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Earth Science

Spectacular Fossil Forests Found In US Coalmine 197

Posted by kdawson
from the sixteen-tons dept.
Smivs passes along a report up on the BBC about the fossil forests found in coal mines in Illinois. "The [US-UK] group reported one discovery last year, but has since identified a further five examples. The ancient vegetation — now turned to rock — is visible in the ceilings of mines covering thousands of hectares. These were among the first forests to evolve on the planet, [according to] Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang... 'These are the largest fossil forests found anywhere in the world at any point in geological time. It is quite extraordinary to find a fossil landscape preserved over such a vast area; and we are talking about an area the size of [the British city of] Bristol.' The forests grew just a few million years apart some 300 million years ago; and are now stacked one on top of another."
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Spectacular Fossil Forests Found In US Coalmine

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  • by Gat0r30y (957941) on Wednesday September 10, 2008 @06:34PM (#24953953) Homepage Journal
    Cities of Bristol is now an accepted measurement of area? And here I thought I was paying attention to SI conventions. How many libraries of congre
  • by EmbeddedJanitor (597831) on Wednesday September 10, 2008 @06:37PM (#24953977)
    are the places where there is both coal and limestone. The same place that was once a forest that got fossilized then got covered by the sea. Scratch through the limestone and you find fossilized sea shells etc. Go deeper and you find fossilized twigs and leaves.
    • by Anne_Nonymous (313852) on Wednesday September 10, 2008 @06:42PM (#24954025) Homepage Journal

      The top of Mount Everest is partially limestone [wikipedia.org].

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by bendodge (998616)

      It's because it was all covered with water at one point.

    • Birmingham, Alabama. There is an expressway cut through Red Mountain, and the various layers--coal and limestone, but also iron ore--are beautifully exposed. They had a wonderful museum there for a while, mostly for kids but fascinating for everyone. You could go along an elevated walkway and see fossils from all the levels. The museum seems to have closed, but even wandering around somebody's back yard there can yield a pocket full of small treasures. I recall sitting on someone's stone patio one time and

      • by rts008 (812749)

        Also prevalent between Joplin and Springfield, MO. Especially on the Springfield end of that stretch.

        I never thought to check out fossils though. Usually I was just passing through.

  • by sexconker (1179573) on Wednesday September 10, 2008 @06:43PM (#24954035)

    A hectare is fine, too.

  • by nietsch (112711) on Wednesday September 10, 2008 @06:43PM (#24954037) Homepage Journal

    What I don't understand from the article (yes I RTFA) is why this fossil forrest needs to be viewed from below? Was all the commercially interesting coal beneath the tree fossils, or is there a scientific reason to approach it bottom up?

    • by omris (1211900) on Wednesday September 10, 2008 @06:49PM (#24954139)

      The coal was produced primarily by rotting leaves and soil, which yes, would have been under the trees.

      So you have a layer of petrified leaves and trees and a layer of coal beneath it. They take out the coal and you get a really big long cave, where you can look up at the bottom of the fossil bed.

      Cool stuff. Now I'm waiting patiently for someone to mention the global warming comment.

      • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 10, 2008 @06:53PM (#24954183)

        global warming comment

      • by kesuki (321456) on Wednesday September 10, 2008 @07:13PM (#24954437) Journal

        well, finding that in a very short period of time, of natural global warming, that rainforests are replaced with giant ferns is a little disheartening. http://www.geocraft.com/WVFossils/Carboniferous_climate.html [geocraft.com]

        this is a wonderful find, oh and BTW the area where the coal was mined was actually a peat bog, that turned into a forest in the carboniferous period, then turned into sea several times and then back into a forest, and was also a ferny weedy place. most likely earthquakes from changes in plate tectonics played a huge role in how the land mass changed, from being above land, below land, and the erosion of nearby mountains provided the silt to cover the land when it was above ground.

        so no the coal was not the result of the forest, although it may have added slightly to the coal, when it was submersed, most coal is formed from wetlands where vastly more biomass concentrates and is preserved from decaying due to water covering it thus preventing microbes from getting the oxygen to decay the plant matter. if you want coal you look for places where the water was stagnant like prehistoric wetlands, or former continental shelf areas.

      • by againjj (1132651)
        Looks like omris did [slashdot.org] just at the time you submitted.
      • by ignavus (213578)

        Cool stuff. Now I'm waiting patiently for someone to mention the global warming comment.

        Um, you just did.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Paltin (983254)
      Think about a peat bog forming--- thick layer of plant material that will later be turned to coal.

