Forest discovered that was buried by volcanic ash 298 million years ago

Reconstruction of 298 million year forest
Reconstruction of actual site 3 of a peat-forming forest of earliest Permian age that was preserved by a volcanic ash-fall near Wuda, Inner Mongolia, China.

In the United State when we think of an old-growth forest, it may be 100 or 200 years old. Researchers in China have discovered a preserved forest that was buried by volcanic ash 298 million years ago. The trees and other vegetation were buried over a period of days by huge quantities of ash, much like the humans, animals, and buildings that were found in Pompeii in 1749 after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the University of Pennsylvania Penn News:


“PHILADELPHIA — Pompeii-like, a 300-million-year-old tropical forest was preserved in ash when a volcano erupted in what is today northern China. A new study by University of Pennsylvania paleobotanist Hermann Pfefferkorn and colleagues presents a reconstruction of this fossilized forest, lending insight into the ecology and climate of its time.

Pfefferkorn, a professor in Penn’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science, collaborated on the work with three Chinese colleagues: Jun Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Yi Zhang of Shenyang Normal University and Zhuo Feng of Yunnan University.

Their [Open Access] paper was published this week in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study site, located near Wuda, China, is unique as it gives a snapshot of a moment in time. Because volcanic ash covered a large expanse of forest in the course of only a few days, the plants were preserved as they fell, in many cases in the exact locations where they grew.

Reconstruction of the peat forming forest
Reconstruction of the peat-forming forest of earliest Permian age preserved by a volcanic ash-fall that buried stems, broke off twigs, toppled trees, and preserved the forest at site 1 (of Figs. 1 and 2) near Wuda, Inner Mongolia, China, based on actual location of trees.

“It’s marvelously preserved,” Pfefferkorn said. “We can stand there and find a branch with the leaves attached, and then we find the next branch and the next branch and the next branch. And then we find the stump from the same tree. That’s really exciting.”

The researchers also found some smaller trees with leaves, branches, trunk and cones intact, preserved in their entirety.

Due to nearby coal-mining activities unearthing large tracts of rock, the size of the researchers’ study plots is also unusual. They were able to examine a total of 1,000 m2 of the ash layer in three different sites located near one another, an area considered large enough to meaningfully characterize the local paleoecology.

The fact that the coal beds exist is a legacy of the ancient forests, which were peat-depositing tropical forests. The peat beds, pressurized over time, transformed into the coal deposits.

The scientists were able to date the ash layer to approximately 298 million years ago. That falls at the beginning of a geologic period called the Permian, during which Earth’s continental plates were still moving toward each other to form the supercontinent Pangea. North America and Europe were fused together, and China existed as two smaller continents. All overlapped the equator and thus had tropical climates.

At that time, Earth’s climate was comparable to what it is today, making it of interest to researchers like Pfefferkorn who look at ancient climate patterns to help understand contemporary climate variations.

In each of the three study sites, Pfefferkorn and collaborators counted and mapped the fossilized plants they encountered. In all, they identified six groups of trees. Tree ferns formed a lower canopy while much taller trees — Sigillaria and Cordaites — soared to 80 feet above the ground. The researchers also found nearly complete specimens of a group of trees called Noeggerathiales. These extinct spore-bearing trees, relatives of ferns, had been identified from sites in North America and Europe but appeared to be much more common in these Asian sites.”


Update on Hawaii’s volcano-caused fire

Volcano fire update
Screen capture from Big Island Video News

The fire in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park that Wildfire Today first told you about on March 15 has burned about 2,000 acres but it is 80 percent contained as of Sunday. Big Island Video News has an interesting video update on the fire, but unfortunately we are not able to embed it here.

Hawaii volcano causes 75-acre wildfire

Kilauea erupts from new fissure causing wildfire
Lava erupts from a vent in the forest several miles east of the National Park Service visitor center. NPS photo by David Okita.

The Kilauea volcano in Hawaii began erupting through a new fissure in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on March 5. This new event, called the Kamoamoa Fissure Eruption, occurred in a forested area and has ignited the vegetation, causing at least 75 acres to burn since Sunday. The eruption is now “paused”, but park ranger Mardie Lane said the fire was creeping through Ohia Forest in an area that has burned at least twice previously because of lava flows. Firefighters planned to fly over the area Tuesday to assess the situation.

Below is a screen grab from a 6-minute video of the new eruption.

Hawaii volcano wildfire

The National Park Service has six live cameras in the volcano area.


Kilauea volcano causes wildfire
On March 9, 2011 the channelized flow from the western vent complex advanced significantly downslope through forest. Click to enlarge. NPS photo.

That looks a little like a two-track road in the photo above, but I’m pretty sure you would not want to drive on it since it is MOLTEN LAVA.

More photos and daily updates of the volcano.

Sarychev Peak volcano eruption

Sarychev Peak volcano. Photo: NASA

I am fascinated by this photo taken by astronauts on the International Space Station on June 12. It shows the Sarychev Peak volcano, on Matua Island northeast of Japan, in the early stages of erupting. There are some parallels that can be made with a large convection column over a very active fire. The condensation near the top of the column would be called a pyrocumulus cloud if it were over a fire.

It is interesting that there appears to be a hole that was created in the cloud layer, through which the plume is penetrating. An article in LiveScience talks about a shock wave that was created in the atmosphere. Scientists have said that the surrounding atmosphere has been shoved up by the shock wave of the eruption.

I am no scientist, but it appears that the compression of the atmosphere caused by the introduction of a huge volume of rising gas increased the temperature of the air and lowered the relative humidity, causing the cloud to dissipate near the plume. And the radiant heat from the column probably contributed to the same effect.

Usually upper level winds will shear off a plume from a volcano, but that did not happen in this case.