I stand on the banks of the Logan River, the flood markers towering over me. The bottom of the river is more than 10m lower than where I stand. As I gaze up at these historic flood markers I am in awe of the power of Mother Earth, especially over the lives of those who live on her floodplains. The river is barely flowing today; parts of Queensland and all of NSW are racked by drought. It’s hard to imagine the Logan in flood. Our way of life in cities has completely disconnected us from the rhythms of nature and we have lost our resilience to her changing moods. The flood markers show that the frequency of major flood events in the last 70 years has increased sharply as compared with the previous 70. I’m reminded that research indicates the frequency of floods on the Australian Eastern Seaboard is increasing with climate change. These historic flood markers don’t dispute that.
I have always felt a strong connection to water. I love setting up camp beside a bubbling creek and jumping in for a refreshing swim. As a child I used to lie awake excitedly, listening to the lashing rain outside as bolts of lightning lit up the darkness of the bedroom I shared with my sister. It feels natural that I followed my childhood passion to a Masters in Hydraulics and Hydrology and a career in Flood Risk Management. Perhaps this is why the story of Noah’s Ark held me captive all those years ago.
I was probably around 13 when I began to reflect on the details of this Genesis story. We’ve all heard a version of it. At the ripe old age of 500, Noah becomes the father of 3 sons. When he turns 600 he is instructed by God to build an ark to house his family, a pair of all the animals on earth and enough food to keep them fed. After forty days of rainfall and 150 days of flooding the boat comes to rest on Mount Ararat and we find that all other living things have been wiped out. A rainbow appears as a covenant that a flood would never destroy the earth again. Noah lives another 350 years before he passes on. It’s not a bad innings.
But what was the purpose of this story? Is it a story based on fact, a myth or a metaphor?
Let’s leave aside the fact that a 600 year old man was able to build a boat that housed all the animals on earth or that there is no geological evidence of a global flood. Engineers would tell you that you couldn’t build a wooden boat to the dimensions specified without metal framing—a technology not available then. As a child I wondered how thousands of species of animals could have been led into the ark, why the predators didn’t consume the rest, and how they were fed and cleaned for 150 days by one family. But it isn’t just the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions that talk about a flood of epic proportions. I was amazed to discover that similar flood myths appear in cultural stories all over the world.
The Epic of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia—regarded as the earliest surviving work of literature—and predating the Bible by over a thousand of years, is now considered to be where the Genesis story originated. Utnapishtim abandons his worldly possessions to build a giant ship, onto which he takes his family, grain and animals and survives a catastrophic flood, gaining immortality and a place amongst the gods. We have a story from ancient Greece where Zeus floods the men of the Bronze Age. There is an ark involved, wicked men who perish and survivors who escape to the high mountains and make sacrifices to Zeus. The Masai speak about a great deluge which Tumbainot and his family saved themselves from by building an ark in which he, his two wives and six sons and some animals were saved while all other men and beasts drowned. Four rainbows in each quarter of the sky signified that God’s wrath was over. From Hinduism, we have the story of Manu and a big fish—Vishnu in disguise—who saves him from the deluge by guiding his ship to a mountain. In the Hindu story we see that the destruction of the world is treated as part of the natural order of things, rather than as divine punishment. There are numerous Indigenous stories that span the continents of North and South America as well as Australia and New Zealand. It is also interesting to note that the Flood Story predates our belief in a monotheistic God.
The presence of flood narratives in every continent, and the similarities between them, prompts the hypothesis that it might have been a common global event that gripped the imaginations of so many cultures. So, how far back in time does the Biblical story stretch? While it wasn’t written down until about 4000 years ago, the tale would have been an oral tradition for much longer. Could there be a link between the timing of these stories and the sea level rise experienced at the end of the last glacial period? Sea levels rose a total of 120m over 12,000 years, from about 18,000 years ago, before stabilising roughly 6,000 years ago. This is also around the time when agriculture transformed our semi-nomadic lifestyles and we transitioned into more permanent settlements. Settlements formed along the banks of rivers and seas. As the climate warmed and ice sheets melted, sudden jumps in ocean, lake and river levels flooded many of them.
Is it possible there were signs the climate was changing and that people such as ‘Noah’ advocated strategies for adaptation such as moving to high ground (aka the ark) ] while others ridiculed them?
The Black Sea deluge—when rising sea levels in the Mediterranean overtopped a natural levee and flooded the Black Sea—has been suggested as a possible event that gave rise to the references in the Gilgamesh epic. Similar events would have occurred in other parts of the world as oceans rose. The cultural memories and legends of those who survived would come to include stories of these floods, retorld around fire pits the world over, perhaps with a bit of artistic licence for impact. Cultural stories assimilated as myths were exchanged along with trade on the Silk Road from India and China to Greece.
We know that many factors influence climate, including solar activity, oscillations in Earth’s orbit, greenhouse gases, ice cover, vegetation, dust from volcanoes, the location of continents, and the weathering of rocks. There are complex feedback loops between these factors. The question for us is this—what is causing the current warming trend? Despite the complexity there is consensus between the majority of climate scientists that human activity is increasing the level of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. We are told that if this goes on unabated, there will be serious consequences for us and the ecosystems we depend upon.
The data informs us sea levels are rising once again. Exponential increases in CO2 is causing our atmosphere to heat up, the heat absorbed by the oceans, causing glaciers to melt and thus triggering an increase in sea levels. We know that sea level rises will not be the same in every location and that it can happen in sudden bursts. This process could continue for thousands of years.
People on our doorstep are already losing their island homes. Millions of climate refugees will add to the over 68 million people who are already displaced. 44% of the world’s population currently live within 150km of a coast. Stories like Noah’s Ark were never meant to be taken literally. The myths helped people at the time cope with their grief and explain encounters with events they could not fathom with the knowledge they had at the time. The miracle is that there were people like Noah, Manu and Tumbainot who survived, because they paid attention. Flood stories are metaphors that we should not ignore. Just because the detail is exaggerated doesn’t mean they didn’t happen or that they won’t happen again. We ignore the natural environment and the stories at our peril. We can waste time debating the science and the stories or we can collaborate to build an ark. The choice is ours to make: to adapt, flee to higher ground, or do nothing and leave a legacy where thousands of people may perish.
“Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies”. ~ Joseph Campbell