Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah – from the Lord out of the heavens” – Genesis 19:24
Someone once said that every myth has a nugget of truth buried in it. Well, in 2008, Alan Bond of Reaction Engines Ltd and Mark Hempsell at Bristol University published a paper saying that they may have found the origin of one of the most spectacular disasters of the old testament.
It starts a long ways away from the Middle East, in Austria. For a long time, scientists have studied a geologic anomaly; thousands of years ago a small town named Köfels was buried under a gigantic landslide. The rubble is over 500 meters thick and spreads out for kilometers in a wide circle. A popular idea was that it was the site of an asteroid strike, but the signature crater is missing. No impact site could be found. However, a seemingly unrelated discovery in Iraq held the key.
It was a tablet, a clay one, buried underground for two and a half thousand years. Written in 700 BC, the tablet is a copy of an earlier Sumerian astronomer’s work. Stars, clouds, and other aspects of the night sky are recorded in fine detail for one specific date. Here is where Hempsell and Bond enter the story. Together they’d been working on a program to accurately map the night sky. The tablet is a remarkable piece of work and they were keen to test out their program. But in particular interest to them was the path of a large meteor scribed across the field of view.
Because of the star chart’s amazing precision, Bond and Hempsell could actually work the dates backwards. This formed a timeline back to 3123 BC, exactly the time of the Köfels disaster. Suddenly all the dates lined up.
This is what Hempsell and Bond think happened. On June 29th, 3123 BC, an asteroid entered the Earth’s atmosphere. It’s trajectory was unusually low, less than six degrees against the ground. As it hurtled through Austria nearly parallel to the ground it skimmed off the top of a mountain named Gamskogel, 11 km away from Köfels. Both the mountain top and the asteroid were instantly vaporized, turning the projectile from a single solid object into an immense ball of shrapnel and fire. Köfels, directly in the path of the fireball, was pulverized.
But Sodom and Gomorrah is a Middle Eastern myth, not an Austrian one. What is the deal? There’s a second part of the story. According to Mark Hempsell Well, because of the trajectory, part of the fireball was ejected back into space. Still captured by Earth’s gravity, the debris would arc upwards and then begin to rain down thousands of miles away. And the destination? Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Levant. They would have all caught a whiff of it, local heatwaves and some spectacular meteor showers, but one particularly unlucky location directly underneath the trajectory would have received infernal heat, hundreds of degrees above the norm, and a rain of fiery boulders descending from the sky. Anything underneath, animate or not, were destroyed in a cataclysm of, well, biblical proportions.
The news of the disaster would spread, of course, and plant itself in the imagination of everyone it met. I mean, come on. Seeing that would have made me fear an angry god.