Formation of varves
Sand and silt are washed into lakes, and settle to the bottom. Also, various types of algae bloom, die, and settle to the bottom. For many lakes in northern latitudes, there is a seasonal rhythm to these deposits. Where winters are severe, as in Sweden and Finland, streams and lakes surfaces freeze solid. Thus, during the winter the only sedimentation is the settling of very fine particles that had been suspended earlier in the lake waters. These winter layers are typically dark-colored. When the snow melts in the spring, large amounts of eroded sand and silt get washed in, forming lighter colored layers on the lake bottom.
In other lakes, even without such severe winters and without large input of sand and silt from streams, there can still be strong seasonal cycles of sediment deposition. In the spring there is vigorous growth of single-celled organisms with a solid silica shell or organisms which precipitate carbonate grains. As these die and fall to the bottom of the lake, their remains form light-colored layers. In the colder, darker winter months, growth slows down, and finer material settles out, forming darker layers.
The mechanism of layer formation in some Swedish lakes, including both organic (biogenic) and mineral (clastic) sediments, is depicted in the figure below:
If a lake is relatively narrow and deep, these seasonal layers can remain undisturbed and will accumulate year after year, to form a visible record of annual deposition. This is not just a theoretical proposal; these annual layers have been observed to form in real time. Each annual dark-light (e.g. winter-spring) sediment couplet is called a varve. Varves can be studied by drilling a core into the sediment at the bottom of a lake, and bringing the cores to a laboratory for examination.
The photo below from Zillen et al. (2003) shows varves from a Swedish lake which is subject to winter freezing and an inrush of mineral sediments in the spring. Labels have been added for some of the layers (laminae). The layers are numbered i-iv as in the figure above. The dark winter and light spring laminae are sufficiently visible to clearly define the annual layers. The summer and fall laminae for this lake are sometimes less distinct, but that does not affect the varve count.
In some lakes, varves can be counted back for many thousands of years. Regular varves going back more than 7000 years in a lake where the light colored layers are composed of carbonate-rich products of microorganism growth were described by Richard Foster Flint, an expert on Quaternary geology. He wrote (Flint 1971, p. 400),
A rhythmite deposited in a lake near Interlaken in Switzerland consists of thin couplets each containing a light-colored layer rich in calcium carbonate and a dark layer rich in organic matter. Proof that the couplets are annual, and therefore varves, is established on organic evidence, first recognized by Heer(1865). The sediment contains pollen grains, whose number per unit volume of sediment varies cyclically being greatest in the upper parts of the dark layers [i.e. in spring]. The pollen grains of various genera are stratified systematically according to the season of blooming. Finally, diatoms are twice as abundant in the light-colored layers as in the dark. From this evidence it is concluded that the light layers represent summer seasons and the dark ones fall, winter and spring. Counts of the layers indicate a record that is valid through at least the last 7,000 years B. P. [Before Present].
The composition of these varves demonstrate that they were indeed formed by seasonal (summer/winter) processes, not by storms washing in several layers of sediment in a year. So these 7000 varves represent 7000 years of largely undisturbed sediment accumulation.
Implications of varves for young earth creationism
The young earth (YE) creationist model popularized by the 1961 book The Genesis Flood assumes a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation narrative and genealogies, and thus holds that the earth was created about 6000 years ago. Also, this model holds that about 4400 years ago, the entire surface of the world was scoured by a global flood which eroded away enormous amounts of material, and deposited it in layers that were sometimes several miles or kilometers deep; these deposited layers have since hardened to form the massive sedimentary rock formations visible in the Grand Canyon and many other canyons and mountains.
If this picture is physically accurate, should be no lake anywhere where the varve counts go back more than about 4400 years. However, for the Swiss lake described above, and the two Swedish and two German lakes described below, we can observe well-defined annual layers which can be counted back through the presumed flood era (4400 years ago, or c. 2400 B.C.), with no significant disturbance whatsoever. These varves can counted even further back, beyond the supposed 6000 year old (c. 4000 B.C.) date of creation of the earth itself.
[ The rest of this article on varves goes on for many pages. To see other articles on this blog, look for titles along right-hand side of screen, or go here for listing of articles by topic. ]
Two Swedish Lakes with Varve Counts Going Back More Than 9000 Years
Zillen et al. (2003) conducted a study of the varves in two lakes in central Sweden, Furskogstjarnet and Motterudstjarnet. (The umlaut-type markings in the Swedish names of these lakes are not reproduced here in the text). As shown in the figure below, varves could be counted back to more than 9000 years ago in both lakes. These varves had the typical structure of the biogenic/clastic varves described above. Fine light grey mineral material (representing the spring flood) transitioned to dark organic lamina (representing the primary production in summer and its subsequent deposition). Fieldwork showed the addition of a distinct new cycle of lamina for each year, which confirms that the couplets of light and dark lamina indeed form an annual varve.