      As the oceans begin to transgress (the 50-cent geologist term for sea level rise), the existing forest is quickly buried and you end up with a snapshot of the forest remaining. After removing all the coal, you end up with a cave where you look up to the interesting part. Well, interesting for me, since I'm a paleontologist. :)

      Interestingly, this work is only done because the coal mining company is really, re
  • "It is quite extraordinary to find a fossil landscape preserved over such a vast area; and we are talking about an area the size of [the British city of] Bristol."

    Without the edit, I may have thought it was a reference to someone else [imageshack.us]...

  • Great! (Score:5, Funny)

    by kestasjk (933987) on Wednesday September 10, 2008 @06:45PM (#24954081) Homepage
    Let's burn it!
    • but do fossilized witches float?

    • Re:Great! (Score:5, Interesting)

      by GayBliss (544986) on Wednesday September 10, 2008 @07:57PM (#24954893) Homepage
      This one [google.com] has been burning since 1962 and could continue to burn for another 1000 years.
      • This one since 1884 (Score:5, Informative)

        by Sanat (702) on Wednesday September 10, 2008 @09:24PM (#24955805)

        This one is a few miles from my house.

        n 1884, coal miners working the Black Diamond mine in New Straitsville, southeastern Ohio, went on strike when the Columbus and Hocking Coal and Iron Company cut their pay from 60 cents a ton to 40 cents. Legend has it that other miners, unhappy with the work stoppage, loaded several coal cars with oil-soaked firewood and rolled them into the mine.

        It's hard to imagine what benefit they anticipated, but I bet they never dreamt of what resulted.

        For the next 122 years and counting, the underground fire, called the Devil's Oven, has burned in the coals seams around the Monday Creek area. At times the fires have been prominent and close to the surface. In fact, in the 1930's tourists came to the area to watch their guides cook meals over smoking holes in the ground.

        During the depression, a WPA crew was dispatched to the area to fight the fire, with indifferent success.

        The Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimates that to date the Devil's Oven has consumed 276 million tons of coal, or 20 square miles of the black gold. Today the fire is burning about 40 feet underground... from blog of Tom Barlow

    • And not just for cement materials. You might be able to burn it for the carbon compounds [newscientist.com].
  • Some better images (Score:5, Informative)

    by thePowerOfGrayskull (905905) <marc...paradise@@@gmail...com> on Wednesday September 10, 2008 @07:03PM (#24954301) Homepage Journal
    Some [uiuc.edu] images [uiuc.edu] better than the crappy one [uiuc.edu] with TFA. Or just go to the source: http://www.isgs.uiuc.edu/research/coal/fossil-forest/ [uiuc.edu]
    • by couchslug (175151) on Wednesday September 10, 2008 @08:04PM (#24954987)

      "The funny thing about atheists is that most of them will never understand the irony of their faith."

      Atheism is merely the absence of theism.

      Anything else a person may attribute to their non-theism or use to explain it is their problem/baggage, but it isn't atheism. Atheism is a "faith" like not collecting stamps is a hobby.

      • by zippthorne (748122) on Wednesday September 10, 2008 @09:04PM (#24955615) Journal

        Atheism is a "faith" like not collecting stamps is a hobby.

        Gaah, I'm really quite sick of this mantra. For one thing.. it's a mantra. That does not make sense.

        For another, if you put as much effort into not collecting stamps as most of the atheists on slashdot put into not believing in god, people would be suggesting support groups for your aphilatelism problem.

        • by couchslug (175151) on Wednesday September 10, 2008 @09:25PM (#24955819)

          "Gaah, I'm really quite sick of this mantra."

          Then be sick of it, but it is still accurate. One may be theism-free quite easily. One may also defend their right to not be imposed upon by the agendas of the superstitious, and as superstitions are vigorous they sometimes require vigorous opposition.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Digital End (1305341)
            He's saying it's inaccurate. I think something like "Athiesm is to faith as bald is to hair color" or "Athiesm is to faith as naked is to fashion" would be better
        • by c6gunner (950153) on Wednesday September 10, 2008 @09:35PM (#24955885)

          Fine, how about a new mantra? If atheism and religion were sex ....

          Atheism would be like masturbation - you know you're there by yourself, but hell, you're having a good time!

          Religion would be like masturbating with a happy face drawn on your hand - it's still only you, but you like pretending that you're not alone.

          • by wellingj (1030460)
            So when do you get a partner is what I'm wondering? Or does that stretch the analogy to thin?
            • by c6gunner (950153)

              That happens when you replace religion with an oppressive pseudo-religious personality cult, like in North Korea. Then you end up with everyone trying to stop the government from raping them, by screwing everyone else.

