January 2012

“When the apostles returned, they told Jesus everything they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew privately to a town called Bethsaida.” Luke 9:10 (NET Bible)

The small fishing village of Bethsaida, mentioned on several occasions in the New Testament, literally means “house of fishing”.  However, Bethsaida lies almost three kilometers from Lake Galilee’s waters edge!  How can this be?  The solution to this conundrum provides a classic example of how Earth Science and Archeology can interact with Biblical scholarship to shed light on Biblical interpretation.

The most likely location of Bethsaida is the present day location of Et-Tell, which as I say lies some distance from the waters edge.  In order to understand how this could be we must appreciate that landscapes change and evolve over time.  In this particular instance an understanding of plate tectonics, landslides, lake level variations, and delta formation are needed in order to appreciate how these processes have shaped the landscape.

The Jordan Valley lies along a major fault line.  The friction between the sliding African and Arabian plates has given rise to many earthquakes (about one every hundred years) several of which are recorded in the Bible.  Tectonic rifting has caused significant uplift at et-Tell; furthermore sediment layers at the site have revealed a history of major landslide events.  One such debris layer, carbon-14 dated to a period just subsequent to New Testament events, measures 50 by 200 by 25 metres.  Such a large debris flow would have damed up the Jordan River, eventually causing a catastrophic outburst flood  (as is evidenced by boulders scattered up to 40 meters from the present river course).  In addition silt from the Jordan river has built up over time gradually filling the northern section of the lake, hence the Jordan delta has been extended by extensive sedimentation.  Water levels of the Sea of Galilee have themselves fluctuated in response to climate and have declined drastically due to land irrigation (see for example our discussions on this blog highlighting the historical changes to the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea).  When carefully piecing this evidence together a picture emerges that  suggests this site was located either at the shoreline or easily accessible to the lake via an estuary during New Testament times.  There is also textual evidence (e.g. from Josephus) as well as archeological evidence.   Further and more detailed information on the evidence for this deduction are well described is an article at The Bible and Interpretation entitled Why the fishing town Bethsaida is not found along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  The wikipedia entry for Bethsaida also provides some good information.

“Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dispersed the crowd.” Mark 6:45 (NET Bible)


Here’s an interesting analogy to explain the differences between weather and climate, it’s taken from the Norwegian TV series Siffer.

The video was featured in a recent New York Times blog Can Better Communication of Climate Science Cut Climate Risks? by Andrew Revkin.  The communication of climate science for public consumption remains a major task, especially in light of current political inaction.  A recent (Jan 2012) editorial in Nature urges Scientists to Reach Out about Climate stating:

 “… scientists and their organizations need to do more to help citizens engage with the issues and not be misled by travesties of the evidence.”

Climate communication outreach projects such as the website http://climatecommunication.org/ have some great resources.

Here’s a recent portrait of Hooke by painter Rita Greer. No original portrait exists (perhaps because Newton had it destroyed!) so the artist had to go by descriptions of his appearance to produce this credible image. You can listen to a 5 minute discussion on BBC Radio4 Today with historian of Science Dr Allan Chapman and the artist Rita Greer.

Robert Hooke was born in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, England in 1635 the son a Church of England clergyman (Church of All Saints, Freshwater). Sometimes described as an English Leonardo da Vinci, Hooke’s achievements are astonishing. He made seminal contributions across the Sciences – I’m sure everyone remembers studying Hooke’s Law at school, as well as being a noted Surveyor and Architect.  This is his remarkable drawing of a flea, which apparently is a two page spread (over a foot long) in his famous Micrographia, described by Samuel Pepys as “the most ingenious book that I ever read in my life.”

A half hour BBC radio discussion on his life can be accessed from this link (definitely worth a listen).

This is the best animation I’ve seen of changes in Arctic Sea Ice. The video clearly shows the dramatic seasonal changes in sea ice cover, as well as the general decline in sea ice extent. Perhaps most importantly it captures the reduction of old ice. The decline of multiyear ice reveals how weak the ice coverage has become, older ice that survives the summer provides stability by creating thicker and stronger ice. Thanks to NOAA Climate Services for putting this together:

The sea ice declines are accentuated by the albedo feedback. Open ocean water has a significantly darker surface than an ice covered sea and therefore absorbs much more of the sun’s heat than the reflective ice covering. This creates a positive feedback whereby the extra absorbed solar radiation triggers further sea ice melt.

A recent study in Nature suggests that both the duration and magnitude of the current decline in sea ice is seemingly unprecedented for the past 1450 years [1].  An ice free Arctic in the summer may occur within the next 30 years [2].

There has been speculation of a possible Arctic sea-ice ‘tipping point’, whereby a threshold is reached such that sea-ice loss is irreversible leading to permanent ice free summers.  However, recent modelling studies suggest this is not the case and that sea-ice recovery from a prescribed ice-free summer is possible within two years (see [3] and [4]).

A great resource for tracking sea ice changes and further reliable information on this topic is the National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC) website.

There is also a free iphone app called Arctic Watch that uses data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) and provides daily updates on Arctic sea ice area (you have to pay $0.99 for the Antarctic data).


[1]  Kinnard, C., C. M. Zdanowicz, D. A. Fisher, E. Isaksson, A. de Vernal and L. G. Thompson (2011), Reconstructed changes in Arctic sea ice over the past 1,450 years. Nature, 479, 509-512, doi: 10.1038/nature10581.
[2]  Wang, M., and J. E. Overland (2009), A sea ice free summer Arctic within 30 years?, Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, L07502, doi:10.1029/2009GL037820.
[3]  Tietsche, S., D. Notz, J. H. Jungclaus, and J. Marotzke (2011), Recovery mechanisms of Arctic summer sea ice,Geophys. Res. Lett., 38, L02707, doi:10.1029/2010GL045698.
[4]  Armour, K. C., I. Eisenman, E. Blanchard-Wrigglesworth, K. E. McCusker, and C. M. Bitz (2011), The reversibility of sea ice loss in a state-of-the-art climate model, Geophys. Res. Lett., 38, L16705, doi:10.1029/2011GL048739.

The Strength and Frailty of Hope (by jqgill)

HT http://gettinbiblical.tumblr.com/


I want to continue blogging, I see this as a way of archiving ideas and as a means to improve my communication skills.  Things I foresee on the blog this year include more stuff on Glaciology, a mini series on sea level rise, some posts on the Anthropocene.

Teaching methods

I’d like to continue to be more innovative in my teaching this year.  Things I might try include: more peer-peer learning, exploratory learning methods, a student peer-review assignment, a written exercise involving blogging, …


My aim this year is to get two new papers published.  I’m putting together a journal article on modelling the Belcher Glacier (Canada) and also working hard to produce a paper on modelling the Russell Glacier (Greenland).

Things I want to read

I don’t really line up and plan ahead the books I want to read, but I have a few on my radar that I hope to get around to reading these include:

Some books on Christianity and climate change/environmental crisis e.g. A Climate for Change, The Gospel According to the Earth, Tending to Eden, Global Warming and the Risen LORD

Science books on the Anthropocene e.g. Deep Future, The Earth After Us

Science & Faith: The Language of Science and FaithTheology in the Context of Science

Bible Studies: Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, The Resurrection of the Son of God

Fiction: The Hunger Games (Ann really enjoyed this, the film comes out in March, so I’ll have to read it before then).

Others: The Meaning of Marriage, Half a Wife

You can track my reading here.

Here is a brief list of some of my favourites of 2011:

Major Event: Birth of Simon, Barn’s wedding (being best man), Becoming Canadian

Film: Tinker Tailor Solider Spy

Music: Girls, Beriut, Bon Iver, …

TV series: Frozen PlanetSherlock, twenty twelve, Rev.

App: Instapaper has transformed the way I read website content – use it everyday

Gadget: iphone 4S – how did I ever live without a smart phone!?

Books: The Lost World of Genesis 1 (for new insights in understanding creation accounts in Genesis (and the ancient near-east)), The Empathic Civilization (for new insights on globalizations and global crisis),  The Planet in a Pebble (for new insights on Geology follows the deep history of a slate pebble from Borth (where we lived Oct-Dec 2010))

My Most Viewed Blog Post: Surprises under the ice

Podcasts: Daily Bacon, St. Pauls Media,

Newspaper: The Guardian

Magazine: Nature (that’s a journal I suppose)

Columnist: Monbiot, Freedland

Blogs: Jesus Creed, Storied Theology

Radio: BBC radio4 Today programme,

Drink: aeropress coffee, Black Butte Porter

Food: Sushi Town (Hasting, Burnaby), Sushi Garden (Lougheed, Burnaby)