In Part I of this series I looked briefly at some recent encounters in which the salty sea is being discussed as a chronometer of sorts for determining the age of the earth. But how is this salt chronometer actually claimed to work? An article from ICR (Institute for Creation Research) by Frank Sherwin entitled, The Ocean’s Salt Clock Shows a Young World and includes the following example of its use:
Sodium also leaves the ocean via salt spray and ion exchange in a measured amount. If these rates were consistent throughout the past (a proposition that must be assumed), then salt accumulation can become a kind of clock used to measure the ocean’s age. We know how fast salt enters and how fast it leaves. It is apparent that the oceans have not yet reached equilibrium. Instead, they keep getting saltier every year.
Here is a second example from AIG (Answers in Genesis) by Dr. Frank DeRemer in 2006:
…..One of the strongest arguments for a young age of the earth is the amount of salt1 found in the oceans. If the world were billions of years old as the evolutionists and progressive creationists insist, there should be so much salt in the oceans that virtually nothing could survive in the enormous amount of salinity.
Scientists have a good idea as to how much salt there is currently in the oceans. They can also calculate the rate in which additional salt enters the oceans; furthermore, because the salt does not leave the oceans very easily (this too can be calculated with some accuracy), the amount of salt in the seas is continually growing. Thus it is not hard to calculate at least a maximum age for the oceans (and hence a maximum age of our planet).
The logic of this argument is so simple which is why I believe it still persists in the YEC repertoire of evidences used in general seminars. It seems like such a simple calculation: 1) Figure out how much salt is deposited in the ocean each year and how much leaves each year and you can show how much saltier the ocean must become. 2) Take that number and assume the rates of salt accumulation is constant over time (eg. Apply the YEC definition of uniformitarianism) and then 3) calculate backwards to determine when the ocean must have been fresh water and the earth could not possibly be older than this. 4) The next step is to produce a graphic and plug it into a PowerPoint presentation (see figure for example) and wow audiences with this proof that the earth can’t be a billion years old.
The saltiness of the sea has, in fact, been used by conventional geologists as a method (chronometry) for dating the age of the earth. Haley in early 1700s used very similar logic and calculations to produce one of the earliest estimates of the maximum age of the earth. To further illustrate how creationists use Haley and the salt argument I submit a portion of a very long comment left on my blog by a user named “zuma.” I did not publish his comments as per my commenting guidelines. A quick Google search quickly identified the exact same comments posted on multiple other blogs also on pages that usually had nothing to do with content of the articles. Ironically and providentially I received this comment the very night I was working on the first post of this series on the salty seas. I actually laughed out loud when I read this because I was just looking for additional quotes. Here is the relevant portion of his comment:
The following are the various methods that are adopted by scientists to assess the age of the earth:
a)Using sea composition to compute the age of the earth: Scientists used sea composition to derive the age of the earth. This method has its derivation from Edmond Halley (1656-1742). In his opinion, the rain would have dissolved all salt from the ground and would bring down to the sea with the assumption that there would be no salt in the sea initially. In 1910, George F. Becker found the age of the earth to be between 50 and 70 million years by means of salt clock method. However, the measurement by means of seawater composition does not give an accurate age of the earth on the condition if the sea might have been formed initially with much salt in the beginning. If that would be so, it is irrational to measure sea composition to determine the age of earth since much salt would have been in the sea already during its creation.
