Could Noah's Ark really fit that many animals inside?

The artist Edward Hicks' 1846 interpretation of Noah's Ark, housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Biblical story of Noah and the flood has always led many people to look at the account of Genesis 6:1-9:17 and ask a lot of questions.

Questions like ...

Could the Ark really have fitted all the animals inside?

To answer this question, two facts are needed. How many animals were there, and how big was the Ark?

The Ark's dimensions, laid out by God in Genesis 6:15,  translate to a volume of around 400,000 cubic metres - equivalent to around 570 modern railway boxcars. To give a modern comparison, the QE II measures 480,000 cubic metres in volume.

The number of animals would be two or seven of each species, as the Bible tells us that Noah had to take seven pairs of every ceremonially "clean" animal, specifically noting birds, and one pair of every other type.

The exact number of animals required however is unclear. The famous book 'The Genesis Flood' by John C Whitcomb and Henry M Morris suggests approximately 35,000 animals would have been aboard the Ark.

But another book, 'Noah's Ark: A Feasibility Study' by John Woodmorappe suggests that only 2,000 animals would have been on board because the use of the word "kinds" in Genesis does not have the same meaning as the word "species" which we would use today.

Matthew J Slick, president of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, provides one of the larger estimates, placing the number of animals at 145,400 including, mammals, reptiles, birds, and amphibians who would be the only creatures in need of the Ark's shelter from the flood.

He suggests the Ark would need to contain 7,400 mammals, 120,400 birds, 12,600 reptiles, and 5,000 amphibians.

The average air breathing mammal is slightly smaller than a cat, but to provide allowances, these calculations will say that it is actually the size of a sheep.

A double-decker railway boxcar can hold 240 sheep, meaning that the 7,400 mammals will take up 31 boxcars.

Since most birds, reptiles and amphibians are much smaller than mammals, those can count as half the size of a sheep, meaning a boxcar can hold 480. The total 138,000 animals remaining take up 288 box cars.

That means 319 of the 570 boxcars have been used. Only 56 per cent of the total space in the Ark, giving more than enough room for animal feed and the insects that were not factored into the initial calculation.

Would the Ark have floated?

A paper published in the peer reviewed Journal of Physics Special Topics in November 2013 by students from the University of Leicester, suggests that when it came to God's schematics, buoyancy was not a problem.

Their estimates suggest that the measurement "cubit" used in the Bible was 48.2 centimetres long, meaning that the Ark would be around 144 metres long, the equivalent of six tennis courts.

Factoring in the dimensions in the Bible and the weight of the animals, the paper concluded that the Ark would have floated perfectly well.

Benjamin Jordan, one of the paper's authors, was quoted in The Telegraph as saying: "Using the dimensions of the Ark and the density of the water, we were able to calculate its buoyancy force, which, according to Archimedes' principle, is equal to the weight of the volume of fluid the object displaces.

"This meant we were then able to estimate the total mass the Ark could support before the gravitational weight would overcome the buoyancy force, causing the Ark to sink."

Another author Thomas Morris said in The Telegraph: "You don't think of the Bible necessarily as a scientifically accurate source of information, so I guess we were quite surprised when we discovered it would work."

Was there really a global flood?

There is a great deal of division on this subject within the Christian community, with many suggesting that it was not the entire earth that was flooded, but rather the region of the Middle East where Noah is believed to have lived, between the Tigris and Euphrates.

Some Christians suggest this would be disrespectful of the Bible, while others argue that it makes sense given the language and the use of the words in the original text. There are prominent theories to explain how both such events could have happened.

One theory for a local flood, defended by Lorence G Collins in the 2009 edition of the journal, the National Centre for Science Education, suggests that the story of Noah describes a particularly dramatic flooding of the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Such a flood would have devastated the landscape and would have appeared to cover the entire world to many observers.

Another popular theory suggested by scientists William Ryan and Walter Pitman in 1997 claimed that the flood was caused by retreating glaciers opening a gap near the Bosporus strait causing water to surge through into the Black Sea at a rate 200 times more powerful than Niagara Falls.

The Bible does not specificy exactly where Noah lived, but had he been as near the Black Sea as this theory suggests, he would be far nearer the mountain the Bible says the Ark hit, Mount Ararat which is in modern day Turkey.

Evidence to support this theory has been found. Expeditions by Robert Ballard, the man who found the wreckage of the Titanic, have revealed the remains of a river valley which could have been the river that fed the freshwater lake that the Black Sea had been previously. There have also been discoveries of Stone Age structures and tools on the Black Sea's seabed.

However many reject these local flood theories, suggesting firstly that God promised never to flood the world again.  If it had been a local flood, the hundreds of large local floods since would therefore mean God did not keep his promise.

They also point out that the Bible is not the only culture with a flood myth. Even going as far away as the Australian Aborigines, we see flood myths present in many human cultures. The Aboriginal tale even includes the same number of people being rescued as we see in Genesis.

A global flood theory comes from Bruce Masse, an environmental archaeologist based at the American Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the same laboratory that helped develop the atomic bomb.

In 2004, Masse suggested that a 4.8km-wide comet hit the earth off the coast of Madagascar approximately 5,000 years ago.

This would not only have wreaked massive devastation in the form of a 180 metre high mega-tsunami, it would also have led to huge hurricanes as superheated water vapour and aerosol particles made their way into the jet streams.

Both these phenomenon together could have easily created massive amounts of rain, not to mention general devastation of the water systems the world over, leading to huge floods across the planet.

This theory is not without evidence. The kind of wave impact Masse describes would leave huge geological impacts, specifically in the form of large wedge shaped sand formations called chevrons. The Holocene Impact Working Group used satellite imagery to look for these formations and found them dotted all across Africa and Asia, just as Masse predicted.