It’s a question that has rattled scientists for decades. What is the source of water on Earth?
While the water cycle is all too familiar to most of us; that is: the evaporation of land bodies of water to make the clouds that then seed as the rain drops that again wet the land; the puzzle is not about this periodic cycle but about the initial and original source of that ultimately precious compound behind life on earth. Water. Where did the water first come from?
Several thinkers and religious adherents across the world had partially or fully recognized the water cycle (hydrological cycle). Ecclesiastes 1:6-7, KJV is said to refer to this line of understanding.
But beyond this intriguing precipitation, percolation water cycling that is now scientifically prosaic, is the next step in scientific explanation. How did those land bodies of water actually come into being? How did water first come to our planet?
There are two debated theories for this. The first and perhaps the easier to drift to has been the “Extra-planetary source” theory. I dare say, it is always easy to answer scientific questions about the origin of life by explaining that these molecules, compounds or life forms were seeded onto earth from other planets, asteroids, comets or the like. That simply throws the questioner out there to the unlimited expanse of eternal extra-planetary forces.
Brian Greene in the Smithsonian in May of 2013 alluded to it being either of one of comets or asteroids that collided with earth and blessed it with its water. He said, “Both comets and asteroids can contain ice. And if, by colliding with Earth, they added the amount of material some scientists suspect, such bodies could easily have delivered oceans’ worth of water. Accordingly, each has been fingered as a suspect in the mystery.”
Concluding on the yet “open question” that “recent observations of their chemical makeups are tipping the scale toward asteroids.”
We do realize that the question of the source of Earth’s water is so important because of the role of water in the existence of life on this planet and its being central to the search for life on others. Water with its miraculous hydrogen bonds is a miracle compound. It stores heat, changing temperature slowly enough to not evaporate all together and instantly when its hot. Water freezes top-down thereby providing an insulating layer from the harsh elements at the top of the oceans when its cold, thereby maintaining its liquid bottom for ocean life to continue. This is why our oceans don’t freeze in the winter and why there is life under the top ice layer in the arctic oceans.
A legendary poet, musician, performer and sage, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti from Nigeria sang of water that the miracle liquid had “no enemies.” “It’s the same water you use to put out the fire that you use to revive a drowned victim,” Fela sang.
The universal solvent, water characterized for its adhesive and cohesive properties which make it draw up a straw and up plant stems, takes so much energy to break its miracle hydrogen bonds and finally turn into gas that it preserves life by being the ultimate natural cooling compound, sucking off so much heat from the earth and your bodies in the summer. If sweat was any other compound, we will all be dead already and if the oceans were filled with alcohol, they would have dried up on day one and left a scorched earth.
The Second Theory: Earth
Now back to the question on the origin of this miracle compound. Where does the Muslim Quran come in?
With the current tools of science, while scientists still debate the origin of Earth’s water, the Quran appears to have answered this “tough” question rather casually as many as 1400 years ago. (609-632 AD)
In a portion discussing the formation of the earth, the Quran says what is translated into english to mean:
Quran 79:30 And after that He spread the earth. 31 He extracted from it its water and its pasture, 32 And the mountains He set firmly. 33 As provision for you and your grazing livestock.
Chapter 79 Verse 31 says, “He extracted from it (the earth) its water and its pasture.”
Two questions are answered here. The first is the origin of water. The Quran lays its weight on the water being extracted from the very Earth and not being seeded from collisions with extra-planetary bodies like asteroids or comets. The second information provided is on the source of the earliest life: the vegetation (pasture) also comes from the earth and not out of this world. It is noted that famous and controversial scientists like Richard Dawkins have alluded to theories of extra-terrestrial life/aliens seeding early life forms on earth. This as described earlier is a simple escape from a complex question on how the very complicated life molecules, DNA, RNA and proteins originated on this here planet.
Ultimately, in verse 33, the Quran says of the purpose of all these, the water and pasture are merely for the benefit of man and his livestock. Now that’s a whole other topic, on the purpose of man’s life and all other life.
Current Scientific Thinking
While science is still unsure. And then of course, the very essence of science is to never be sure as not a single fact exists in science with theories and principles being the height of scientific proposition; it appears the more popular reasoning today is that the water came with the earth and was not slammed into it.
“The planet formed as a wet planet with water on the surface,” Andrew Fazekas writes in National Geographic in 2014. Referencing a study headed by Adam Sarafian of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, that dated the origin of Earth’s water to around 4.6 billion years ago, right when all the worlds of the inner solar system were still forming and not millions of years later as prior widely thought.
By examining asteroid vesta “primitive” meteorites thought to be candidates that “splashed” Earth with its water, the study found the components of the meteorites were chemically identical to carbonaceous chondrites of Earth, thus concluding that these carbonaceous chondrites were the common source of water with the Earth having accreted water itself.
Study co-author Horst Marschall said, “the study shows that Earth’s water most likely accreted at the same time as the rock.”
The National Geographic author concluded from the study review that while the authors did not rule out that some of the water that covers 70 percent of Earth today may have arrived later, their findings suggested that there was enough already on Earth for life to have begun much earlier than thought.
This observation of a confluence between religion and science is interesting for those of us who are once again witnessing religious scripture planting itself firm and square into sciences toughest debates. Some have gone as far as advising modern scientists to sometimes and perhaps more often than not, refer to scripture for advise in determining the most likely focuses and preferable directions of their quite costly research. Perhaps this thought holds much water.
Dr. Peregrino Brimah; @EveryNigerian