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Red Sea Parted Long Before Moses, And It’s Still Widening

Fri., Nov. 24, 1995, midnight

The original parting of the Red Sea saw the Earth’s crust separate like the rigid leaves of a table, say geologists disputing an earlier theory that the sea unzipped gradually from south to north.

The rift, 34 million years before Moses parted the waters, took place at about the same time along the length of what is now the Red Sea, geologists Gomaa I. Omar and Michael S. Steckler report in a paper in this week’s edition of the journal Science.

Their findings contradict the previous theory that the sea opened gradually - more or less like a zipper - from south to north.

Instead, they believe continental movement, combined with volcanism, began a long process of separating Africa and Arabia. That process is still going on, as shown by the earthquake that struck the region on Wednesday.

When Moses parted the Red Sea 3,300 years ago “he didn’t realize it was parted before, 34 million years earlier,” Omar, of the University of Pennsylvania, said in a telephone interview.

The partings, of course, were vastly different.

Moses led the Jews through an opening in the water caused either by divine intervention, winds, a great wave or some other phenomenon, depending on whom one chooses to believe.

The parting analyzed by Omar and Steckler is a slow, massive separation of the land that created the opening for the sea itself.

“There are a lot of things happening now we don’t even notice. The Red Sea is still opening, but we don’t notice. Eventually it will be an ocean,” said Omar.

Still widening at about one-half inch per year, the rift is the youngest region of continental breakup on the planet, allowing geologists to learn about processes that occurred in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans hundreds of millions of years earlier.

Scientists had thought the Red Sea opened gradually from south to north because the process of developing oceanic crust on the sea floor followed that pattern, occurring about 5 million years ago, Omar said.

But Omar and Steckler dispute that, based on studies called “apatite fission tracking.” Apatite is a common mineral in the molten rocks that rose through the cracks in the earth. It contains small amounts of uranium 238 which change into other types of uranium at a constant rate, leaving a trace in the structure of the rock crystals, he said.

Steckler is affiliated with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

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