Permian Pompeii Challenge Taken Up? ICR’s Brian Thomas Comments on Fossil Forests

Reconstruction of a 300 million year old Permian forest found in China. None of the plants in this forest exist today though some fern-like trees have similarities to modern day tree ferns. (Image from PNAS 2012 paper, see references below)

Recently I shared evidence of an ancient forest preserved in amazing detail in a thick layer of volcanic ash (An Ancient and Alien Forest Reconstructed: A challenge for young earth creationism). I raised a number of challenging questions that this spectacular fossil discovery raises for those that hold to a young-earth creationists (YEC) understanding of earth’s history.   Since then, Brian Thomas, science writer responsible for writing daily science updates for the young-earth apologetics ministry, Institute for Creation Research, has responded to the same fossil site though not directly to my article.  I had hoped that Mr. Thomas would address some of the questions I raised but instead he rather spectacularly manages to avoid hard questions raised by these fossils as he endeavors to interpret the fossil evidence in the context of a recent global flood.

Quickly reviewing the story and context of my challenge to YECs, recent studies (see references below) of multiple intact fossilized forests provide powerful evidence of the existence of a seemingly alien forest community that existed not only in China but other locations across the entire globe in the past.  Our observations of the fossils reveal a forest completely devoid of any flowering plants such as orchids, oaks, maples and beech trees or even conifers such as firs, hemlocks or cedars.

The contrast between the interpretations of this evidence of fossils forests by conventional geology and young-earth flood geology could not be more striking than we seen in this particular the case of the “Permian Pompeii” fossilized forests found in China.  Conventional geology understands this forest to have been a real community of plants growing in space and time and was preserved by a catastrophic volcanic ashfall event. The young-earth model of earth history imagines these plants, and the coal seams they are found between, as collections of plants caught up in the middle of a cataclysmic world-wide flood deposited this material from a watery matrix to form layers of rock including the coal and ash layers over a short period of time (days to weeks).

Stratigraphic Section showing two coal seams (black) which are separated by more than a 1/2 meter thick volcanic tuff. Figure from Pfefferkorn and Wang (reference below). The fossil forest of interest here is Flora 2. There are other preserved fossil floras above and below the coal seams but they are not as well preserved as the one in the thick ash layer (section with the little “v”s).  The thin white lines represent the position of other much smaller ash falls in the coal seams.

What does Brian have to say about this amazing fossil forest reconstruction?  Well, he admits it is amazing and incredibly well preserved (see images below of some of the fossils) fossil find. He reports (you can read the original article here) on some of the facts including the types of vegetation are found.  He then proceeds to try to explain how this forest might have come to be preserved during a global flood.

The majority of plant fossils, such as those found in coal, were washed in from elsewhere, sorted, and compacted. But these plants look as though they were buried in place, preserving their original spacing along an ancient forest floor. Most of the plants were relatively short tree ferns. Dwarf shrubs, cycads, and clusters of ferns also grew, and much taller trees dotted the ancient scene. The study authors wrote, “It is likely that the same type of vegetation would have covered the very extensive mire in all directions and to the horizon.”

But they did not mention the possibility that the entire forest may have been transported like a giant sheet. Although the tall trees had been toppled, the collective root mass appeared intact. Perhaps it originally was a floating forest.

To the right is a diagram of site showing that there are two thick coal seams with a thick (1/2 meter) layer of volcanic ash where this forest was found preserved.    Note also that there are multiple other thin  layers of volcanic ash representing multiple smaller volcanic events.  These ash layers can be found over hundreds of square miles in these coal seams (see picture below for other coal seams with thin ash layers).  Now Brian suggests that coal seams represent plant fossils that are “washed in from elsewhere, sorted and compacted.”  I don’t know where he gets the idea they were sorted and compacted and washed from where?   He  does admit that the plants in this ash layer look like they were buried in place and that they do preserve the original spacing of an ancient forest floor.  So if this is a forest that is preserved in place how could a forest be found in the middle of the flood (remember these coal layers are in the middle of the geological column so there are thousands of feet of layers of rock below and where as much or more above them).   He proposes that this preserved forest represents what was a giant floating forest.

These floating forests are the standard young earth creationist explanation for the origin of coal and in-situ forests found all over the world.  Does it make any sense? Not really, for many reasons but let just focus on one.  How, in the middle of a raging flood (see his description just below of the cataclysmic conditions of Noah’s Flood) do thick layers of vegetation only get compacted and separated from other sediments while at the same time having layers of thin but very discrete layers of volcanic ash laid down and then have a huge volcanic event which was then covered over by many layers of coal and then by thousands of feet of other sediments. How is all this laid down quickly in the space of days or even weeks without disturbing the fine volcanic ash layers?  The floating forest hypothesis never really gets around to explaining any details. It is a hypothesis created for only one reason: to provide a possible explanation for a conundrum for flood geology that will hopefully prevent further questions from being asked.

