The Demise and Fall of the Water Vapor Canopy: A Fallen Creationist Idea

Copyright 2000, G.R. Morton. This may be copied freely so long as no alterations are made to the text and no monies are charged to the reader. (


Young-earth creationists have long advocated that the earth before the flood had a water vapor layer above the present atmosphere which condensed and caused the flood. Most young-earth creationists do not know the history of the concept (how recent it is in Christian thought) nor how much mathematical research has gone into it with the constant conclusion (since 1979) that it would lead to an earth with surface temperatures too high for life. As one of the major players in this issue with my first article Can the Canopy Hold Water? it is time to lay out the results of this research in an available place for easy access. This paper will begin with the history of the concept.

The History of the Vapor Canopy

In 1874, Isaac Newton Vail, published a pamphlet in which he argued that the world had once been covered by a water vapor canopy (Vail, 1912, p. v). Few canopy advocates have ever read this rather bizarre work and thus do not know the source of their intellectual idea. Prior to this time, the Christian world had never entertained the idea of a water vapor canopy. Vail was not a young-earth creationist. He believed that the earth was very old and began in a molten state. The water and atmosphere, thus heated extended 100,000 miles away from the planet (Vail 1912, p. 21) The water vapor in this extended atmosphere then condensed to a sequence of icy rings. He says (1912, p. 25):

“Rings once formed about the earth after the lapse of countless millions of years, cannot collapse in a day. They must lose their momentum with a steadiness as invariable as the flood of ages.”

The rings formed a solid covering over the earth, he believed like that of the belts of Saturn or Jupiter. This is, of course, physically impossible due to orbital conditions. Orbits must lie in a plane that passes through the center of mass of the body orbited and the orbiting matter. One can see that he does suggest this orbitally unstable situation in his figure 4 (Vail, 1912, p. 83). These belts extended from 10,000 to 173,500 feet from the earth. These rings were believed to have collapsed to the earth causing successive catastrophes, the last of which was Noah's flood.

Vail's rings, though, were not only made of water. He believed that they contained, gold (Vail, 1912, p. 65-66), limestone, and other minerals. Vail says (1912, p. 62-63):

 “I have made the claim that the earth's annular system was necessarily a complex one. If the igneous earth had been hot enough to vaporize and suspend water only, then it is plain that the great primeval atmosphere would have contained those vapors only. But those vapors themselves must have contained dissolved silex [silica--GRM] and quartz, from the fact that hot water and hot vapors will dissolve it. But as we well know the heat of the primitive earth was immensely greater. Then it is certain that its atmosphere must have contained whatever else was vaporized and suspended therein; and thus under law, when the atmosphere became cool, it deposited upon the earth what it contained in the heated condition. So that when I advance the claim that much of the sedimentary beds built upon the laurentian and older rocks were simply precipitates from the annular system, all must see that it simply is impossible that such should not be the case. So surely as hot vapors can contain more mineral matter than cold, so surely did the cooled vapors of the primeval atmosphere deposit vast quantities of mineral matter on the earth when they fell to its surface.”

Thus the entire geologic record was to be interpreted as merely the in falling of various rings of mineral laden ice over geologic time.

Vail was also the first to appeal to the water canopy's greenhouse effect to advocate a universally warm earth, the first to claim that this would result in no rain on the earth and the first to claim that the blocking of the sun's rays would lead to great longevity among human kind. Vail says (1912, p. 85):

 “But the most remarkable and conclusive evidence is yet to be examined. If the waters above still remained on high, and prevented the sun from shining down upon the earth as it now does; if it yet had appeared only as a ‘lighter,’ its heat must have been diffused among the upper vapors, and the earth's surface could not have been heated up by its direct rays, but the whole earth under the over-canopying vapors must have been warmed, and its temperature and climate equalized by transmitted and diffused solar heat; just as a greenhouse is warmed by sun's heat transmitted through a painted glass roof. Now this is no vain or idle conclusion; but so surely as the sun's light and heat were diffused among the upper vapors, at the period alluded to, so surely was the earth under a greenhouse covering, and possessed of a climate and temperature harmonizing therewith. The conditions, then, that must have obtained in such a world are substantially these, viz:

