A Walk Through Time

Carboniferous Period

The Coal Forests

360 Million Years Ago

Continental movement folds the lands. Extensive forests of mosses, horsetails and tree ferns rise in massive basins during the sultry, swampy Carboniferous Period. These plants practice "giant-ism." Some of their descendants, today's club mosses, will follow an alternate evolutionary strategy: when things get tough, get smaller.

Dead vegetation does not completely decay in these swamps. The dead organic matter accumulates in huge "carbon sinks." The burning of fossil fuel (coal, oil and gas) during the 19th and 20th centuries has already consumed a substantial fraction of the fossil fuel laid down during the 70 million years of the Carboniferous Period. This combustion has significantly raised the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere, risking green-house warming of Earth.

The discovery in the Antarctic of coal, which forms only in warm, wet subtropical settings, initially startled and confused scientists. Ultimately, however, it was one of many observations that may be best explained by a most important earth system theory: continental drift and plate tectonics. (Illustration by Zdenek Burian, © Jiri Hochman and Martin Hochman)

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