GUY RAZ, host:
Not too far from Alexandria, Charlton Heston was once filmed leading the ancient Israelites to safety after parting the Red Sea.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Ten Commandments")
Mr. CHARLTON HESTON (Actor): (As Moses) The Lord of Hosts will do battle for us. Behold his mighty hand.
RAZ: Now, centuries of archeological expeditions to the area have uncovered zero evidence that Moses was able to part the Red Sea. In the Book of Exodus, the passage reads: Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind.
A researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado named Carl Drews took that passage and figured out that the water may indeed have parted.
Mr. CARL DREWS (Researcher, National Center for Atmospheric Research): I take a look at the account given in Exodus, and it describes a strong east wind blowing overnight. The water drops, the water level drops and parts, and then the Israelites go across.
This is something that's known in meteorological science as wind set-down. The action of wind on the water causes a drop in the water level and interesting things can happen. One of them is the waters can part.
RAZ: And I guess this sort of complies with the laws of physics.
Mr. DREWS: Yes, that's correct. I have set it up in a computer model, which enforces the laws of physics, makes sure all the calculations are done correctly, and then I apply a wind stress to my water body and see what happens.
So what I did was I used a wind, sort of the strongest wind that I thought people could walk into, that a mixed group of adults and children could walk straight into.
RAZ: Which would be?
Mr. DREWS: About a 100-kilometer-per-hour wind, which is...
RAZ: So about 63 miles, 64 miles an hour.
Mr. DREWS: Yeah, that's right. This is a medium-strength tropical storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale.
RAZ: And explain how that wind would actually part the waters of the Red Sea. I mean, those winds happen all the time around the world and they don't seem to part bodies of water.
Mr. DREWS: The wind blows on the water and it stacks it up at the other end. The opposite component of wind set-down is called storm surge, which is very familiar in the United States recently.
Mr. DREWS: At the other end of the body of water, the water level drops.
And so in this case, I suggest that there was a bend in the body of water pointing east. And as the water shifted, it separated at the point of the bend, leaving a gap there.
RAZ: Now, I've been to the Red Sea. Maybe you have as well. It's a pretty deep body of water. How could a 63-mile-an-hour wind be powerful enough to separate it and allow a passage through the floor of the sea?
Mr. DREWS: The place I picked is not in the Red Sea proper. It's at the north end of the Suez Canal in one of the shallow lagoons along the Mediterranean Sea.
RAZ: Obviously, the Suez Canal wasn't there at the time. This was just kind of a marshy area that was kind of attached to the Red Sea?
Mr. DREWS: Exactly. And the term Yam Suf, which is the biblical term, means a marshy area filled with reeds, just like you said. So a much more shallow area where wind can move water and dry out the bottom. I have it at the north end of the Suez Canal.
RAZ: So almost at the Mediterranean Sea.
Mr. DREWS: Yes, that's correct. This is a lagoon, which is a coastal lagoon on the coast of the Mediterranean.
RAZ: And what does it look like today?
Mr. DREWS: There's Lake Manzala there, which is this long lagoon, big, large area filled with reeds stretching toward the horizon. And in 1882, a British General named Tulloch observed a wind set-down event happen there.
He observed a strong east wind blow all night long, and in the morning, the water had completely disappeared. The lake was blown seven kilometers to the west. And he made the connection, aha, this is what Moses experienced on the crossing of the Red Sea.
So I have some observational evidence showing that a similar event has happened in modern times.
RAZ: So when the wind ends - the wind comes, it parts the water, the Israelites go across - and then when the wind ends, does your simulation show that the water just comes back, you know, rushes back in, you know, as it did in the Bible and kind of drowns the pharaoh's army?
Mr. DREWS: The water comes back very suddenly. It behaves like a tidal bore, which is this advancing wall of churning water. It travels at running speed across the mud flats, and I think it would trap and drown anybody who's stuck in the gap.
RAZ: But you're still not sure whether it happened.
Mr. DREWS: I can't be sure until somebody finds some chariot parts. I have found a plausible spot, and I think it's a good place to look.
RAZ: Are you going to go look?
Mr. DREWS: I would love to, but that's - you know, archeology is out of my area of expertise. So somebody else is going to have to pick up the ball there.
RAZ: That's Carl Drews. He's a software engineer with the National Center for Atmospheric Research. His study on the parting of the Red Sea can be found in the Public Library of Science's latest journal.
Carl Drews, thank you so much.
Mr. DREWS: Thank you for having me.