 1st. There must have been a greenhouse temperature and climate prevailing over the greater part of the earth.
 2d. There could not have been storms and tempests as we now have on earth; for the reason that all such phenomena are caused by sun-power—sun-heat falling directly upon the earth's surface. Winds and storm must have been reduced to a minimum; and what is more, rains must have been infrequent, if they could possibly have occurred at all. This certainly is Law.
 3d. The solar-beam shorn of its active power, it must have been an age of rest to the earth. There could not have been the alternation of seasons as there now is. Winter and summer would cease to alternate, and there would be one perpetual seed-time, and one perpetual harvest.
 4th. Man living in this universal greenhouse would naturally harmonize with his environment, and during that day when solar actinism was shorn of its strength, he must have experienced remarkable longevity; for, it must be remembered that upon solar energy depends every form and phase of life on earth!!?”

Vail also was the first to state that the canopy would prevent the rainbow from appearing (1912, p. 91).

 All of these ideas were taken up by John C. Whitcomb and Henry Morris, without a single reference giving proper credit to Isaac Newton Vail as the progenitor of these concepts. This is similar to the treatment they gave to George McCready Price, taking his geologic ideas without any mention of that Seventh Day Adventist.

One final item should be noted about Vail. He believed that the flood was 80,000 years ago or so. He wrote (1912, p. 167):

 “Perhaps about 80,000 years ago, the earth, now teeming with multifarious forms of life, was a scene of death and almost boundless desolation. The unmistakable language of the geologic record is that there had just closed a long era of perpetual spring.”

Modern Revival of the Canopy idea

Apparently, the Canopy concept was picked up by some of the laity who passed it on in Sunday Schools. A correspondent (Kelly, 2004 personal communication) mentioned to me that he was taught the canopy theory in Sunday School in 1945 prior to Whitcomb and Morris' incorporation of it into their book.

As noted, Whitcomb and Morris, in The Genesis Flood assimilated many of the ideas of Vail into their 1961 work. Once again, it should be noted that they gave no academic credit to Vail. Just to document that Whitcomb and Morris liberally took from Vail's ideas I will cite a few passages from them.

Universally warm climate:

“The most immediate and obvious of these effects would be to cause a uniformly warm temperate climate around the earth. Such water vapor as is present in the atmosphere today has this specific effect of regulating the earth's temperature. The inferred antediluvian vapor envelope would have produced this result in much greater degree, with a larger percentage of the sun's incoming radiant energy being absorbed and retained and uniformly distributed over the earth than at present, both seasonally and latitudinally.” (Whitcomb and Morris, 1961, p. 240)

Lack of Rain:

“This effect in turn would largely inhibit the atmospheric circulations which characterize the present troposphere and which are caused basically by temperature differentials between points of different latitudes and topographies. The constant battle of 'fronts' would be mostly absent, so that antediluvian climates were not only warm but also without violent windstorms.” (Whitcomb and Morris, 1961, p. 240)

Human longevity:

“But to return to the question of antediluvian longevity, it surely is quite reasonable in view of what is known about the somatic and genetic effects of radiations to infer that, over the centuries since the Flood, the accumulation of these effects in man in particular has resulted in gradual deterioration and decreasing life-span. Especially marked must have been the effect in the centuries immediately after the Flood, in view of the precipitation of the earth's vapor blanket which previously had filtered out practically all the environmental radiation which is now found in our troposphere." (Whitcomb and Morris, 1961, p. 404)


“This inference is supported also by the fact that the rainbow is mentioned as a new sign from God to man after the Flood, implying strongly that rain as we know it and the subsequent rainbow were experienced for the first time then.” (Whitcomb and Morris, 1961, p. 241)

Compare all this to Vail's ideas and ask why Whitcomb and Morris didn't give them credit.

Canopy Questions

The first creationist I am aware of who seriously questioned the ability of the canopy to work was a physicist named Robert Kofahl. Kofahl, at that time, was the science coordinator for the Creation-Science Research Center in San Diego. Kofahl (1977) wrote some amazing things about the canopy and published them in the Creation Research Society Quarterly. He was responding to some canopy models what had postulated 1000 feet of precipitable water in the preflood vapor canopy. He wrote (1977, p. 202-203):

    “Studies made in the clear, pure waters of Crater Lake in Oregon indicate that at a depth of 1000 feet the downwelling irradiance is only about 0.2 percent of that in the surface layers of the lake water. Of course in liquids, absorption is the main effect which reduces light penetration, whereas in gases scattering is the major effect except in the wavelength ranges of absorption bands of the particular gas.”

