An Underground Fossil Forest Offers Clues on Climate Change
By W. BARKSDALE MAYNARD
In the clammy depths of a southern Illinois coal mine lies the largest
fossil forest ever discovered, at least 50 times as extensive as the
Scientists are exploring dripping passages by the light of headlamps,
mapping out an ecosystem from 307 million years ago, just before the
world's first great forests were wiped out by global warming. This vast
prehistoric landscape may shed new light on climate change today.
Dating from the Pennsylvanian period of the Carboniferous era, the
forest lies entombed in a series of eight active mines. They burrow
through the rich seams of the Springfield Coal, a nationally important
energy resource that underlies much of Illinois and two neighboring
states and has been heavily mined for decades.
Pushed downward over the ages by the crushing weight of rock layers
higher up, the Springfield forest lies at varying depths, 250 to 800
feet underground. The researchers have only sampled it so far, in the
vicinity of Galatia, Illinois, but they think it extends more than 100
miles in one direction; its width has not been ascertained. An earlier
discovery by the same team, the Herrin Coal forest farther north in
Illinois, is just two miles long.
"Effectively you've got a lost world," said Howard Falcon-Lang, a
paleontologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, who has explored
the site. "It's the closest thing you'll find to time travel," he added....
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