Recently I shared evidence of an ancient forest preserved in amazing detail by volcanic ash (An Ancient and Alien Forest Reconstructed: A challenge for young earth creationism). I posed a number of challenging questions that this spectacular fossil discovery raises for those that hold to a young-earth creationist’ (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 globe sometime 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).
What does Mr. Thomas have to say about this amazing fossil forest reconstruction? He does report that the fossils are amazing and incredibly well-preserved (see image at the bottom of this post). He reports on some of the facts including the types of extinct plants that were in the forest. He then attempts to place the admitted existence of this odd forest into the context of a world-wide flood 4350 years ago.
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 of the quote is a diagram from the original research paper illustrating that the preserved fossil forest is found in a thick (1/2 meter) layer of volcanic ash located between two thick coal seams. I would also point out that there are additional thin layers of volcanic ash representing multiple smaller volcanic events recorded in the coal seams. Similar ash layers can be found over hundreds of square miles in other coal seams (see picture below) around the world.
Here we find Mr Thomas suggesting that coal seams represent plant fossils that are “washed in from elsewhere, sorted and compacted.” I don’t know how he justifies the idea they were sorted and compacted and just where were they washed in from? It all sounds quite random but the coal seams are composed of just a few types of extinct lycophytes and ferns and so they are not a random assemblage of plants.
He does admit that the plants in this ash layer look as if they were buried in place and that they do preserve the original spacial orientation of an ancient forest floor. But, if this is a forest that is preserved completely intact 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 in the past probably as much rock above them)? Here is where he floats the idea that this preserved forest represents the remains of a massive pre-flood floating forest.
These floating forests have become the standard young earth creationist explanation for the origin of coal and in-situ forests found all over the world. Is this a plausible explanation for what we observe? Not really.
How, in the middle of a raging flood (see his description just below of the cataclysmic conditions of Noah’s Flood) would thick layers of vegetation only get compacted and separated from other sediments while at the same time have thin and very discreet layers of volcanic ash laid down at the same time? How did the thick layer of volcanic ash get deposited and then not get disturbed when water rushed over the top of it to deposit another layer of vegetation that would be compacted to form coal? The floating forest hypothesis never really gets around to explaining, or in most cases even acknowledging, these details.
The floating forest hypothesis was created for one purpose: to provide a possible explanation for a conundrum for flood geology that will hopefully prevent further observations from being made and further questions from being asked.
What about my other observations in my prior post about this fossil site that Mr. Thomas seems to be careful to avoid? He makes no attempt, nor even acknowledges, that there are no flowering plants in this forest. Nor does he seem to be aware or have done the research to discover that there are similar forests described from several other locations on earth. How could there be floating forests circling the earth in the middle of a cataclysmic flood which were devoid of flowering plants?
But it gets better–or worse really. Mr. Thomas tries to turn this fossil site into evidence that contradicts an old earth though he miss-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.
The suggestion that erosion should have destroyed these fossils displays a complete lack of familiarity with geological principles. He uses his own misinformed article about 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 old earth geologists believe that continents have always been exposed and thus available to erode for 240 million years. He seems to be unaware of continental uplift, subsidence, and large changes in ocean levels over time causing periods of erosion followed by those of deposition. His argument about erosion tacked onto the end of his article about the forest is nothing more than a diversion to lead the reader away from many of the more troubling questions for the YEC that the fossils are begging to be asked. Why are there no fish or any oceanic fossils in the coal and volcanic ash? Why is the volcanic ash not mixed with other deposits? Why are there no mammals or flowering plants preserved here? And so many more questions.
So, has Thomas met the challenge that I raised with this fossil site? I don’t even think he has taken it up! He has ignored 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.
It is the job of Thomas to respond to science stories such as this one and place them into a young earth worldview for the Christian layperson audience that relies on organizations such as ICR and Answers in Genesis to provide them with viable alternative interpretations 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 was the goal. However, his mission could be deemed a success if it is simply was to provide enough misdirection and seemingly plausible alternative hypotheses to set the minds of those committed to young earth creationism as ease so they do not to pursue the meaning of these fossils any further. Unfortunately, for many unsuspecting Christians, Mr. 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).
This post is an updated and revised version of a post that originally appeared here in 2012.