Several creationists have proposed concepts that assume a former "canopy" existed around the earth, which contained a great deal of water, that precipitated out as rain at the time of the flood. The idea that the canopy consisted of a "thermal vapor blanket" surrounding the pre-flood earth was advanced by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris in their book The Genesis Flood, and their suggestion has received a great deal of attention.
Various proposals, in which the canopies consist of ice, water, or steam have been advanced. One fanciful notion is that the canopy consisted of ice crystals arranged so that it was transparent, and permitted light of the stars to reach the earth. But such a structure, it seems, if it could exist at all, would be highly unstable and might disintegrate in a short time due to meteorite influx.
A discussion and defense of the vapor canopy theory was included in Morris's commentary, The Genesis Record. He suggested the word firmament in Genesis 1 is synonymous with our modern technical term "space." Referring to Genesis 1:6-8, he wrote [Morris, p. 58]:
The firmament refered to in this particular passage is obviously the atmosphere. Unfortunately the English word has been interpreted by many to refer to a solid dome across the sky; consequently this idea has been used by liberal critics as evidence of the "prescientific" outlook of Genesis. Neither the original Hebrew nor any of the passages in which it occurs suggest such an idea, however. A "firmament" is simply "thin, stretched-out space."
This ignores the implications of the derivation of firmament from the Latin firmamentum. Morris denied the waters above the firmament could be the clouds, and said they were in the form of invisible water vapors which permitted the penetration of light from the stars. [Morris, p. 59]
The "waters above the firmament" thus probably constituted a vast blanket of water vapor above the troposphere and possibly above the stratosphere as well, in the high-temperature region now known as the ionosphere, and extending far into space. They could not have been the clouds of water droplets which now float in the atmosphere, because the Scripture says they were "above the firmament." Furthermore, there was "no rain upon the earth" in those days (Genesis 2:5), nor any "bow in the cloud" (Genesis 9:13), both of which must have been present if these upper waters represented merely the regime of clouds which functions in the present hydrologic economy.
Morris suggested the vapor canopy of the original earth had a greenhouse effect on the world's climate, causing nearly uniform temperatures and humidity. It affected weather patterns, so there was no global air circulation, filtered out harmful radiation, and contributed to health and longevity. He suggested the increased atmospheric pressure caused by the vapor canopy may have been beneficial. The waters of the canopy were precipitated at the time of the flood, but the mention of waters above the heavens in Psalm 148:4,6 indicates they may be restored in the millenial earth.
Robert Kofahl has shown that canopy models as a source of a significant amount of water for the flood of Genesis are contrary to the laws of science. He wrote: "Critical analysis of these models shows that the provision of a substantial part of the flood waters or of ice either from a canopy or from extraterrestrial sources is impossible apart from special divine miraculous intervention."
Joseph Dillow proposed a former vapor canopy about 10 km above the earth. This vapor, he claimed, was superheated steam. He wrote [Dillow, p. 171]:
It is likely that Genesis 1:6-8 teaches the existence of a literal oceanic mass raised up above the ancient earth during the creation week. It is proposed by this writer that this liquid ocean was arranged in a water vapor phase by the Creator immediately after it was lifted above the atmosphere. Although there is not a statement to this effect in the Bible, a vapor form (i.e., superheated invisible steam) is the only form in which such a vast canopy could be maintained without appeal to special miracle. The physics by which this canopy was maintained is a serious problem; but a plausible theory has been developed.
The various canopy theories attempt to account for the plausibility of waters above the firmament, assumed to be the atmosphere. Gary L. Johnson proposed a canopy of "large water globules at about 2 km altitude over equatorial regions and large ice fragment clouds at about 2200 km altitude over the polar regions."
All the canopy theories, it seems, can be dismissed because of energy considerations; the potential energy of the water would be converted to kinetic energy or heat as it fell to the earth, heating up the atmosphere to such an extent that life could no longer exist. Johnson wrote:
One of the difficulties of Dillow's model, as with most of the other canopy models, is the heat load or heat energy content of the canopy. The canopy must be somehow cooled from approximately 100 degrees C to the condensation point, the latent heat of condensation must then be removed at the same temperature, and then the liquid must be cooled to the present atmospheric temperature of about 25 degrees C. The potential energy (mgh) of the canopy must also be removed. Dillow shows that if all this energy were released in a short period of time, the temperature of the atmosphere would rise to 2,100 degrees C, an obviously impossible value. Dillow's model also does not deal with winter darkness near the poles.
Robert Whitelaw pointed out another problem with canopy models popular among creationists. If the canopy consisted of water vapor supported by the atmosphere, "no known physical law exists by which one pure gas (water vapor) can maintain a boundary with another (air) without diffusing into it. In fact, at the altitude of 20,000 feet that some have suggested for the canopy boundary, the mean free path between molecules would permit some water vapor to reach the earth's surface within minutes."
