Parting the waters: Computer modeling applies physics to Red Sea escape route (w/ Video)

Sep 21, 2010
This illustration shows how a strong wind from the east could push back waters from two ancient basins -- a lagoon (left) and a river (right) -- to create a temporary land bridge. New research that such a physical process could have led to a parting of waters similar to the description in the biblical account of the Red Sea. Credit: Illustration by Nicolle Rager Fuller

(PhysOrg.com) -- The biblical account of the parting of the Red Sea has inspired and mystified people for millennia. A new computer modeling study by researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU) shows how the movement of wind as described in the book of Exodus could have parted the waters.

The show that a strong east wind, blowing overnight, could have pushed water back at a bend where an ancient river is believed to have merged with a coastal lagoon along the Mediterranean Sea. With the water pushed back into both waterways, a would have opened at the bend, enabling people to walk across exposed mud flats to safety. As soon as the wind died down, the waters would have rushed back in.

The study is intended to present a possible scenario of events that are said to have taken place more than 3,000 years ago, although experts are uncertain whether they actually occurred. The research was based on a reconstruction of the likely locations and depths of waterways, which have shifted considerably over time.

"The simulations match fairly closely with the account in Exodus," says Carl Drews of NCAR, the lead author. "The parting of the waters can be understood through fluid dynamics. The wind moves the water in a way that's in accordance with physical laws, creating a safe passage with water on two sides and then abruptly allowing the water to rush back in."

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The study is part of a larger research project by Drews into the impacts of winds on water depths, including the extent to which Pacific Ocean typhoons can drive storm surges. By pinpointing a possible site south of the Mediterranean Sea for the crossing, the study also could be of benefit to experts seeking to research whether such an event ever took place. Archeologists and Egyptologists have found little direct evidence to substantiate many of the events described in Exodus.

The work, published in the online journal, PLoS ONE, arose out of Drews' master's thesis in atmospheric and oceanic sciences at CU. The computing time and other resources were supported by the National Science Foundation.

Wind on the water

The Exodus account describes Moses and the fleeing Israelites trapped between the Pharaoh's advancing chariots and a body of water that has been variously translated as the Red Sea or the Sea of Reeds. In a divine miracle, the account continues, a mighty east wind blows all night, splitting the waters and leaving a passage of dry land with walls of water on both sides. The Israelites are able to flee to the other shore. But when the Pharaoh's army attempts to pursue them in the morning, the waters rush back and drown the soldiers.

Scientists from time to time have tried to study whether the parting of the waters, one of the famous miracles in the Bible, can also be understood through natural processes. Some have speculated about a tsunami, which would have caused waters to retreat and advance rapidly. But such an event would not have caused the gradual overnight divide of the waters as described in the Bible, nor would it necessarily have been associated with winds.

Other researchers have focused on a phenomenon known as "wind setdown," in which a particularly strong and persistent wind can lower water levels in one area while piling up water downwind. Wind setdowns, which are the opposite of storm surges, have been widely documented, including an event in the Nile delta in the 19th century when a powerful wind pushed away about five feet of water and exposed dry land.

A previous computer modeling study into the Red Sea crossing by a pair of Russian researchers, Naum Voltzinger and Alexei Androsov, found that winds blowing from the northwest at minimal hurricane force (74 miles per hour) could, in theory, have exposed an underwater reef near the modern-day Suez Canal. This would have enabled people to walk across. The Russian study built on earlier work by oceanographers Doron Nof of Florida State University and Nathan Paldor of Hebrew University of Jerusalem that looked at the possible role of wind setdown.

The new study, by Drews and CU oceanographer Weiqing Han, found that a reef would have had to be entirely flat for the water to drain off in 12 hours. A more realistic reef with lower and deeper sections would have retained channels that would have been difficult to wade through. In addition, Drews and Han were skeptical that refugees could have crossed during nearly hurricane-force winds.

Reconstructing ancient topography

Studying maps of the ancient topography of the Nile delta, the researchers found an alternative site for the crossing about 75 miles north of the Suez reef and just south of the Mediterranean Sea. Although there are uncertainties about the waterways of the time, some oceanographers believe that an ancient branch of the Nile River flowed into a coastal lagoon then known as the Lake of Tanis. The two waterways would have come together to form a U-shaped curve.

An extensive analysis of archeological records, satellite measurements, and current-day maps enabled the research team to estimate the water flow and depth that may have existed 3,000 years ago. Drews and Han then used a specialized ocean computer model to simulate the impact of an overnight wind at that site.

They found that a wind of 63 miles an hour, lasting for 12 hours, would have pushed back waters estimated to be six feet deep. This would have exposed mud flats for four hours, creating a dry passage about 2 to 2.5 miles long and 3 miles wide. The water would be pushed back into both the lake and the channel of the river, creating barriers of water on both sides of newly exposed mud flats.

As soon as the winds stopped, the waters would come rushing back, much like a tidal bore. Anyone still on the mud flats would be at risk of drowning.

The set of 14 computer model simulations also showed that dry land could have been exposed in two nearby sites during a windstorm from the east. However, those sites contained only a single body of water and the would have pushed the water to one side rather than creating a dry passage through two areas of .

"People have always been fascinated by this Exodus story, wondering if it comes from historical facts," Drews says. "What this study shows is that the description of the waters parting indeed has a basis in physical laws."

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Provided by University of Colorado at Boulder

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User comments : 22

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thermodynamics
4.6 / 5 (10) Sep 21, 2010
Next I expect to see a model of the strength of the materials used in Thor's hammer. What a waste of computer time.
panorama
4.2 / 5 (9) Sep 21, 2010
So do we need to update Exodus now? "Moses raised his staff and suddenly (for twelve or more hours) a swift wind partially dried the surrounding marsh..."

Let's not taint our mythology with wasted attempts at "science". Nor should we taint our science with "mythology".
axemaster
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 21, 2010
"In addition, Drews and Han were skeptical that refugees could have crossed during nearly hurricane-force winds."

Pretty sure that people can manage impressive things when being chased by soldiers trying to kill them...
SgntZim
1.8 / 5 (4) Sep 21, 2010
Can't see what everyone is so "sniffy" about regarding this sort of research. All they are doing is treating the few written facts (Gilgamesh, the Bible etc.) to a bit of research. Doesn't this tell us a bit more about the planet we live on?
jsa09
4 / 5 (4) Sep 21, 2010
@SgntZim in a word no! This kind of research tells us nothing.

They are in fact attaching research that does tell us something to mythology in a type of story. The whole thing is pretty useless - unless the authors are writing a novel and want to have some kind of reality concept to add believability - but there is no real point to it.
Mav
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 21, 2010
Is this not the same computer modeling group of researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research that prove by computer modeling that CO2 is the cause of Global Warming?
bungaree3
4.2 / 5 (5) Sep 21, 2010
In a report recently it stated the early translation from the Greek was wrong that is was the "Reed Sea" that was crossed not the "Red Sea" and that the Egyptian chariots became bogged in the mud.But there are those that love the Cecil B Demille version some guy waving about his staff and parting the oceans, well I think I'll stick with reality and go for the stuck in the mud version
MorituriMax
3.3 / 5 (7) Sep 21, 2010
Cool! Next on the list, bringing the dead back to life, stopping the Earth's rotation for important battles, inscribing text on stone tablets with primitive plasma welding, etc. etc. Also as an aside, let's see how likely that all the animals in the world lived in walking distance of Noah's Ark.

@bungaree, heh, so they didn't really wander in the desert for 40 years, they actually just wandered around the alleys and sewers of Pharaoh's capital city?
Madison
2.2 / 5 (5) Sep 21, 2010
I find this to be a fascinating study, reminiscient of my first introductions to the study of physical science and astronomy: that many of the "scientific fathers" were actually on a quest to find physical evidence of God's existance. It seems that when scientists investigate a "story" purported to be fact, it's a worthwhile endeavor regardless of what people may feel about the origins of said "story." Excellent article. It bouys my "faith" in science.
Madison
1 / 5 (6) Sep 21, 2010
Cool! "Next on the list, bringing the dead back to life, stopping the Earth's rotation for important battles"

Actually...in my collegiate astronomy lab, we were looking into the astronomical record of the earth, and there appears to be evidence of such an occurance. And the dead come back to life all the time...just read a study where a stillborn infant who's twin was born healthy revived while in the arms of it's mother.
Resonance
Sep 22, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
GaryB
not rated yet Sep 22, 2010
The birth of "computational theology". Love it.
trekgeek1
5 / 5 (3) Sep 22, 2010
"In addition, Drews and Han were skeptical that refugees could have crossed during nearly hurricane-force winds."

Pretty sure that people can manage impressive things when being chased by soldiers trying to kill them...