The sedimentation rate in both lakes has remained largely constant over this time period. The validity of the varve chronologies in these two lakes is supported by comparison of their palaeomagnetic secular variation (PSV) curves with PSV curves from other varved lake sediments in northern Sweden and in central Finland. For Furskogstjarnet, the varves were distinct all the way down. For Motterudstjarnet, the vast majority of the varves were distinct, except for some in the 6000-7400 year old range where they were visible but less well preserved.
Vertical dashed blue lines in this figure mark the date of the raging worldwide Flood, according to the YE creationist model (c. 4400 years before present). However, there is no significant disturbance in the varve deposition there or at the 6000 year old date of the creation of the earth.
Carbon-14 Dating of Lake Sediment Layers
The vast majority of carbon on earth consists of the stable isotopes carbon-12 (12C) and carbon-13 (13C). However, some carbon-14 (14C) is generated in the upper atmosphere by cosmic rays interacting with nitrogen. This 14C quickly forms carbon dioxide, CO2, in the atmosphere. At present, about one in a trillion molecules of CO2 in the atmosphere contain 14C, rather than 12C or 13C.
14C is unstable, and spontaneously decays back into nitrogen with a half-life of 5,730 years. That means that after 5730 years, the amount of 14C remaining in the sample will be half of its original value, and after 10,740 years (i.e. 2 x 5730 years) the 14C will be a quarter of its original, etc. As a plant takes in CO2 from the atmosphere to grow, it incorporates the trace 14C along with 12C and 13C in its cells. However, from that moment on, the 14C in the plant material will continuously decay. The ratio of 14C to total carbon will decline in a well-defined pattern. This allows scientists to measure the amount of 14C in an ancient artifact and use that measurement to estimate the age of the artifact, or more precisely, the time when the plants grew whose materials that were used to make the artifact.
As might be expected, proper sample selection and treatment are required for successful application of 14C dating. Contamination of an old sample with modern carbon (which contains much larger proportions of 14C) will make the sample look younger than it is. On the other hand, if a sample tree that grew around 1600 was used as a house beam, which was subsequently cut up to make a set of chairs in 1700, the chairs will be carbon-dated to 1600, not 1700. Tree rings are excellent candidates for carbon dating, since each growth ring is protected from contamination by the outer layers of wood.
Early carbon dating work in the 1950’s used a value of 5568 years for the 14C half-life, and also assumed that the fraction of 14C in the atmosphere thousands of years ago was the same as today. It is now known that both of these features are incorrect. The actual 14C half-life is 5730 years, not 5568 years, and studies have found that the 14C content in the atmosphere has varied with time. Tree-rings and other annual records have been used to determine a “calibration curve” for the actual fraction of 14C in the atmosphere over the past several thousand years. For consistency with earlier studies, carbon dating results are typically first calculated and reported (as “Conventional Radiocarbon Age” BP), where BP (“Before Present”) means before 1950. These radiocarbon ages (which are known to be incorrect) are then converted into “calibrated” ages, which are actual calendar years BP. The differences between 14C ages and calibrated ages can be significant; for instance, 11,000 14C BP converts to around 12,900 cal BP. There are further complexities associated with the application of 14C dating, which we will not attempt to explain here. A detailed explanation of radioactive dating methods by Richard Wiens is available.
For these two Swedish lakes, remains of plants were extracted at intervals from the sediments and subjected to carbon-14 dating. The 14C dating was calibrated using primarily tree ring data. The trend in the 14C dating lines up with the varve counts; the 14C dates increase fairly regularly with depth of sediment. Most of the 14C dates agree with the varve counts within the expected interval of experimental uncertainty. However, there is more scatter for some of the 14C dates in the middle of the Furskogstjarnet and near the bottom of the Motterudstjarnet sediments.
This suggests possible issues with the sampling procedures, such as contamination with more recent carbon, or perhaps the organic debris being sampled had grown and then existed for a number of decades in the forest or soil before being washed into the lake and being deposited in sediment. This “reworked” material will impart a 14C age to the sample which is older than the actual varve formation date . The varves in these lakes are produced from largely from the freeze/thaw cycle, where significant amounts of eroded material wash into the lakes in the spring, and this active transport regime sometimes results in more scatter in the 14C results than seen in other lake cores. 
Varves in German Lake Meerfelder Maar Go Back More than 12,000 Years
Brauer et al. (2000) published a comprehensive study of the sediment layers in Lake Meerfelder Maar, in western Germany. A diagram of these sediments is shown below.
The topmost section (0-1.75 m) is only partly varved. The section 1.75-9.6 m is nearly all well-varved, with some 12,700 varves counted there. The upper portion of this section (section II in the figure) shows seasonal depositions of different types of diatoms. These are microscopic organisms whose silica skeletons sink to the bottom after they complete their life cycles. Section III contains both organic layers and primarily-mineral (“clastic”) layers, but both types of layers display annual cycles of varves.
Below 9.6 m, the sediments are again only partly varved. Both in this lower region and in the upper 0-1.75 m section, it is possible to make an estimate of the average sediment deposition rate from the varves that can be observed there, and thus to estimate the time elapsed for these sections. However, a rigorous varve count is not possible in these regions.
