Science, Tech & Environment

Is this where the myth of Atlantis comes from?

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Credit: Dr. Jon Hill, et al./Journal of Ocean Modelling.

Eastern England and Doggerland, 8200 years ago, were the greatest victims of an ancient tsunami.

Many of the world's civilizations have a legend of a bountiful land being swallowed up by the sea. For Europeans, it’s Atlantis. But it’s just a myth, right?

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Well, about 8200 years ago, human life pretty much came to an end on the very real islands of Doggerland. A violent end, because of a massive tsunami.

Doggerland emerged about 20,000 years ago during the last ice age. It started as a land mass that stretched from Ireland and Britain all the way across the North Sea joining the British Isles with Denmark, Germany, Holland and France.

All of it now lies beneath the waves. But it once comprised rolling hills and valleys, with great rivers and lakes. In fact, the mighty Rhine River of Germany and Holland once merged with the Thames River of England to empty into an inland sea.  

As the earth’s climate warmed, the icy tundra slowly gave way to rich forests, teeming with life, including people. One scientist calls it the heart of Europe at the time.

Numerous human artifacts have been dredged up from the seabed by fishermen, including stone tools, spearheads, axes, even canoes. Archaeologists have even identified standing stones, or menhirs, beneath the waves; the same kind of monuments as can be found across northern Europe, and which may have had religious significance.  

But the warming climate also melted the glaciers, and sea levels rose an estimated 300 feet over the next 15,000 years. Usually the change was slow, probably imperceptible from generation to generation.

But the sea was implacable.

Before the tsunami, Doggerland had shrunk to a set of islands, which together were about the size of New Jersey.

Then came the Storegga incident, a massive undersea landslide. A huge chunk of the coastal shelf off Norway simply broke off and sank into the ocean deep. The amount of sediment displaced has been estimated to have comprised about 3500 cubic kilometres. That’s enough to cover the whole of South Carolina or Maine with 25 feet of sludge.

The slide is what triggered the tsunami that swept across the North Atlantic, comparable in scale to the Asian tsunami of 2004.

The giant wave — maybe reaching to 45 feet in height — caused massive devastation in coastal areas of Europe. For example, it penetrated at least 25 miles into eastern England, leaving several inches of sand in the geological record.  

But for the people of Doggerland, the tsunami was the end. A new model of the Storegga tsunami published in the journal, Ocean Modelling, suggests the wave completely washed over the islands before receding. It’s the first model of the event to include Doggerland.

Some Doggerlanders may have survived, but most scientists agree that this was the end of permanent human habitation. The archaeological record comes to end.

Now, this was a small population of stone-age hunters and gatherers, not a well-developed civilization as the Atlantis myth suggests. There are no written records of course, and no evidence that memory of the event survived.

But, hey, those Atlantis myths have to come from somewhere.

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