    “Theoretical calculations of scattering of sunlight in the atmosphere by water vapor show that with only one centimeter liquid water equivalent in the atmosphere, the attenuation due to scattering by water vapor is two to four percent in the visible range. But in this hypothetical model the atmosphere would contain 30,000 times this amount of water vapor. Thus it is doubtful that more than a few percent of the sun's light could reach the surface of the earth. And it is certain that no stars would be visible, although Genesis 1:16 implies that stars were visible.”

and (Kofahl, 1977, p. 203)

“In addition, sedimentary consideration of such a model for the pre-flood atmosphere soon reveals other embarrassing difficulties. First, the additional pressure of 29.5 atmospheres would compress an atmosphere like the present into a layer of only about 1000 feet thick. Above this there supposedly would be the canopy of water vapor equivalent to 1000 feet of liquid water. The pressure at the lower part of this canopy, 29.5 atmospheres, would require a temperature no less than 234o C or 453o F to prevent the water vapor from condensing into liquid form.

“Under such conditions the world would be a treacherous place in which to live. Mountain climbing would be a dangerous sport and birds dare not fly high. And just a slight ‘cold snap’ in the canopy might precipitate rain at a temperature of over 400o F!”

“It seems obvious that any model of the pre-flood atmosphere requiring such modifications of the earth's air supply is unacceptable. A vapor canopy may well have existed in the antediluvian world, but its total water content could only supply a very minor part of the flood waters, on the assumption, of course, that the canopy was sustained by natural forces rather than supernatural.”

What is interesting is that Kofahl, at the end of his article, proposed a water vapor canopy of only six inches precipitable water. This is a canopy size that we will see researcher after researcher return to.

Surface temperature of the Earth with a Vapor Canopy

Since the late 1970s the argument has revolved around the inability of the vapor canopy to produce a hospitable earth. With the exception of Jody Dillow, all researchers have concluded that the surface temperature of the earth would be too hot for life.

In 1978, Jody Dillow (1978) published the first attempt to calculate the surface temperature of the earth under a water vapor canopy. He used what is called the Emden approximation to calculate the surface temperature. He claimed (erroneously as it turned out) that the surface temperature of the earth would be 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Just prior to the publication of this article, I had become aware of Dillow's theological dissertation at Dallas Theological Seminary. I had gotten a copy of his dissertation which, oddly, only contained the signature of Henry Morris. Apparently none of the DTS professors could understand the math so they had gotten Morris to evaluate it. In late Sept. 1978 until 1982, Jody and I carried on an extensive letter exchange on the viability of the canopy. I pointed out several errors in his dissertation and Dillow's 1978 article came straight from the dissertation with only minor changes.

It was Jody who first suggested in one of his letters that I publish, which I did and it resulted in the publication of Can the Canopy Hold Water? (Morton 1979). In that article, I corrected Dillow's errors in the use of the Emden approximation and showed that this method led to the conclusion that only with a canopy having less than 1 foot of precipitable water and an earth's surface reflecting light like a mirror would the surface temperature be lower than 212 degrees Fahrenheit. It is interesting to me that no one in the past 20 years has validly shown that the conclusions in this article are wrong. This article continues to be cited almost 20 years after it's publication. That alone says something about the difficulties I raised. Indeed all but Dillow's single reply have concluded that my conclusion was correct--the earth with a vapor canopy would be too hot for life.

I concluded that the only sized canopy which would allow for life was one with only 1 foot of precipitable water. I wrote (Morton, 1979, p. 167-168):

“As can be seen from inspection of Tables 1 and 3 the only parameters which will allow clouds to form under the canopy are a one-foot canopy with an albedo of 0.9. A canopy which only has one foot of precipitable water in it could hardly have produced a worldwide flood of a year's duration.”

Dillow (1981) replied to my article stating that his method was correct and he then went forward to publish his book The Waters Above, with a flawed methodology yielding a flawed surface temperature.