Samples containing plant remains were recovered from various depths in the sediment, and subjected to carbon-14 dating. The results are shown below. The open symbols represent samples which were determined by microscopic examination to contain reworked material, and hence to not represent the age of deposition of the sediment section.
We have drawn a trendline through the solid symbols. For the dated sediments below about 700 cm (7 m), corresponding to about 10,000 14C BP or 11,600 calendar years BP, there is very little scatter in the 14C data. This zone of the sediment (2 – 7 m) is dominated by seasonal deposition of organic material. The scatter increases at longer times, as more of the deposition comes from minerals transported in by stream flows.
Since the topmost 1.75 m (175 cm) is only partly varved, we cannot directly measure the years it took to deposit this section. We added dashed green lines to show graphically how one might use the 14C data to estimate an elapsed time of about 1500 years for the 1.75 m top section. Alternatively, one could estimate a rate of sediment deposition in this section using the widths of the varves that can be discerned, or by extrapolating the rate of sedimentation in the later sediments just below the 1.75 m level, to again arrive at an estimate of roughly 1500 years for this section. A more sophisticated mathematical fit to the 14C data gives a value of 1560 years for this top section, which is used in the study to adjust the varve chronology for this lake.
From reading the figure above, we estimate the 14C ages of the sediment at 1.75 m to be about 1600 14C BP, and at 9.6 m to be 12,300 14C BP. We used the online OxCal tool , with the IntCal 13 calibration curve, to convert these two uncalibrated 14C “dates” to calibrated actual chronological dates of about 1500 cal BP and 14,300 cal BP. This gives a span of about 12,800 years from radiocarbon dating for the 1.75-9.6 m sediment interval.
Comparing this number of 12,800 years (from radiocarbon dating calibrated mainly with tree rings) with the varve count of 12,700 spanning this sediment interval shows that two completely different dating methods gave nearly the same results. This is strong confirmation that the counted varves are indeed annual. While it is only based on eyeball analysis of the raw data, our figure of 12,800 years from radiocarbon dating is slightly higher than the initial varve count of 12,700, which suggests that something like 100 varves may have been missed in the varve counting process. The trendline in the figure above shows a steep step at about 650 cm (6.5 m) sediment depth, indicating a time of slow deposition there. Examination of the sediments showed that in the region of 6.44-6.60 m, the varves were in fact very thin and difficult to count reproducibly, and there was a transition there between different types of varve layering as the amount of minerals washed into the lake apparently waned and waxed with time. Thus, it is likely that some years passed in this zone without leaving clear annual layers. To get an improved match to the overall carbon-14 data, the authors added 240 years to the varve count in this zone. This is an adjustment of less than 2% for this interval.
Volcanic ash layers confirm dating for Meerfelder Maar varves
Brauer et al. (2000) identified two ash layers in the sediments, the Ulmener Maar Tephra (UMT) and the Laacher See Tephra (LST). Deposits of the Laacher See Tephra have been found in many locations in central Europe. Lane et al. (2015) analyzed additional sediment cores from MFM and identified some additional varves in the 13,000-14,200 cal BP range, extending the range of continuous varve preservation back to 14,230 BP. They also identified a number of additional layers of volcanic ash by their unique chemical and physical signatures. The Vedde Ash and the Neapolitan Yellow Tuff are of particular interest, since they are so widespread that they offer the means to correlate sediments across much of Europe.
From youngest to oldest, the four ash layers identified in the Meerfelder Maar sediments are:
Ulmener Maar Tephra (UMT) – – Ash from this relatively small eruption is found at several other lakes or peat bogs close to Meerfelder Maar (MFM). The MFM varve date for UMT is 11,000 BP. This matches the varve count for UMT in nearby Lake Holzmaar. Likewise, the (uncalibrated) radiocarbon dates for the sediment layers adjacent to the UMT match those of Lake Holzmaar (Brauer et al., 2000). These radiocarbon dates of about 9600 BP convert to about 11,000 cal BP when corrected by standard calibration curves, which matches the varve counts in MFM and Lake Holzmaar. (The varve counts for each of these lakes were adjusted by radiocarbon dating calibrated primarily by tree ring data; the fact that the UMT ash horizon appears at the same varve count in both lakes is independent confirmation that these adjusted varve counts are correct).
Vedde Ash – – The Vedde Ash came from a massive eruption in Iceland, and is found in Greenland glacier cores, on the floor of the North Atlantic, and in lake sediments in Norway, Sweden, and Germany. The MFM varve date for the Vedde Ash is 12,140. That compares well with a date of 12,171 BP from counting annual layers in the Greenland NGRIP ice core (Lane et al. 2015) and dates of 11844-12388 and 11833-12571 cal BP from radiocarbon dating of lake sediments in Norway and Sweden, respectively (Lane et al. 2012).