This comment demonstrates the logic and rhetoric used by young earth creationists perfectly. First, he/she begins just as many YECs do stating that “scientists” use these arguments to assess the age of the earth. Well, it is true that Halley was a scientists in his day and he did use this method and that Becker did make some calculations using this method even in 1910 but what scientist in the last 100 years would use this method? I don’t know any. By the early 1900s further data collection and knowledge of chemistry and earth processes inform us that there is so much more involved in determining the life cycle of salts in the ocean and so today no ocean scientists would find the amount of salt in the ocean even a legitimate test of the earth’s age nor would they find the current amount of salt in the ocean at all perplexing. In the 1800’s scientists were looking for anyway to predict the age of the earth and didn’t have access to today’s technology and so one such estimation involved the buildup of ions on the oceans. To hold scientists to the exact methods used 100 years past based on very simple hypotheses and limited data collection is akin to holding scientists to accepting that the temperature on the surface of Mars and the chemical composition of that air must be what was calculated from satellites and prior to the landing of the Viking spacecraft on the surface. Even that lander was only equipped with crude, by today’s standards, instruments for measurements. Then when the Viking spacecraft landed a small craft on the surface our measurements were improved but Curiosity has far better instruments and we have learned much more about the geology of Mars so our estimates today would be considered far more accurate than those of the past. The salty sea argument can be likened to holding science to what it knew 20 or 100 years ago and saying that any improvement in our models of earth’s history and understanding of fundamental processes of chemistry since then doesn’t count.
Why does this argument of the salty sea as evidence of a young earth persist today? Before answering let us look at some more modern expressions of the argument. First, there have been hundreds if not thousands of papers published in the past 50 years that have examined some aspect of the dissolution, precipitation, and other aspects of the history of salts in the environment. There has been no shortage of studies that have taken thousands of measurements of sodium ions at hundreds of locations in the ocean over the same time. One excellent summary of how scientists have used salt as a chronometer in the past and the reasons why such a method has long since was abandoned is chronicled in a paper by Livingstone in 1963 entitled: The sodium cycle and the age of the ocean. Here, Livingstone presents many reasons for why changing salinity of the sea is neither a consistent process nor expected to be over time and thus is useless as a chronometer. One would think that YEC authors would have read and interacted with published literature like this but so far I have only found a single reference in YEC articles to Livingstone’s article. That reference can be found in Austin’s and Humphrey’s paper which is the seminal paper among YECs for the salty sea chronology method. Their paper from 1990 entitled: The Sea’s Missing Salt: A Dilemma for Evolutionists includes this reference to Livingstone:
By 1930 radioactive dating methods had been developed which indicated that the age of the earth was longer than anyone had anticipated. Many scientists became convinced that the earth and the ocean are billions of years old. These scientists could no longer endorse Joly’s method which they recognized “…leads to the spuriously low geochemical age”.
This is Austin and Humphrey’s only reference to Livingstone’s article and really they say nothing about the actual content of his article nor address the issues that Livingstone brings up. Rather they have quote-mined the introduction for the phrase “leads to the spuriously low geochemical age” as if to imply that a salt is a valid chronometer for determining age and that it leads to an age that is lower than expected by “evolutionists.” Had they actually read the article they might have realized that much many of the assumptions of their own article has been shown to be incorrect more than 20 years before they did their analysis. Nevertheless, to an audience unaware of the results of many publications like Livingstones and Austin and Humphrey’s article appears to include a rigorously researched and detailed assessment of the inputs and outputs of salt into the ocean today. They conclude that more salt is entering the ocean than leaving. Since Austin and Humphries appeared to have done a thorough analysis and they are respected among YECs all YECs after this have simply referred to this paper as the authority and thus set the confirmation bias cycle into full swing. There has been no shortage of Christians who are scientists that have pointed out the errors of this approach and the gross misconceptions of uniformitarianism and other historical geological errors in reasoning that are involved. But this has done little to blunt the use of this argument in YEC seminars and pamphlets. AIG has a page with a list of arguments that YECs should avoid using or that are possibly dubious and there is nothing about salt here. Apparently they believe that this is a true and effective way to show that conventional geology has it all wrong.
Have you spotted what is missing as part of this discussion about salt so far? If you were wondering where the data for how salty the sea actually is you are right. I haven’t provided data on that yet. Is the sea actually getting saltier? It is strongly implied in all these YEC articles that everyone agrees that the seas are getting saltier and that it is only a matter of assumptions as to how much salt was there in the beginning that changes the estimates of the age of the ocean. But are the oceans actually getting saltier? We will answer that question in the part III of this salty sea series.
This is part of series of posts on the Sea Salt Chronometer. Other posts in this series are: