Cataclysmic Flood Could Have Formed the Mediterranean Sea in Mere Months

By Andrew Moseman | December 10, 2009 10:06 am

Strait_of_gibraltar220For a geologist, “fast” still means thousands and thousands of years. But in a new study in Nature scientists argue that the modern Mediterranean Sea filled with water in a geologic blink of an eye. A torrential flood of water that moved 1,000 times faster than the Amazon River replenished the once-dry sea in perhaps just a few months, the researchers say.

History shows that the Strait of Gibraltar has often determined access to (and thus control of) the Mediterranean, and that goes for the water itself, too. Around 5.6 million years ago the Mediterranean Sea almost completely evaporated when it became disconnected from the Atlantic Ocean. This was due to uplift of the Strait of Gibraltar by tectonic activity, combined with a drop in sea level [New Scientist]. When the strait sank just enough to reach the water level 5.3 million years ago, ocean waters began to cascade through and fill the sea.

Scientists knew this already. The question was, how fast did it happen? Geologists figured the resulting flood must have been impressive, but their estimates for how long it took have varied wildly, from 10 years to several thousand years [Science News]. But the new study’s authors, led by Daniel Garcia-Castellanos, say the rush of water was not a mere waterfall over the Strait of Gibraltar, but rather a cascade that broke through the barrier and filled in the Mediterranean in no longer than two years, and perhaps as quickly as a matter of months.

It was the Africa-Europe tunnel project, an ambitious proposal to run trains under the Strait of Gibraltar and link the two continents, that led Garcia-Castellanos’s team to its conclusion. Rather than bearing a V-shaped bottom like river beds that formed gradually, analysis showed the Strait of Gibraltar’s to be more U-shaped. So, the scientists propose, the flood began slowly, but as it picked up momentum it began to wear away rock at the barrier between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean with accelerating speed. That would have filled most of the sea in a geologic heartbeat, and account for the U-shaped bottom.

“The flow of water increased rapidly until it was truly catastrophic,” said Daniel Garcia-Castellanos…. “The column of water going down that slope was several hundred metres deep, and in a channel like this would have reached speeds of more than 100km per hour” [The Guardian].

Related Content:
80beats: Young Earth May Have Had Tectonic Plates, Not Hellish Magma Oceans
80beats: Oldest Rock Ever Shines Light on Earth’s Early Days
DISCOVER: The Salt Sea, on the once-dried up Mediterranean

Image: NASA

  • Poo

    Thanks to J. Harlen Bretz, this hypothesis can be read as realistic.

  • Tao

    Could this same course of events repeat itself in the future in death valley or some other low-land coastal region in the US?

  • Michael Swanson

    It’s possible for something similar to happen anywhere in the world, provided there are geologic and climate similarities to the Strait of Gibraltar. And Death Valley isn’t a coastal region, it’s closer to Nevada’s border than it is to the Pacific.

  • Shufei

    It may not happen at Death Valley, as there are high desert mountains and many miles between. But the Salton Sea is a very likely location, separated from the Pacific by a thin, low patch of ground.. Local leaders have considered boaring a tunnel to the Sea of Cortez in order to refill and detoxify this endangered inland sea. Furthermore, only human engineering efforts prevent the Colorado from periodically refilling the area.

  • YouRang

    What I’ve always wondered (and after this even more so) is: If the flow was this tremendous wouldn’t it have disrupted all the various structures on the bottom of the Mediterranean that led to the interpretation of the data that said the Mediterranean had dried up?


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