Laacher See Tephra (LST) – – The Laacher See Tephra is found across Germany and Switzerland and beyond. The MFM varve date is 12,880 BP. The MFM (uncalibrated 14C) dates for this layer [Brauer 2000] are similar to those in Lake Holzmaar and Swiss Lake Soppensee (Hajdas et al. 1995b). These raw radiocarbon dates of around 11,200 BP convert to about 13,000 cal BP. Further confirmation is provided by Ar/Ar dating of sanidine mineral crystals from Laacher See eruption deposits yielding 12,900 +/- 560 BP (van den Bogaard 1995).
Neapolitan Yellow Tuff – – The Neapolitan Yellow Tuff came from an eruption in southern Italy, some 1200 km (700 miles) from MFM. The MFM varve date is 14,230 BP. This compares closely to a varve dating of 14,120 BP for this ash layer in a lake in southern Italy (Lago Grande di Monticchio), and with calibrated radiocarbon dates of 14022-14366 cal BP for multiple sites in Europe (Lane et al. 2015 and references therein).
The agreement between the Meerfelder Maar (MFM) varve dates for these ash layers and dates for these ash layers determined independently by other methods at many other sites provides powerful confirmation that the varves observed in the MFM sediments are indeed annual. These four ash layers are noted in the figure below, which gives an overall summary of the sedimentary layers at MFM. This figure shows the 1560 year assignment to the first 1.75 m of MFM sediment based on matching radiocarbon dates for samples within the sediments, and the 240 year insertion as discussed above.
Lake Holzmaar (HZM), lies about 10 km away from Lake Meerfelder Maar and also has varved sediments. For most of the period of interest here, the annual layers are easy to discern. Pale diatom-rich layers from spring and early summer alternate with dark layers of organic and mineral detritus. Over 12,900 varves have been counted visually. Thus, this lake is a minimum of 12,900 years old.
Some data for Lake Holzmaar are depicted on the right hand side of the figure above. As with Meerfelder Maar, there is a section where sedimentation rate was very low or the diatom-rich sublayers were not present, so some of the annual layers are cannot be distinguished. Adding 350 years to the measured varve count in this 3600-4500 BP region gives a tight match with tree-ring calibrated carbon-14 dated samples in the sediments through about 12,000 years. 350 years is less than a 3% correction for this time span.
The region between the UMT and LST ash layers in the Meerfelder Maar sediments is well-varved, and so the count of about 1,880 varves between these two layers is considered robust. The counted varves in the corresponding region in the Lake Holzmaar sediments fall below this count by about 320. Since the Lake Holzmaar sediments are not as clearly defined throughout this region, the difference between the two lakes was made up by adding 320 years to the Lake Holzmaar varve count there .
Varves in Japanese Lake Suigetsu Go Back Over 50,000 Years
Gregg Davidson and Ken Wolgemuth, who are both geology professionals and evangelical Christians, have described the varve system in Lake Suigetsu in Japan (Davidson and Wolgemuth 2018). These varves go back more than 50,000 years. As with the varves in Lake Meerfelder Maar described above, there are some complexities in the Lake Suigetsu data, but matters are readily resolved by combining several analytical tools. The authors have broadened the scope of the article to address many of the objections raised by YE creationists to these results:
By combining independent measurements such as counts of tree rings, counts of lake-sediment couplets that appear to be annual deposits, and carbon-14 content, we can demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that the trees put on one ring per year, the sediments in question formed annual layers, radioactive decay rates have not changed over time, estimates of past atmospheric production of carbon-14 are accurate, and the history of Earth goes back far beyond a few thousand years.
At the same time, speculative arguments made by young-earth advocates can likewise be objectively tested and shown to be untenable. This will be done in a stepwise fashion, beginning with tree rings, then incorporating carbon-14, and finally adding the annual sediment couplets (varves) from Lake Suigetsu.
Our second objective is to shed light on the typical methods employed by young-earth writers to turn confidence into doubt. This is an important part of the story, for the best scientific explanations go unheeded by many in the church if the alternative explanations provided by young-earth advocates sound equally convincing. After each of our steps that describe how we can test and verify specific hypotheses, we follow with example arguments that young-earth advocates employ to create doubt in the validity of those tests.
This article is long but well laid out and quite readable. Paul Braterman has written an introduction/summary for the Davidson and Wolgemuth study; this introduction also contains a good general discussion of radiocarbon dating. I highly recommend it. Both of these articles discuss why carbon-dating of objects that are more than about 50,000 years old is simply not technically feasible.
Some Objections by Young Earth Creationists
Non-annual layers are observed in other lake sediments
As might be expected, YE creationists do not accept the validity of these varve results. YE writers have raised several objections. One common objection is that storms and other processes can create multiple sets of sediment layers in a year, and so we cannot assume that any given set of light/dark couplets are strictly annual. YE authors cite various published studies which describe extensive non-annual layering in sediments.
This is a typical example of how YE proponents mislead their audience. Of course there are sediment layers in various places that are non-annual. Any close observer of nature can see that. However, the fact that some layering is non-annual does not mean that all layering is non-annual.
Scientists are well aware of these issues, which is why they do NOT simply assume that all sediment couplets are annual. They look for corroborating evidence of seasonality, such as regularity and composition (e.g. washed-in spring sand/silt vs. winter fine settling, or spring/summer blooms of algal remains vs. winter fine organics). These aspects are not easily mimicked by rapid flood depositions. Carbon 14 dating and volcanic ash layers can also serve to confirm the yearly nature of varves.
Also, scientists are generally careful to distinguish between clearly visible, countable varves and less-distinct layers. The result is that varves are generally under-counted, not over-counted. In some lake sediments that do have annual layering there are some sections where there has been sediment deposition but without clear varves to count. Thus, if 9000 varves have been counted for a certain lake, we can be reasonably sure that the sediments there go back at least 9000 years, though they may be even older. The discussions above for the Swedish and German lake sediments demonstrate how this works in practice.
A literature reference which is used again and again by YE creationist writers to cast doubt on varves is a 1979 article by Lampert and Hsu which described rapid formation of layers in the Swiss lake Walensee. For instance, Steve Austin (1984) wrote: “Thin, rhythmic silt and clay layers found in lakes are frequently called ‘varves,’ with each layer being considered to represent annual repetitions of a slow sedimentary process. Lambert and Hsu present evidence from a Swiss lake that these varve-like layers form rapidly by catastrophic, turbid water underflows. At one location five ‘varves’ formed during a single year.” However, as usual, YE authors do not tell the “rest of the story”. In that same 1979 article Lampert and Hsu made it clear that there ARE lakes that demonstrate annual layering, and that scientists know how to tell the difference. They stated:
“We do not intend to make an unwarranted generalization that no varves are deposits of annual cycles. Figure 4 shows varves from the mesotrophic Lake Zurich where the light laminae represent chemical sedimentation prevailing during summers and the darker laminae detrital sedimentation during winters. A comparison of those varves with the non-annual varves of the oligotrophic Walensee shows that the annual rhythms of Lake Zurich varves are more regular, while the irregularity of the Walensee ‘varves’ reflects the unpredictability of the weather.” (Lambert and Hsu, 1979, p. 453-461)
Here is their figure, which shows the difference between the non-annual and annual layering:
Circular reasoning with varves and carbon-14 dating
Another objection sometimes raised is that scientists are using circular reasoning if they use carbon-14 dating to adjust a varve chronology, and then use the resulting match between the varve-chronology as validation of either method of dating. This can be a legitimate concern if scientists are not precise in describing their results. For instance, if carbon-14 dating of the sediments is used to assign 1560 years to the upper 1.75 m of the Meerfelder Maar sediments, it would indeed be insupportable to display a plot showing the good match between the adjusted varve count chronology and the carbon-14 dating of the sediments, and then use that to claim that carbon-14 dating vindicates the varve counts for that section of the sediment.
I was aware of that pitfall, which is why I did not display such a plot here. I confined my semi-quantitative analysis of the Meerfelder Maar sediments to the 1.75-9.6 m section where there were continuous varves to count, and showed that the raw varve count there was nearly identical to the span in years for that section calculated by applying tree ring calibrations to the raw 14C data. Thus, in that section spanning over 12,000 years, the varve count was confirmed by a completely independent dating method. Also, whether or not a precisely correct span of years is assigned to the first 1.75 m of sediments that lack continuous varves, the ages of the remaining distinct 12,000+ varves far exceed the dates of the Flood and of Creation that are mandated by YE creationism.
This concern does not arise at all with the two Swedish lakes described above. Both Furskogstjarnet and Motterudstjarnet are continuously varved, such that the varves can be simply counted back more than 9000 years, with a fairly constant varve thickness (i.e. fairly even rate of deposition). Although there is some scatter in the data, the calibrated carbon-14 dates on the whole line up with the varve counts, which again furnishes completely independent confirmation of the annual character of the varves.
Varve chronologies have needed massive revisions
From 1900 through about 1970, the study of varves was largely conducted by finding exposures of layered clays, hand-scraping a smooth surface with a trowel, and counting the layers by eye and with a ruler in hand:
These exposures could be in natural cliff-sides, road cuts, or in excavations for foundations or gravel pits. A great deal of this work was done in Sweden and in New England. The main focus was on tracing the recession of glaciers, mainly in the era of 8000-14,000 B.P. As the glaciers melted back, large lakes were formed in various valleys whose water levels were higher than for present day lakes. Annual sediment layers (varves) did form in these lakes, but the location of the lakes and the varve deposition would move as the glacier front moved back and back as the climate warmed. Thus, one might find 300 varves in one spot, 700 varves in another spot, and 500 varves in a third place, all from many thousand years ago. It proved challenging to relate all these small “floating” varve chronologies to each other, and to gauge their temporal relation to the present time.