              ... yeah, you're right, maybe that's stretching the analogy a bit thin :)

            • by Al Dimond (792444)

              No partner. This is Slashdot, remember?

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by quantaman (517394)

          Atheism is a "faith" like not collecting stamps is a hobby.

          Gaah, I'm really quite sick of this mantra. For one thing.. it's a mantra. That does not make sense.

          Actually it does. Faith is believe in something for which there is insufficient evidence, not believing in something for which there is insufficient evidence does not require faith.

          For another, if you put as much effort into not collecting stamps as most of the atheists on slashdot put into not believing in god, people would be suggesting support groups for your aphilatelism problem.

          I tried to believe in God when I was younger, I really did, but the evidence was so overwhelming that I finally accepted that there was no god.

          Not believing in God is very easy for me. Theism, when I tried it, was extremely difficult for all the contradictions I had to ignore.

          However, one place I do expend some effort is going ou

          • Perhaps. But when was the last time you heard someone describe themselves as an aphilatelist? anumismatist? What about "area man" who "doesn't watch television?"

            You may have managed to avoid it, but the fact is that many who think they do not, have a religion, and it is none. They are evangelical, they have dogma, they demonize those who are not of the faith. They even have priests with vestments: A white lab coat.

            Not doing something can be just as intense as doing it, only with 61.8% more smug.

            • by quantaman (517394)

              Perhaps. But when was the last time you heard someone describe themselves as an aphilatelist? anumismatist? What about "area man" who "doesn't watch television?"

              Theism has always been the default state for our human societies. Therefore a special label is useful to differentiate people. That doesn't make it a faith, it just makes it slightly unusual. I don't go around thinking "I'm an atheist!", but if someone questions me about religion it's a useful label.

              You may have managed to avoid it, but the fact is that many who think they do not, have a religion, and it is none. They are evangelical, they have dogma, they demonize those who are not of the faith. They even have priests with vestments: A white lab coat.

              Militant atheists are certainly more more vocal about arguing with religion, and some do go so far as making somewhat exaggerated generalization about theists (though not nearly as much as some claim). But your

        • by Urkki (668283)

          For another, if you put as much effort into not collecting stamps as most of the atheists on slashdot put into not believing in god, people would be suggesting support groups for your aphilatelism problem.

          Well, imagine if there were people who were trying to actively convert you to a stamp collector or at least force you to life your life so it won't offend the stamp collectors... Would you put any effort into not collecting stamps then, or would you just submit to the tyranny of stamp collectors?

      • by mosb1000 (710161) <mosb1000@mac.com> on Wednesday September 10, 2008 @09:21PM (#24955783)

        The absence of theism is not an absence of faith. For that you want agnosticism. Atheists require faith to believe that there is no God, and nothing else outside their perceived world. In reality, this viewpoint requires more faith than any religion, because all religions offer "proof" that they are true. Not so for atheism.

        • by c6gunner (950153) on Wednesday September 10, 2008 @09:49PM (#24956019)

          Atheists require faith to believe that there is no God, and nothing else outside their perceived world. In reality, this viewpoint requires more faith than any religion, because all religions offer "proof" that they are true.

          Nonsense - you simply need analytical ability and a basic grasp of logic.

          Using your "logic", you would likewise require proof in order to believe that there is no Santa Claus. In fact, NOT believing in Santa Claus would actually require more faith than believing in Him, since the TV shows Him to us all the time, and we even see Him at the mall during the Christmas season.

          The absence of theism is not an absence of faith. For that you want agnosticism.

          Also wrong. Agnosticism is the way you approach a problem, not an answer to a problem. If you're agnostic about a question, that means that you accept that it can never be 100% proven or disproved. It doesn't answer the question of whether you think there is a god, though. It just means that your willing to consider both possibilities, and weigh them in a fair manner.

          Technically speaking, I'm agnostic about the existence of Santa Claus. I can never prove for certain that he DOESN'T exist. But that doesn't mean that the chances of him existing or not existing are 50/50. I can use logic, observation, and deductive reasoning to come to the most likely conclusion, and I can even assign it a rough probability.

          In the end, everything does come down to belief, since no question can be answered with 100% certainty. But there is a WORLD of difference between belief based on scientific observations and critical thinking, and a belief based on blind faith.

          • by mosb1000 (710161)

            No one ever believes with complete certainty that something is true. Everyone has doubts. If you want to say that makes everyone agnostic, go ahead. It doesn't mean anything if it applies to everyone.

