. The Alps in Europe, the Andes in South America, and the Himalayas in Asia continued to rise, forming some of the greatest mountain ranges in the planet. Extensive grasslands allowed grazers such as horses, rhinoceroses, hippos, ground sloths, and also browsers such as camels, to thrive. All or almost all of the modern bird groups, including marine birds, are present as fossils in Miocene rocks. Marine fossils are abundant, including many specimens of marine mammals and other vertebrates. The abundance of biogenic sediments in Eocene strata indicate that the oceans sustained highly productive communities of microscopic algae (diatoms and other phytoplankton), which formed thick accumulations of diatomaceous sediments containing rich and exceptionally preserved fossils of marine mammals, birds, and reptiles.

Fig 3

Figure 3: A Pleistocene fossil toxodont from Argentina.

Pliocene layers record frequent and significant sea level changes, linked to contraction and expansion of ice sheets. Fossil Pliocene vegetation indicates a reduction of tropical species worldwide. Much of the northern hemisphere was covered by deciduous forests, coniferous forests and tundra, with grasslands spreading on all continents but Antarctica. A significant feature about the Pliocene fauna is gigantism: many species of land habitats were of large size, including mastodons, rodents, ground sloths, armadillos, glyptodonts, etc.

The Pleistocene record is dominated by the effects of glaciations that shaped the landscape in ways still discernible in North America, Russia, and the Nordic countries, as well as in mountain ranges in Asia and Europe. At the last glacial maximum, sea level decreased considerably.

During the Holocene, the global temperature rose and much of the ice that covered the northern hemisphere melted causing rapid sea level rise.

Two trends of interest emerge from this simple review of the Cenozoic fossil record. The first is that the fossil fauna and flora do not differ markedly from what observed today in terms of structure and major higher taxonomic groups. In other words, the type of life documented in Cenozoic layers does not appear to be fundamentally different from what seen in the modern world. The second is the importance played by climate patterns in shaping the geologic record of the Cenozoic, with a major trend for climate deterioration and establishment of glaciation, only recently reversed. Both these macro-scale observations could fit well with a model of the Cenozoic as representing geologic, climatic, and biologic processes unfolding in the post-flood world.


By Raul Esperante, PhD

Geoscience Research Institute

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