Moses might not have parted the Red Sea, but a strong east wind that blew through the night could have pushed the waters back in the way described in biblical writings and the Koran, US researchers say.
Computer simulations, part of a larger study on how winds affect water, show wind could push water back at a point where a river bent to merge with a coastal lagoon, the team at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the University of Colorado at Boulder say.
"The simulations match fairly closely with the account in Exodus," says Carl Drews of NCAR, who led the study.
"The parting of the waters can be understood through fluid dynamics. The wind moves the water in a way that's in accordance with physical laws, creating a safe passage with water on two sides and then abruptly allowing the water to rush back in."
Religious texts differ a little in the tale, but all describe Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt ahead of a pharaoh's armies around 3000 years ago.
The Red Sea parts to let Moses and his followers pass safely, then crashes back onto the pursuers, drowning them.
Drews and colleagues are studying how Pacific Ocean typhoons can drive storm surges and other effects of strong and sustained winds on deep water.
His team pinpointed a possible site south of the Mediterranean Sea for the legendary crossing, and modelled different land formations that could have existed then and perhaps led to the accounts of the sea appearing to part.
The model requires a U-shaped formation of the Nile River and a shallow lagoon along the shoreline.
It shows that a wind of 101 kilometres per hour, blowing steadily for 12 hours, could have pushed back waters 2 metres deep.
"This land bridge is 3-4 kilometres long and 5 kilometres wide, and it remains open for 4 hours," they write in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE .
"People have always been fascinated by this Exodus story, wondering if it comes from historical facts," says Drews.
"What this study shows is that the description of the waters parting indeed has a basis in physical laws."