            • by c6gunner (950153)

              No one ever believes with complete certainty that something is true.

              Apparently you've never talked to any religious fanatics. Or conspiracy theorists. Or communists :)

              If you want to say that makes everyone agnostic, go ahead. It doesn't mean anything if it applies to everyone.

              It makes rational people agnostic, but you're right, it doesn't really mean anything. It certainly doesn't define a system of belief, or even an opinion on a particular topic. When people identify themselves as being "agnostic", th

              • by mosb1000 (710161)

                Oh, I've met people who say they believe these things with certainty. But in my experience, the more radically someone defends their belief, the more doubts they have about it themselves.

              • by mosb1000 (710161)

                Oh, and I've got all those other religious fanatics beat. I'm so serious about my faith that I won't even lie about it.

            • Funny thing though, is according to the bible, if you doubt for even a second it's unforgivable... even if you're really sorry and really believe afterward. So yeah, anyone who claims to have honestly thought about it is going to hell anyway.

              My advice; Avoid hell. Throw out your computer and tv, burn your books, move into the woods. Let us sinners enjoy our 80 years like the fools we are... then after the rapture, you'll spend the first billions of billions of years laughing at us all.

              Seriously.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Sabz5150 (1230938)
          Firstly, I'd love to see some of this "proof". Secondly, there is no faith required in the idea that something does not exist. That's like saying I need faith to say that there isn't an invisible pterodactyl sitting on the back of my chair. Religion requires faith in something you cannot readily prove the existence thereof (like my pet pterodactyl), whereas I don't need any faith to say "Nope, there's no pterodactyl there."
        • by Vellmont (569020)


          The absence of theism is not an absence of faith. For that you want agnosticism.

          That's really a semantic argument, and nothing more. Not everyone defines atheism so narrowly. But if you want to argue, go argue with a dictionary.

          In reality, this viewpoint requires more faith than any religion, because all religions offer "proof" that they are true. Not so for atheism.

          Huh? I don't believe in invisible unicorns on neptune either, simply for lack of evidence. Does that mean I have "faith" that the invisible

          • by mosb1000 (710161)

            It's analogy time:

            An atheist would say: I don't believe there's life on mars.

            A theist would say: I do believe there's life on mars.

            An agnostic would say: I don't believe one way or the other.

            This is not a semantic argument, nor are these narrow definitions.

            • An athiest would say: Our scans of mars show there are no elephants. We feel that the studies we have done, coupled with our understanding of biology, show beyond a doubt there are none there.

              A thiest would say: There are elephants on mars. The reason we have not seen them is they are behind rocks and the studies where done in the wrong places. You can't disprove the exsistance of elephants on mars, so there are elephants on mars.

              An agnostic would say: You can't know for certain one way or the
        • Atheists require faith to believe that there is no God, and nothing else outside their perceived world. In reality, this viewpoint requires more faith than any religion, because all religions offer "proof" that they are true.

          Care to share that proof? Atheists do not have faith in the belief there is no god, they are skeptics and to date not one individual or organized group of faithful followers of any god have provided a single shred of proof which is compelling evidence of the existence of a god.

          Oh, a

          • by mosb1000 (710161)

            Why fight about the definitions of words? I obviously define atheist to mean someone who believes there is no god. My post doesn't make a whole lot of sense otherwise, does it?

            • by CmdrGravy (645153)

              Yeah I really hate it when peoples understanding of the meaning of words differs from the definitions I've simply made up myself.

              Interestingly I definie your nick mosb1000 as idiot, fancy that !

              • by mosb1000 (710161)

                My complaint is that by trying to argue for the adoption of a different definition you aren't accomplishing anything. You are basically trying to say that I said something that I didn't mean, then arguing against an argument that I never intended to make. It's pointless.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Copid (137416)

          The absence of theism is not an absence of faith. For that you want agnosticism. Atheists require faith to believe that there is no God, and nothing else outside their perceived world. In reality, this viewpoint requires more faith than any religion, because all religions offer "proof" that they are true. Not so for atheism.