Any canopy proposal involves conditions which no longer exist. Proponents engage in theoretical discussions about completely hypothetical former atmospheric configurations, including complicated mathematical expressions and tables of calculations. None of the canopies which have been proposed is plausible. Johnson wrote: "It appears that a miracle is necessary for any canopy model, either to hold the water up, or to get it down without destroying the earth."
The proponents of canopy models seem to ignore the question posed by the placement of the sun and moon in the firmament. If any of their models of the "waters above the firmament" were feasible, the identification of the firmament with the earth's atmosphere would still be problematic, since the sun and moon are not located in the atmosphere, but in space! As Strickling pointed out:
Since the two great lights were placed in the firmament, while the waters above the firmament were above it; if the waters above the firmament were a vapor canopy, the sun and moon would have been beneath the canopy. Hence, the waters above the firmament must have been something other than the earth-encompassing shroud of water vapor so often proposed.
A reasonable question that has been too often completely ignored by the parties in this controversy is whether or not the scriptures reflect the Hellenistic interpretation of cosmology. If so, this would suggest an explanation of the firmament in which on the one hand, the originally inspired scriptures are indeed acknowledged to be true, and on the other, the integrity of those who recognize the solid dome or sphere of heaven that is plainly depicted in the scriptures is vindicated.
A detailed critique of the canopy concept presented by Walter Brown is a welcome exception. In his "Hydroplate theory", Brown assumes a water layer existed beneath the earth's crust, which contributed to the waters of the flood when the "fountains of the great deep" were broken up. Brown examines Genesis 1:8, and apparently reaches similar conculsions to those presented in this report; he suggests as a possibility, that "something is mistranslated or inserted" in the first chapter of Genesis. Brown wrote:
Questions Raised by Genesis 1:8a
Why then, does Genesis 1:8a state, "And God called the expanse heaven"? Perhaps "heaven" is the proper translation for raqia, and the Septuagint and Vulgate translators incorrectly associated solidness with it. The similarities of raqia with baqia and raqa may be coincidences.
However, if raqia means "heaven," was water placed above "heaven," as Genesis 1:7 states? If raqia means the atmosphere in which birds fly (Genesis 1:20), then how could the sun, moon, and stars be placed in the atmosphere (Genesis 1:14, 15, 17)? Since the sun, moon, and stars were placed in the raqia and the water of the canopy was placed above the raqia, then were all heavenly bodies inside the canopy? Either (1) we do not understand the true meaning of raqia, (2) we cannot be equally literal in understanding the highlighted prepositions above, or (3) something is mistranslated or inserted.
If raqia means "heaven," why was it necessary to add the phrase "of the heavens"? That would be redundant. Why do other uses of raqia, which do not have this added phrase, obviously mean a solid expanse?
Finally, notice that Genesis 1:8a defines heaven after the word "heavens" was first used in Genesis 1:1. Normally a word's meaning is understood from the context of its first usage. Furthermore, Genesis 1:1 says that the heavens were created on the first day, while Genesis 1:8 says that the thing called "heaven" was made on the second day. Genesis 1:8a seems inconsistent with many verses.
Brown finds that there are inconsistencies in the creation account, and the crux of the problem is the statement about God assigning the name "Heaven" to the raqia or firmament in verse 8. It is this forced identification of the raqia with the heaven or sky that seems out of context, and inconsistent with the story of Creation, because, as Brown observes, the creation of the heavens had already been mentioned in verse 1. And it is the belief that this idea of a rigid heaven was part of the original creation account that has caused many people to reject the divine origin of the scriptures. Besides, arguments proposed about former canopies that rely on these corruptions result in absurdities. Brown concludes:
The arguments for the various canopy theories do not stand up when examined closely. These theories also contain many biblical and scientific problems, such as those associated with heat, light, pressure, support, nuclei, and ultraviolet light. Even the best-known canopy advocates privately acknowledge these problems. Canopy theories have led many in the creationist movement down a "dead-end street," delaying our understanding of the flood. The flood water came from below, not above. Failure to understand this has caused many to doubt the historical accuracy of the flood account, and, therefore, the Bible itself. Without the flood to explain the fossils buried in the earth's sedimentary layers, the theory of organic evolution fills the vacuum, an explanation that also removes or minimizes the Creator.
[See 'firmament' definition in Easton's Bible Dictionary]
Brown, Walter T. 1996. In the Beginning, 6th edition. Center for Scientific Creation, 5612 N. 20th Place, Phoenix Arizona.
Whitelaw, Robert L. 1983. The fountains of the great deep, and the windows of heaven. Proceedings of the 1983 National Creation Convention, Twin Cities Creation Science Association, Minneapolis MN. 95-104.