That phenomenon is known as a "wind setdown," but, if you believe the account in Exodus, it's unlikely to have occurred at the Red Sea, notes Carl Drews -- a software engineer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the lead author of the study, published in the online journal PLoS ONE. That's because the Red Sea runs north to south, Drews told Discovery News, so an eastward wind wouldn't have been able to sweep the waters to one side.
Instead, Drews argues that the event likely took place in the Nile Delta, where a similar wind setdown was recorded in the late 19th century. A senior British army officer stationed on Lake Manzala -- a shallow, coastal lagoon on the Mediterranean Sea -- reported seeing the waters retreat in early 1882 after a "gale of wind from the eastward set in and became so strong that I had to cease work."
"Next morning ... I found that ... the effect of the high wind on the shallow water [had] actually driven it away beyond the horizon," Maj. Gen. Alexander B. Tulloch later told the Victoria Institute, a British organization set up to disprove Darwin's theory of evolution. "The natives were walking about on the mud where the day before the fishing-boats, now aground, had been floating."
Using satellite data and earlier research into the ancient geography of the Nile Delta, Drews and Weiqing Han of the University of Colorado estimated the lay of the land around 1250 BC and ran their simulation. The model suggested that the crossing could have taken place at Manzala -- about 80 miles north of the port of Suez -- where an ancient branch of the Nile entered the lagoon, then called the Lake of Tanis.
Manzala runs east to west and also matches the alternate Biblical translation of "Reed Sea," as it was once filled with papyrus reeds. Drews and Han found that if a 63 mph east wind blew across the water for 12 hours, a 2.5-mile-long, three-mile-wide stretch of mud flat would have been exposed. That path would remain clear for about four hours, giving the Israelites plenty of time to make their escape.
"The simulations match fairly closely with the account in Exodus," Drews said in a statement. "The wind moves the water in a way that's in accordance with physical laws, creating a safe passage with water on two sides."
The researchers' findings also suggest that, if the pharaoh's troops were crossing the mud flats when the wind died down, they would have bit hit by "an advancing wall of churning water." Or as Exodus puts it, "the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them."
"The value of studying the event described in the Old Testament certainly lends support to the thesis that physics is a natural phenomenon, a normal part of our universe," Stephen Baig, a researcher who has studied storm surges for the National Hurricane Center, told Discovery News. "If there is a miracle, it is that we are able to describe such events with numbers."