During a rather heated phone conversation in July 1981, I pointed out to Jody that he had made a major mistake in converting units in his book and that if you corrected that, the surface temperature would be too great for life. Jody eventually agreed with that. He wrote (Dillow, 1983, p. 13):

“In an earlier publication a crude approximation for calculating the canopy temperature was employed. It has since come to my attention that I made a mathematical error which would yield canopy temperatures that were several times larger than what had been previously reported.(36)”

Reference 36 says (Dillow, 1983, p. 14):

“36 Reference 1, 1st edition, p. 227. A conversion from CGS to SI should have given for the optical path of 12,190 kg m-2. I am indebted to Mr. Glenn Morton, of Texas, for pointing this out to me, July, 1981.”

He admitted this error in an article with a vastly different approach to calculating the surface temperature. It was based upon a computer code written by John Baumgardner for Jody. John was kind enough to send me a copy (which I still have). It was what is called a one-dimensional radiative transfer code. This means that it calculates the radiation field for a single point on earth. It divided the atmosphere up into 20 layers and 50 spectral intervals and calculated the radiation field for each layer at each spectral interval. The problem was that Baumgardner had tried to mimic atmospheric circulation by removing heat from each layer and 'sending it to the poles'. This energy was never again accounted for in the program. It was like having a bank 'remove' a small bit of money from your account every time they post interest. Your bank account would have a different balance if they did this than if they didn't. Similarly, removing energy and never again accounting for it is like cheating. One can look for a value of energy to remove at each level which then gives an erroneous surface temperature and the appearance of having solved the problem.

The issue remained at this state for the next seven years. Then in 1990 David Rush and Larry Vardiman of the Institute for Creation Research published an article at the 1990 International Conference on Creationism. Their research agreed with my conclusions in Can the Canopy Hold Water?. They could only put 20 inches of precipitable water into a canopy and still have a surface temperature consistent with life. They wrote (Rush and Vardiman, 1990, p. 245):

“As Mr. Oard correctly notes, our 50 mb canopy (20 inches of precipitable water) would hardly provide 40 days and nights of heavy rainfall. The collapse of the canopy may not have contributed much water to the Flood, but the canopy in place before the Flood would certainly have had a dramatic effect on climate.”

They further agreed with my conclusion that life would be impossible with a thick canopy. They wrote (Rush and Vardiman, 1990, p. 238):

“Morton (1979) was apparently the first to conclude that the canopy would have made the earth's surface too hot for human habitation (Kofahl did not calculate surface temperatures). Morton made a number of assumptions that greatly simplified the problem, and his surface temperatures are much higher than ours, but the general conclusion is the same: Life as we know it would not have been possible under a canopy of 1013 mb (1 atm), nor even with a canopy of only 50 mb. When other features such as clouds are added to the model, this conclusion could be modified greatly, however. Preliminary explorations with cloud layers at the top of the 50 mb canopy have shown significant radiation effects which lower the surface temperature drastically. Unfortunately, while the surface temperature decreases when clouds are added, so does the temperature of the canopy, reducing its stability.”

The stability problem Vardiman and Rush refer to concerns the fact that if you cool the canopy base in order to cool the earth's surface, you have to cool the water vapor below the point at which it turns to water. In other words, if you want a cool earth, you must collapse the canopy immediately.

In 1991 Tracy W. Walters, a young-earth creationist, analyzed all the efforts to calculate the surface temperature and concluded:

“Results indicate that the canopy structure as conceived by Dillow could not have contained much more than 2 ft. of precipitable water. Although additional work may modify this conclusion, it appears unlikely that the results could be changed significantly.” (Walters, 1991, p. 129).

It is interesting that Walters more modern analysis was unable to add much water to a viable canopy than what I suggested in 1979.