          Person A: "I believe that 499,999 of the 500,000 religions out there are false. I reject their evidence. I accept one of the 500,000 religions, mainly because {I accept their eviden

        • by Plutonite (999141)

          The absence of theism is not an absence of faith.

          and

          In reality, this viewpoint requires more faith than any religion, because all religions offer "proof" that they are true. Not so for atheism.

          are two false statements, and the first is largely unimportant. Like any other logical deduction about the world, if there is no reason to think something is true or that it exists, then it is probably false; and so both absence of faith in deities and faith in the absence of deities are both sensible and logical viewpoints. The entirety of science (which uses logic to make statements about the universe around us) is based on this idea. If something doesn't follow from what we [provably] know, and doesn'

    • by Tablizer (95088)

      It's interesting that trees that dominated at the time have all but disappeared and left only a handful of diminutive living relatives such as horsetails ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horsetail [wikipedia.org] ), which are related to calamites; and Quillwort ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quillwort [wikipedia.org] ), which are related to Lycopsids. We're lucky to have a handful of relatives around after 300 mil years (if human activity doesn't finally finish them off).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 10, 2008 @07:03PM (#24954309)

    My dad and grandfather used to work in the coal mines in the southwest Virginia and eastern Kentucky area. They used to find bits of fossilized plants all the time.

    Though I doubt they found anything as largescale as what is presented in the article, my grandfather did bring out of a mine a fossil tree trunk/root system that he placed in his front yard. I very distinctly remember playing on it as a child, it was quite large.

  • I see a solution for global warming...

  • by N8F8 (4562) on Wednesday September 10, 2008 @08:11PM (#24955071)

    Is this not a big enough story for US news companies to cover?

    • by Ritchie70 (860516)

      I think they covered it a year or two ago, actually; it seems familiar.

    • by evilviper (135110)

      Is this not a big enough story for US news companies to cover?

      This study is being done by the University of Bristol, and was first reported at "the British Association Science Festival in Liverpool".

      Word will get around shortly, but it's not at all surprising that the UK press gets the first shot at the story.

  • I never cease to be amazed by the Earth's ability to record it's own history in the most remarkable detail.

    • by bendodge (998616)

      That's why I'm very interested to see how different these fossils are from modern plants. I'm betting about zilch.

  • As we all know protecting fossils is more important then energy.

  • Layers of entire forests do not turn into fossils via slow, gradual change. I'm not trying to ignite any stupid arguments here, but has anyone read of a geological theory that covers such widespread, repeated mudslides or mud bursts?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Urkki (668283)

      There was a long time (like millions of years?) between the forests getting buried. So it could even have been a volcano erupting repeatedly every million years. Or a river where "mother of all floods" would happen with periodic climate shifts (like Milankovitch cycles), causing thousands of years worth of mud deposits to be suddenly released. Huge glacial lakes bursting are one source of huge sudden floods, and they can be triggered both by climate change and by volcanoes.

  • by slashdotsyncline (1095441) on Wednesday September 10, 2008 @10:03PM (#24956157)

    Greetings folks,

    I'm Scott Elrick from the Illinois State Geological Survey, one of the researchers involved in the original discovery. Here's a little background:

    * This current story is an extension of a story from a year ago. When the story broke, I popped onto Slashdot to answer questions - http://slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=232903&cid=18936603 [slashdot.org] (ignore the misspellings in those posts!)

    * As a result of the publicity, I used some of the guts of my postings above to put together this webpage: http://www.isgs.uiuc.edu/research/coal/fossil-forest/fossil-forest.shtml [uiuc.edu] I tried to make a 'general public' kind of site that covers most of the basics and posted all of the pictures we took.

    * From the guts of the webpage, I put together a magazine article for 'Outdoor Illinois' on the discovery. Here's a PDF (direct link) of the article - http://www.isgs.uiuc.edu/research/coal/fossil-forest/Outdoor-IL-art.pdf [uiuc.edu]

    * By the end of the year we made it into the top 100 stories of 2007 in Discover magazine - http://discovermagazine.com/2008/jan/fossils-of-a-300-million-year-old-forest-found [discovermagazine.com]

    * There should be an article coming out in Smithsonian magazine about the discovery in a few months time.

    Now to the current news.

    Our colleague Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang of the University of Bristol, UK is heading up a multi year research effort to examine the Desmoinesian - Missourian boundary in the Middle Penn. Howard, Bill DiMichele of the Smithsonian Institute, John Nelson and myself of the ISGS, Isabel Montañez of UC Davis and Neil Tabor of SMU will all be collaborating to work out the paleobotanical, sedimentologic, CO2, and climate history of this large scale climate transition. Really this is more an announcement of further research than of results!

    As flat as Illinois is, we do have a pretty good record of this transitional period Rocks in Illinois? Who knew!

    Cheers!

    p.s. I covered a fair amount of ground in my previous postings last year in terms of answering questions. I'll pop back later this evening and see if any more pop up though.

  • Seems to support biogenic coal formation. Unfortunately in this age of 25 megapixel pocket cameras, the only record we have of these forests is a 433x253 thumbnail.

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