The “Swedish Varve Chronology” and the “North American Varve Chronology” were each built up in this fashion. Some of the estimates that were made many decades ago have had to be revised in the light of further information, including information from radiocarbon dating. But this is hardly surprising considering the fragmentary nature of the data these early researchers had to work with, and in no way shows that varves are not annual.
Extracting cores of lake sediments where the layers can simply be counted down for thousands of years, starting from the present, is a far simpler and more reliable means for determining ages than eyeballing little outcrops of clay layers here and there. Morner’s survey of the Swedish Varve Chronology concludes,
Continual varve sequences from lakes basins offer local chronologies of very high precision, and can be used to date a large number of local environmental changes. Today, this application of varve records seems to be more important than the building up of local chronologies like the famous “Swedish Time Scale” or “Swedish Varve Chronology”. (Morner 2014. Citations omitted)
YE creationist authors sometimes claim that the contradictions between some early versions of the “Swedish Varve Chronology” and the “North American Varve Chronology”, or the substantial revisions in them that have been made over the years, show that varves in general are not annual or reliable. But that is a deceptive rhetorical tactic: modern lake sediment cores (like we discussed above) are known to be much more straightforward and accurate than these earlier piecemeal “Varve Chronologies”, so trying to use the latter to discredit the former is inappropriate.
Conclusions and Reflections
In the young earth (YE) creationist model the earth was created about 6000 years ago, and about 4400 years ago, the entire surface of the world was scoured by a global flood which covered the highest mountains and eroded and deposited stupendous amounts of material. If this picture is physically accurate, should be no lake anywhere where continuous varve counts go back more than about 4400 years. However, for a number of European lakes, including a Swiss lake near Interlaken and the two Swedish lakes and the two German lakes described in some detail above, we can observe well-defined annual layers which can be counted back through the presumed flood era (4400 years ago, or c. 2400 B.C.), with no significant disturbance whatsoever. These varves can be counted even further back, well beyond the supposed 6000 year old (c. 4000 B.C.) date of creation of the earth itself, and are independently confirmed by radiocarbon dating of the sediment layers.
With the two Swedish lakes, Furskogstjarnet and Motterudstjarnet, the formation of annual sets of sediment layers (varves) can be observed occurring today. The nature of these varves (spring, summer, autumn, winter laminae) is well understood, and their seasonal character is confirmed by their composition and their regularity stretching back over 9,000 years. Similarly, the seasonal nature of the varves in the two German lakes (dark, fine winter sediment layer followed by light colored spring/summer layer rich in siliceous micro-algae remains) is understood and is confirmed by microscopic examination of the sediments and the regular pattern of deposition. For both of these lakes, distinct varves can be directly counted back for at least 12,000 years. (For both German lakes there are some sections were the varving is less distinct, such that radiocarbon dating is used to justify adding some years to the varve chronology, but that does not detract from the sections where the varving is distinct). For Meerfelder Maar, four volcanic ash layers have been identified. The dates for the radiocarbon-corrected varve counts for these ash horizons in the Meerfelder Maar sediments are corroborated by independent age measurements for these ash layers in other sites across Europe.
These sediment layers in these lakes show every sign of being true annual phenomena. The fact that other lakes can form multiple layers in a year is irrelevant. This straightforward evidence shows that there was no raging worldwide flood 4400 years ago, and that earth was not created only 6000 years ago.
Learning (or Not) from the Galileo Affair
Do these varve results mean the Bible is in error? No, it means that a particular interpretation of the Bible is in error. Unfortunately, YE creationists place their human interpretation of the Word on the same exalted level as the Word itself.
The Bible often presents spiritual or moral teachings in the form of stories or imagery which are not literally true. It is true that the simplest, most literal readings of Genesis 1-3 and other passages point to a recent creation. However, it is also true that the simple, literal meanings of many Biblical passages show that the earth is stationary, and the sun and other celestial objects revolve around the earth. These verses include Psalm 104:5 (“He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved”), Ps. 93:1 (“Surely the world is established, so that it cannot be moved”), I Chron. 16:30 (“The world also is firmly established, It shall not be moved”), the philosophical discourse of Eccl.1:5 (“The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it arose”), and also the historical chronicle of Josh. 10:13:
So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the people had revenge upon their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.
In the 1500s and 1600s, the literal interpretation of these passages was seen as an essential element of Christian belief. Here is what John Calvin in his sermon on 1 Corinthians 10-11 had to say about those monstrous, malicious, devil-possessed people who claim that the earth “shifts and turns”:
We will see some who are so deranged, not only in religion but who in all things reveal their monstrous nature, that they will say that the sun does not move, and that it is the earth which shifts and turns. When we see such minds we must indeed confess that the devil possesses them, and that God sets them before us as mirrors, in order to keep us in his fear. So it is with all who argue out of pure malice, and who happily make a show of their imprudence.
This is the sort of accusation that today’s YE creationists make against those who teach that evolution is compatible with biblical Christianity.
Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine, a prosecutor of Galileo, stated in 1615: “…to affirm that the sun is really fixed in the center of the heavens and the earth revolves swiftly around the sun is a dangerous thing, not only irritating the theologians and philosophers, but injuring our holy faith and making the sacred scripture false.” Note well: “…injuring our holy faith and making the sacred scripture false.” That is what today’s YE creationists say about an old earth and evolution, i.e. that these concepts injure our faith and make the sacred scripture false.
Practically every Bible commentary since 1800 offers explanations of why these passages which depict a stationary earth need not be taken literally. Is this because our exegetical skills or our command of the Hebrew language are superior to everyone living before 1700? No, it is because by 1800 nearly everyone accepted what the scientists had been telling them about these aspects of the physical world. Once this physical picture was accepted, the theologians took a fresh look at the issue and found that, lo and behold, a literal acceptance of a stationary earth was not essential to the Christian faith after all.
Nowadays most evangelical Christians will say, obviously these verses were not supposed to be taken literally. Obviously, these passages reflect the thinking and language of ancient times, and obviously were not intended for making authoritative statements about the physical world. But that is only “obvious” AFTER one has accepted the physical evidence that the earth moves, and has recognized that it is proper to use the information we get from God’s creation to help interpret the meaning of the scriptural texts.
A Way Forward
Do today’s evangelical Christians make the same mistake with the age of the earth that the church did with heliocentricity? Some do and some don’t. YE creationist organizations such as Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International vigorously promote their message, denouncing any Christians who disagree with them as “compromisers”. Since YE creationists refuse to acknowledge the evidence that the earth is billions of years old, they are repeating the mistakes of the Christians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who disregarded the evidence for a moving earth because of their insistence that the passages regarding the fixed earth must be regarded as literally true.
Hardly any Christians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, even the most rock-solid fundamentalists, held to a recent (6000 year old) creation. W.B. Riley, editor of The Christian Fundamentalist and president of the Anti-Evolution League of America, stated in the 1920’s that there was not “an intelligent fundamentalist who claims that the earth was made six thousand years ago; and the Bible never taught any such thing”. Riley, William Jennings Bryan (of Tennessee “Monkey Trial” fame), and many of the more educated fundamentalists held to the “progressive creation” form of old earth creationism. In this view, the creative acts of God were spread out over millions of years, and Noah’s Flood is seen as localized to somewhere in the Middle East.
Today’s young earth creationism sprang almost entirely from the 1961 publication of Whitcomb and Morris’s The Genesis Flood, which quickly became the new orthodoxy in the conservative Protestant world. As described in Exposing the Roots of Young Earth Creationism, the scientific picture in Genesis Flood was largely lifted from a bogus Flood geology  by George McCready Price. Price was driven to devise a young earth geology by visions of Noah’s Flood seen by a cult “prophetess”, Ellen White. Her Adventist cult  was spawned by the widely-believed prophecies by William Miller, a farmer in upstate New York, that Jesus would return in October of 1848. Thus, modern young earth creationism did not develop from improved Bible exegesis or new geological findings. Rather, it derived from extra-biblical revelation or assumptions, and scientific claims known at the time to be false. This approach is at odds with the historic Christian understanding of God’s works. However, YE creationism is not the only way that modern Christians can interpret the Genesis narrative.
There are various points of view which comprehend both the facts of the physical world and a high view of the Bible. Several approaches may be grouped under “Old Earth Creationism”. Solid Rock Lectures and Old Earth Ministries focus on the evidence for an old earth and on why this is compatible with the Scriptures; they note that if young people are taught that a young earth is an essential part of Christianity, they are set up to lose their faith if they are later exposed to geology or biology in depth. Some of these Old Earth approaches are explicitly skeptical regarding evolution. Hugh Ross’s Reasons to Believe organization is an example here. My impression is that many Intelligent Design advocates and educated evangelicals today would fall into this general category.
Other evangelicals are comfortable with the entire sweep of current science, including evolution. These “evolutionary creationists” hold that God has used natural processes such as the Big Bang and cosmological and biological evolution to providentially accomplish his purposes in the universe. The Biologos organization promotes this point of view, with articles such as Why should Christians consider evolutionary creation? and Is Evolutionary Creation compatible with biblical inerrancy? . I sketch my evolutionary creationist hermeneutical approach here .
 For instance, compare the scatter shown for these Swedish lakes with the minimal scatter found in the carbon-14 dating of sediments from Steel Lake, Minnesota, U.S.A., where the sediments derive mainly from organisms growing in the lake, rather than from material washed in by streams (Tian 2005). The carbon-14 (calibrated) dates there tend to be about 8% older than the varve counts. This is consistent with occasional indistinct varving in the Steel Lake sediments, which implies that the varve count will fall short of the actual elapsed calendar years. However, the overall carbon-14 versus sediment depth data show very little scatter about their trendline.
Also, in the sediments for the two German lakes discussed here, the figure above shows there is relatively little scatter in the radiocarbon dates for the first 12,000 years or so, when the sedimentation is heavily dominated by deposition of the remains of diatom blooms in the lakes rather than by mineral material washed in by streams.