"It is not possible to fight beyond your strength, even if you strive."
-Homer

It doesn't matter how bad you want to cross if the wind picks you up and throws you. While I find the prospect of biblical events being anchored in real explained events interesting, I loathe it since some will just take this to mean that everything in the book is true, and not realize that it was just ancient humans witnessing amazing natural occurrences and putting a narrative to it.
dtxx
2.1 / 5 (8) Sep 23, 2010
I'd rather see the computer time used to calculate how much my butthole will stink as time passes if I stop showering tomorrow than on this garbage. How does this crap keep getting published?
mabarker
1.5 / 5 (8) Sep 23, 2010
Well, at least even Colorado atheists agree the Red Sea waters parted - they just want a sanitized, naturalistic explanation. They have still not explained how Moses and the Children of Israel went across on dry ground as Scripture states - nor how the waters just happened to part at extacly the time to save the Jews, and that they came back together again to destroy the Egyptian army.
So dtxx, bungaree3 & Resonance - you ladies can trust the Bible from the very first verse.
peteone1
1 / 5 (5) Sep 23, 2010
Well, at least even Colorado atheists agree the Red Sea waters parted - they just want a sanitized, naturalistic explanation.

I think it's a sign of the times when more and more people of faith retreat from science because they "don't trust it" and cling to often meaningless "feel-good" services that tickle their spiritual fancies and do nothing to effectively proclaim the Kindgom of God to a lost world as Christ commanded (Mat 26:16-20, Mark 16:19, 1 Peter 3:15)

There is no conflict between science and the Bible, only between materialistic philosophical assumptions that have hijacked the influential positions in science and the Bible. Science before Darwin (and even after) was predominantly theistic in its philosophical framework and I believe that despite such attempts (as this story) to negate the power and intervention of God into reality, there is a real movement back to God and away from atheistic naturalism.
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (1) Sep 24, 2010
Can't see what everyone is so "sniffy" about regarding this sort of research. All they are doing is treating the few written facts (Gilgamesh, the Bible etc.) to a bit of research. Doesn't this tell us a bit more about the planet we live on?
Well this research isn't based on facts. There's no evidence that the story of Exodus occured, and geographically, if it had, they wouldn't have crossed the Red sea, they would have crossed the Reed Sea, which is/was a shallow, muddy marshland that would have stopped Egyptian Chariots.

A subsequent mistranslation and correctional fabrication of "walls of water held back by God" would be necessary for someone who had actually been to the Red Sea.
nor how the waters just happened to part at extacly the time to save the Jews, and that they came back together again to destroy the Egyptian army.
Leeward wind at low tide the Reed Sea drys rather quickly along the sandbars. When the wind stops, the water comes back in. No God necessary.
Quantum_Conundrum
1 / 5 (8) Sep 25, 2010
S_H:

In the Bible, it tells you that the waters:

1) Parted after the wind which started when Moses raised his staff.

2) The water overflowed the Egyptians (14:28), but did not overflow the Israelites, who were still in the basin(14:29).

3) The waters returned when Moses raised his staff again.

4) An angel produced light in the Israelite's camp while simultaneously making it dark in the Egyptians camp.

Of course God is required.

If you don't think God is required for this parting, then maybe you should examine the parting of the Jordan as recorded a bit later in the book of Joshua and again in 2 Kings.

Now I know your primitive, atheistic mind can't comprehend these things, but rest assured God exists.

Of course, you failed to understand one of the underlying issues in this entire section of the book of Exodus, as it shows us that very often people who hate and deny God will continue to do so no matter what proof God gives of his existence and intentions.
DickWilhelm
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 25, 2010
@Q_C

I will not be trolled by an over-spoken zealot. Please keep your sympathetic magic to yourself.
fixer
5 / 5 (2) Sep 26, 2010
Well now, in the last 3000 years the wind must have blown over the red sea again, so why speculate?
Just ask someone who lives nearby.
This article belongs in the fridge, between rhubarb and tripe!
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (4) Sep 26, 2010
S_H:

In the Bible, it tells you
Try to actually follow along. And I've read actually read the Bible, several versions to be precise. If you're going to try to debate what is in it, you may want to know something about it first.
Now I know your primitive, atheistic mind can't comprehend these things, but rest assured God exists.
You might be trolling, but there are too many people on this site who talk like this and mean it. Before you insult someone, ensure your knowledge is superior to theirs.
yyz
5 / 5 (2) Sep 26, 2010
@DickWilhelm

Ooops, meant to give you a 5. Wassup with the influx of godtrolls?
Birger
4 / 5 (4) Sep 27, 2010
This has very little to do with the existence of a bronze-age deity. But the science looks good.
The people who lived at the site would have noticed many such "parting" events, and incorporated them into myths. The nearby Israelis -who traded with Egypt all the time- would have picked up the story, and incorporated it into their own mythology, just as they incorporated the Mesopotamian Flood myth during the Babylonian exile. This myth transfer is no more remarkable than the wind surges -religions steal good stories from each other all the time, just check out the elements in late Norse mythology inspired by Christianity!

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