Hazy Early Earth Affirms the Bible's Account of Creation

When I first arrived in Pasadena for postdoctoral research at Caltech, the haze from Los Angeles smog was so thick that it was several weeks before I realized that a range of 5,000-10,000-foot-high mountains lay just three miles to the north. Now, thanks to air pollution abatement, I see those mountains clearly every day, and I even see a few hundred stars at night.

A research study published recently in The Astrophysical Journal affirms that a thick haze was at least partly responsible for the pervasive translucent skies that shrouded Earth during the first part of its history.1 Researchers have demonstrated through a series of experiments how Earth's atmospheric haze lessened greatly as its atmospheric oxygen content rose. This work affirms Genesis 1 and other biblical passages that describe the early atmosphere as being so hazy and clouded that it was not possible for creatures on Earth's surface to recognize the astronomical bodies responsible for the incident light.

What Genesis 1 Says About Earth's Early Atmosphere

I was taught the steps of the scientific method in every grade of my public-school education in Canada. When I began to seriously investigate the world's major holy books at age 17, I applied the scientific method to test the reliability and trustworthiness of these texts.

When I finally picked up the Bible, I was stunned to discover that right there on the first page it meticulously followed the scientific method. Many years later I discovered why. As I explain in appendix A of my book Navigating Genesis,2 the scientific method has its origin in the pages of the Bible.

Step 1 of the scientific method enjoins the researcher to resist the natural inclination to immediately interpret a phenomenon before first establishing the frame of reference for that phenomenon. Genesis 1:2 explicitly states that the frame of reference for the account of the six days of creation is from the viewpoint of an observer on Earth's watery surface (see Figure 1): "the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters" of "the surface of the deep."

From this viewpoint, "darkness was over the surface of the deep" (Genesis 1:2, NIV) because God "made the clouds its [the sea's] garment and wrapped it [the sea] in thick darkness" (Job 38:9, NIV). So even though God had already created the "heavens" (Genesis 1:1, NIV), including our Sun, the Moon, and the stars, the light that pervaded the universe had not yet reached Earth's surface. On creation day 1, when God said, "Let there be light" (Genesis 1:3, NIV), he transformed Earth's atmosphere from opaque to translucent. The atmosphere remained overcast (much like on a rainy day), but light could finally reach the planet's surface.

Later, on creation day 4, when God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky. . . . They will serve as signs for seasons and for days and years" (Genesis 1:14, CSB), he transformed Earth's atmosphere from translucent to (at least occasionally) transparent. This would allow the animals God created on creation days 5 and 6 to see the positions of the Sun, Moon, and stars in the expanse of the sky and to use those positions to regulate their complex biological clocks.

What Science Now Says About Earth's Early Atmosphere

As I document in my book Improbable Planet, the history of Earth's atmosphere is one of gradually diminishing amounts of methane and carbon dioxide.3 Since methane and carbon dioxide are powerful greenhouse gases, this gradual decline was crucial, in order to compensate for the on­going brightening of the Sun.

The quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and perhaps that of methane also, correlates with the degree of cloud cover. More carbon dioxide and more methane mean more clouds. Thus, the much greater quantities of these greenhouse gases in early Earth's atmosphere may, by themselves, have made the sky completely translucent from the viewpoint of an observer on Earth's surface.

The new Astrophysical Journal study was performed by a team of scientists from a variety of fields. They uncovered another cause of early Earth's atmospheric translucency—the lack of oxygen. The team performed laboratory experiments on gas mixtures of molecular nitrogen, carbon dioxide, methane, and varying amounts of molecular oxygen designed to mimic the composition of Earth's atmosphere during its first four billion years. They noted that oxygen concentrations greater than 20 parts per million "resulted in a decrease in [the] aerosol production rate with increasing O2 concentration."4 The quantity of aerosols in the atmosphere correlates with the degree of atmospheric haze. Thus, the team showed that for atmospheric concentrations greater than 20 parts per million, the less oxygen there was in Earth's atmosphere, the denser the atmospheric haze would have been.

As Figure 2 shows, the oxygen content in Earth's atmosphere did not get high enough to prevent a pervasive haze until 580 million years ago, just before the first appearance of animals. Also, as the researchers noted in their paper, atmospheric hazes serve as cloud condensation nuclei (cloud seeds).5 Therefore, the denser the atmospheric haze, the thicker the cloud cover would be.

It does not take much haze to obscure the positions of the Sun, Moon, and stars from animals on Earth's surface sufficiently so that the celestial bodies cease to be useful to regulate the animals' biological clocks. Even today, with the atmospheric oxygen level at 210,000 parts per million, there are cities in Asia where even on a cloudless night it is not possible to see any stars and the Moon is visible only when it is near the full phase and situated near the zenith.

The combination of denser haze and greater cloud cover prior to 580 million years ago means that although light from the Sun and Moon would have penetrated to Earth's surface, it would not have been possible for surface-dwelling creatures to discern—with sufficient accuracy and frequency—the positions of the Sun, Moon, and stars in the sky. However, this circumstance would have posed no problems for creatures living prior to 580 million years ago, since the only creatures that would have been around then (microbes, algae, fungi, bryophytes) do not need to be aware of the positions of the Sun, Moon, and stars anyway.

Genesis Affirmed

Thus, the new research study affirms the creation chronology in Genesis 1: Earth's atmosphere transitioned from translucent to frequently transparent on creation day 4, just before God created Earth's first animals on creation day 5. The study provides yet more evidence that the more we learn about nature and its record, the more we accumulate sound reasons to believe that the Bible is the authoritative, inspired, inerrant Word of God. 

1. Sarah M. Hörst et al., "Exploring the Atmosphere of Neoproterozoic Earth: The Effect of O2 on Haze Formation and Composition," The Astrophysical Journal 858 (May 15, 2018): http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/1538-4357/aabd7d.
2. Hugh Ross, Navigating Genesis: A Scientist's Journey Through Genesis 1-11 (RTB Press, 2014), 223-224.
3. Hugh Ross, Improbable Planet: How Earth Became Humanity's Home (Baker Books, 2016), 108-197.
4. Hörst et al., "Exploring the Atmosphere."
5. Hörst et al., "Exploring the Atmosphere."

is an astrophysicist and the founder and president of the science-faith think tank Reasons to Believe (RTB).

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #47, Winter 2018 Copyright © 2020 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo47/seeing-stars