Thin layers of volcanic ash separate this thick layer of coal in Australia. Ash layers like this can persist over hundreds of square miles suggesting a widespread event after which very little disturbance could have taken place before more vegetative material was produce and compacted. Click on image for source.

What about my other observations in my prior post about this fossils site that Thomas seems to be careful to avoid.  He doesn’t try to explain why there are NO flowering plants in this forest. Nor does he seem to be aware or have done the research to find out that there are similar forests that have been described from several other places on earth.  How could it be that there could be floating forests circling the earth in the middle of a cataclysmic flood which were devoid of flowering plants?

But it gets better.  Thomas then tries to turn the research around to suggest that it directly contradicts an old earth though he uses the word evolution here for more rhetorical punch.

Evolution maintains that these Permian plants existed 240 million years ago. But ironically, according to that same evolutionary timeframe, their fossils should no longer exist. The fossils and all of China should have completely eroded about 14 million years after they were deposited, assuming the evolutionary paradigm and known erosion rates. The study authors wrote, “Excavation was necessary to secure the stunning specimens of this flora because weathering occurs rapidly and destroys the fossils.” So, did China’s landscape experience no weathering for over 200 million years?

In contrast, biblical history easily explains these “catastrophically preserved floras.”1 The extraordinarily cataclysmic conditions of Noah’s Flood—so violent that Scripture records that it totally destroyed the earth’s surface—provided the tremendous energy required to wash plant matter into mats that would later turn to coal, to dislodge and transport a whole forest, and to unleash volcanic explosions that covered vast regions.

Wow,  now Thomas really starts to show why he has become a something of a favorite pinata among creationists critics.    I myself find it difficult to be charitable toward a person that has been placed in a position of science writer by an influential creationist organization. Is this really the best advocate they could find as science commentator?  Brian Thomas reveals on an almost daily basis his ignorance of science and yet he is in many ways the face of their website.   I don’t want to go horribly long here so I will keep it brief.   This suggestion that erosion should have destroyed these fossils displays a complete lack of familiarity with modern geology.  He even uses his own article on erosion of the continents as his reference for his statement that they should have all eroded within 14 million years.  That article is littered with misconceptions about the geological record.  For example, he assumes that continents have always been exposed and thus available to erode for 240 million years but when the ice caps have melted vast areas of the continents would be covered by water and thus rather than erosion but additional sedimentation would occur (ie. the opposite of erosion would be occurring).  The argument about erosion is nothing but a diversion to lead the reader away from many of the more troubling conclusions of the paper regarding the types of plants present, the type of plant that are missing, the lack of any animals in the volcanic ash, the lack of fish in the volcanic ash,  the presence of thin layers of ash in an otherwise uniform type of material, the lack of other sedimentary rocks, etc…

Some typical fossils from this volcanic ash layer.   Here we have what appear to be a number of fern-type leaves from the fern trees that were present.  Many more images can be seen at the following ling: .   These images come from the Pfefferkorn, H and J. Wang. 2007 (see reference below)

So, has Thomas met the challenge?  I don’t even think he has taken it up!   He has skirted around most of the data available to him and has chosen not to tell the readers how this fossil forest fits with many other fossil forests from other parts of the world in similar rocks.     He has proposed a non-specific explanation for the presence of a forest (the floating forest idea) in the middle of layers of massive numbers of separate plant parts (coal) which might sound plausible to the layperson but will not stand up to close inspection.  Most importantly he has not addressed why flowering plants, birds, reptile or mammals would not be present in a real preserved forest nor why flowering plants are not found in the coal layers either.

It is the job of Thomas to place science stories such as this one into a young earth worldview to provide the lay Christian with confidence that creation scientists have a viable alternative interpretation of the fossil evidence.  If it takes ignoring the big questions, producing side issues of dubious value (erosion argument for a young earth), and not bringing all the evidence to bear on the question (he hasn’t done any homework to find out how this forest is related to other fossil sites) then how does this prepare the lay Christian to defend themselves against an old-earth worldview?   His mission is clearly a failure if providing a legitimate alternative interpretation is the goal.   However,  his mission could be deemed a success if it is simply to provide enough misdirection and seemingly plausible alternative hypotheses causing those committed to young earth creationism not to pursue the meaning of these fossils any further. Unfortunately, for many unsuspecting Christians,  Thomas is a very successful writer.


Wang, J., Hermann W Pfefferkorn, Y. Zhang, and Z. Feng.  2012.  Permian vegetational Pompeii from Inner Mongolia and its implications for landscape paleoecology and paleobiography of Cathaysia.  PNAS 1115076109. Early Edition.

Dimichele, W. and H. J. Falcon-Lang. 2011.  Pennsylvanian “fossil forests” in growth position (Time zero assemblages): origin, taphonomic bias and palaeocological insights.  J. Geological Society.  168: 585-605.

Pfefferkorn, H and J. Wang. 2007.  Early Permian coal-forming floras preserved as compression from the Wuda District (Inner Mongolia, China).

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