In 1998, Vardiman and Bousselot (of ICR) tried again to make a viable canopy. But the results of their researches at this time fell in total agreement with my 1979 conclusions. They write (Vardiman and Bousselot 1998, p. 607):

“Attempts have been made by Kofahl (1977), Morton (1979), Dillow (1982) and Rush and Vardiman (1990) to model the amount of water which can be held in a water vapor canopy surrounding the earth and associated temperature profiles. It has become increasingly obvious through radiation modeling that the strong greenhouse effect produced by water vapor severely limits the amount of water that can be maintained in a canopy which is in contact with the atmosphere. For example, Rush and Vardiman (1990) found that a canopy containing enough water to create 50 millibars of pressure at its base (the equivalent of about 0.5 meters of precipitable water) would produce a surface temperature of over 400K. Even a water vapor canopy containing only 0.1 meters of precipitable water would produce a surface temperature of about 335K.”

I will say what they say in units most US residents will understand. The temperature, 335K, is 144 degrees Fahrenheit and .1 meter is 4 inches of precipitable water! One can hardly believe that Eden had daily temperatures of 144 degrees Fahrenheit and the flood consisted of four inches of rain over the entire earth. This latest effort on the part of ICR can hardly be said to support Whitcomb and Morris' view of the deluge in any meaningful manner. After 19 years of work, ICR finally agrees with what I wrote in 1979 (Morton 1979, p. 167-168 see above).

It is also interesting Vardiman and Bousselot also suggest something I suggested in 1979. When I was a young-earth creationist the only solution to this problem that I could see was to place the water in orbit around the earth. I wrote (1979, p. 169):

“As shown here the waters spoken of can not be in the gaseous phase; neither can they be in the liquid form. That leaves only ice, or no canopy at all. A solid ice canopy can easily be shown to [be] mechanically unstable; so there remains only one alternative. That is, that the Earth before the flood had a set of rings like Saturn's or Jupiter's, only made up of ice particles.”

Vardiman and Bousselot (1998, p. 616) after discussing what could be done to solve their problems with the canopy state:

“If these efforts fail to permit a sizeable quantity of water to be maintained in the canopy, then consideration should be given to exploring canopies in orbits above the atmosphere where thermodynamic considerations do not constrain the quantity of water.”

I never followed up on the ice ring or ice canopy idea as it was quickly determined that dropping ice, even if it were at absolute zero, -460 degrees Fahrenheit, from orbital heights would result in the boiling of the water when it reaches the earth's surface. Such a canopy would scald Noah and the animals. It is interesting to see the struggle among young-earth creationists to avoid the problems I saw and enunciated in 1979.

Yet, in spite of four ICR scientists admitting that the canopy won't work, ICR continues to teach that there was a vapor canopy. Why? Do they not care about the truth? It was that concern which caused me to leave young-earth creationism.

Last revised 7-20-00


  • Dillow, Joseph C., 1978, “Mechanics and Thermodynamics of the Pre-Flood Vapor Canopy,” Creation Research Society Quarterly, 15:3:148-159.
  • Dillow, Jody, 1981, “Reply to Morton: the Canopy CAN Hold Water," Creation Research Society Quarterly, 17:4:229
  • Dillow, Joseph C. 1983. “The Vertical Temperature Structure of the Pre-Flood Vapor Canopy,” Creation Research Society Quarterly, 20(1983):1:7-14.
  • Kelly, John, 2004, Personal communication May 31, 2004.
  • Kofahl, Robert 1977. “Could the Flood Waters Have Come From a Canopy or Extraterrestrial Source?” Creation Research Society Quarterly, 13:4:202-206.
  • Morton, Glenn R., 1979, “Can the Canopy Hold Water?”, Creation Research Society Quarterly, 16:3:164-169
  • Rush, David E., and Larry Vardiman, 1990. “Pre-Flood Vapor Canopy Radiative Temperature Profiles,” in Robert E. Walsh, and Christopher L. Brooks, Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Creationism, (Pittsburgh: Creation Science Fellowship).
  • Vardiman, Larry, and Karen Bousselot, 1998. “Sensitivity Studies on Vapor Canopy Temperature Profiles,” Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Creationism, (Pittsburgh: Creation Science Fellowship).
  • Vail,Isaac Newton The Earth's Annular System, 4th ed. (Pasadena: The Annular World Co., 1912).
  • Walters, Tracy W., 1991, “Thermodynamic Analysis of a Condensing Vapor Canopy,” Creation Research Society Quarterly, 28:3:122-131.
  • Whitcomb, John C., and Henry M. Morris, 1961. The Genesis Flood, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House).

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