This discussion illustrates a principle which scientists are aware of, that no method of measurement should be employed without awareness of possible sources of error. YE creationists can always find and cite instances of revisions or of unresolved questions for various specific 14C datings and certain portions of tree-ring dating, in attempts to cast doubt on all such dating. However, the overall matchings of dates determined in different locations and by independent methods provide grounds to believe that tree ring and 14C dating generally provide reliable information.
 For Lake Holzmaar there is a steep step in the carbon-14 dating versus sediment depth trendline around 900 cm depth and 10,700 14C BP (around 12,600 cal BP), suggesting a period of diminished deposition and thus poor varving there. See Figure 2 in Hajdas et al (1995a).
 The Copernican controversy is not entirely behind us. There are still fundamentalist groups, both Roman Catholic (e.g. ” GalileoWasWrong “) and Protestant, who maintain that true believers must retain the plain, literal sense of the biblical passages on the earth and the sun, and that the physical facts support a stationary earth; Christians who go along with the moving earth are denounced as compromisers.
 Some versions of Flood geology, i.e. that today’s sedimentary rock layers were laid down by Noah’s global Flood, were proposed by British “Scriptural Geologists” in the first half of the nineteenth century. However, these men (unlike today’s YE creationists) were willing to alter their interpretations if the physical evidence indicated it. As evidence mounted that the earth was far older than 6000 years, and that the sedimentary rock layers could not be explained by a single year-long Flood, this school of thought largely died out.
George McCready Price drew on the ideas of these earlier men, but added distinct aspects to make his novel system. First, he proposed that essentially all the fossil-bearing rocks were laid down by the Flood (a view abandoned early on by the Scriptural Geologists).
Price recognized that he must come to terms with the observations by geologists that a regular sequence of fossilized plant and animal species could be observed in the rock layers around the world. Evolutionists readily explain this faunal succession in the rocks as reflecting the actual temporal appearance and extinction of these species over the millions of years of geologic history. The earlier Scriptural Geologists acknowledged this order of fossils.
Price’s novel contribution here was to simply deny the existence of a regular order of fossils in the rocks. He ended up staking his whole system of thought on the observation of “out-of-order” rock layers in certain locations, especially the Lewis Overthrust in Montana and Alberta. As described in Exposing the Roots of Young Earth Creationism , Price (as do subsequent YE creationists) simply ignored the facts showing that these out-of-order rock layers are the result of plain geological faulting. Thus, Price (unlike the Scriptural Geologists) initiated the YE creationist approach of systematically denying and distorting the facts, in order to fit a Flood geology model mandated by a theological construct. Despite being advised by geologists that it was incorrect, John Whitcomb and Henry Morris took over Price’s Flood geology and repackaged it in The Genesis Flood (1961). Whitcomb and Morris downplayed the connection with the Adventist George Price, in order to gain a better reception for their book among fundamentalists.
 Today’s Seventh Day Adventism, which has many admirable features, is quite different than mid-nineteenth century Adventism. See the link Exposing the Roots of Young Earth Creationism for details on Ellen White’s visions and her influence over George McCready Price.
Steve Austin, 1984. Catastrophes in Earth History ICR Technical Monograph 13, (El Cajon: Institute for Creation Research, 1984), p. 272, cited in Age of the Earth, by G.R. Morton. https://morton-yec-archive.blogspot.com/2016/04/age-of-earth.html
Achim Brauer, Christoph Endres, Bernd Zolitschka, and Jörg FW Negendank 2000. AMS Radiocarbon and Varve Chronology from the Annually Laminated Sediment Record of Lake Meerfelder Maar, Germany. Radiocarbon, Vol 42, No 3(2000) p 355–368. https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/radiocarbon/article/download/3828/3253
Gregg Davidson and Ken Wolgemuth, Testing and Verifying Old Age Evidence: Lake Suigetsu Varves, Tree Rings, and Carbon-14. Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Volume 70, Number 2, June 2018, pp. 75-89. https://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2018/PSCF6-18Davidson.pdf
Richard Foster Flint, 1971. Glacial and Quaternary Geology, (New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1971), as cited in Age of the Earth, by G.R. Morton. https://morton-yec-archive.blogspot.com/2016/04/age-of-earth.html
Hajdas I, Zolitschka B, Ivy-Ochs SD, Beer J, Bonani G, Leroy SAG, Negendank JFW, Ramrath M, Suter M. 1995a. AMS radiocarbon dating of annually laminated sediments from lake Holzmaar, Germany. Quaternary Science Reviews 14:37–143. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/027737919400123
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Jian Tian, Thomas A. Brown and Feng Sheng Hu 2005. Comparison of varve and 14C chronologies from Steel Lake, Minnesota, USA. The Holocene Vol 15, no. 4 (2005) pp. 510-517. https://www.life.illinois.edu/hu/publications/Tian_et_al._2005.pdf
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