The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

Coal Beds, Creationism, and Mount St. Helens
Copyright © 1996-1997 by Keith Littleton
[Last Update: June 15, 1996]

I failed to realize how much the facts concerning the volcanic eruption at Mt. St. Helens have been abused and misused by creationists until I read the series of articles on June 15, 1996 at [now defunct].

This web page contains many of the misinterpretations, misrepresentations, and factual distortions that creationists have concocted surrounding the eruption at Mt. St. Helens. The most striking aspect of these web pages is the total lack of any citations or references for the claims being made. An excellent example of such misinformation is the page concerning the formation of coal found at [now defunct].

This page, titled Formation of Coal Beds, claims that according to the conventional theory of coal formation, coal forms by the accumulation of plant remains in swamps and the subsequent burial of this plant matter. It further states that the conventional theory claims the accumulation of peat in swamps is a slow process. So far, the information presented is correct.

At this point, this web erects a straw man by claiming that "geologists believe that it takes about a thousand years to form each inch of coal." This statement greatly exaggerates what geologists claim. Depending the type of swamp, the climate, and the accommodation space provided by sea level or base level rise, the rate at which peats accumulates would have varied greatly between individual coal seams. Moore (1922) documents much faster rates of coal accumulation than the thousand years an inch that the web page claims. Moore (1922) notes:

In the valley of the Somme, 3 feet of peat has developed in 30 to 40 years, and a moor in Hanover 4 to 6 feet has grown in about 30 years. Near Lake Constance a layer 3 to 4 feet has required only 24 years while among the Danish mosses 10 feet required 250 to 300 years for its deposition.
Allowing for the compaction of peat as it changes into coal, Moore (1922) calculates that for some bituminous coals, a foot of coal might require three hundred years to form and a seam 10 feet thick might require three thousands years to form. However, the rates at which any specific coal could accumulate would vary above and below this rate depending on the factors such as the vegetation, the type of swamp or marsh, the percentage of vegetable material oxidize before burial, the compressibility of the peat, and the space provided for the accumulation of peat by sea or other base level changes. Regardless, it has been shown that the rate at which coal forms could have greatly exceed an inch per thousand years (Moore 1922, Schopf 1973).

Then the web page goes on to talk about Mt. St. Helens and its significance in understanding coal formation. It first states:

In Spirit Lake, near Mt. St. Helens, floats an enormous tree mat, a layer of dead trees accumulated on the surface as a result of the devistating [sic] eruption. Due to the abrasive action of wind and waves, most of the tree bark is now water-saturated in sheets at the bottem [sic] of the lake. As a result a layer of peat several inches thick has accumulated.
The uncited source of this and the information below it appears to be Austin (1986, p. iii) given the striking similarity in their wording and claims.

The web page further claims that:

The Spirit Lake peat resembles, both compositionally and texturally, certain coal beds of the easter [sic] US, which are also dominated by tree bark.
There are indeed eastern (e.g., Pennsylvanian) coals dominated by bark. However, there the similarity ends as demonstrated by uncompressed plant material preserved in coal balls (DiMichele et al. 1986). First, studies of both coal balls and the enclosing coal clearly shows that woody tissue is either a dominant or major constituent of the coals of the eastern United States. In addition to woody material, significant amounts of herbaceous roots and foliage (leaves) comprise the eastern (Pennsylvanian) coals, unlike the woody material that has accumulated at the base of Spirit Lake (DiMichele et al. 1986).

Finally, the coal balls studies show that the tree bark within the Pennsylvanian coal is of different origin, being derived from large lycopod trees rather modern hardwoods. The Lycopods consist of a soft, spongy interior surrounded by a relatively solid, woody outer cylinder. After a lycopod tree dies, the interior quickly decays, leaving the outer shell to collapse into the swamp and become incorporated into the peat where it later becomes coal. Thus, the outer shell of the lycopod is preferentially preserved. As a result, the eastern Pennsylvanian coals are rich in so-called bark. The presented intact root systems and paleosols clearly show that the overwhelming majority of eastern Pennsylvanian coals formed in place (DiMichele et al. 1986, Gardner et al. 1988, and Wnuk 1989).

The same stiff outer woody bark and inner soft spongy woody structure of the lycopods is one reason why Carboniferous polystrate trees (e.g., at Joggins, Nova Scotia) are casts, while the Mesozoic and Tertiary polystrate trees (i.e. at Yellowstone) are carbonized and silicified trunks. Austin and other creationists fail to explain how the Spirit Lakes trees turn into Joggins-type casts after burial. This is important because Gastaldo (1990) shows that the formation of these casts require the alternation of flooding and subaerial exposure to form. The presence of cross-bedded and laminated sediments within the casts precludes the formation of these casts as the result of continuos deposition (Gastaldo 1990).

The web page also makes these claims:

Claim no. 1: The accumulation of bark at the bottom of Spirit Lake, which is called peat, demonstrates that peat can accumulate fast.

The accumulation of a thin layer of shredded bark at Spirit Lake is irrelevant to how peat is formed, because coal is rarely associated with the highly fragmented, angular volcanic debris that characterizes the material at Spirit Lake. Rather, coal occurs interbedded with either nonvolcanic channel sandstones, freshwater limestones, shales, and paleosols of riverine origin or cyclic sequences of sandstones, shales and marine limestones identical to those that comprise modern deltas and coastal plains (Flores 1981, Donaldson et al. 1985). Finally, the base of many coals lies directly on top of well developed paleosols, often called seatearths, seatclays and fireclays, that would be absent from the base of the Spirit Lake peat (Gardner et al. 1988, Joeckel 1995). It is extremely clear that the shredded wood at the bottom of Spirit Lake accumulated in a vastly different environment than currently known coals.

Claim no. 2: Swamp peat rarely contains sheets of bark because tree roots disintegrate and homoginize [sic] the peat.

The absence of bark in many peats reflects the abundance of other components (i.e., wood, foliage, roots, and pollen) accumulating to form a peat. The composition of peats varies so much that it is incorrect to make such generalizations. Also, the coalification, process by which peat is transformed into coal, will homogenize and destroy the identity of the individual components. Initially, microorganisms degrade plant material. Then, chemical processes convert the lignin of the plants into humic substances and condense these humic substances into larger coal molecules. All of these coalification processes serve to homogenize the former peat (Meissner et al. 1977). The presence of in place tree roots that have grown into and homogenized the peat would demonstrate the peat accumulated in place and not transported from elsewhere as the shredded bark found at Spirit Lake. Trees and other plants could not grow in and put roots down into material that accumulates on the bottom of a lake or other water body, mush less rapidly deposited sediments. Thus, claiming that peat has been homogenized by tree roots contradicts the claim that the peat accumulated at the bottom of some body of water. In fact, where the original texture of peat is preserved in coal balls from Midwestern coals, in place roots are not only present, but have clearly failed to homogenize the peat.

Claim no. 3: Spirit Lake peat is texturally very similar to coal.

This is also a false statement. The shredded plant material at the bottom of Spirit Lake that is being called peat has little if any resemblance to the peat found in modern peat swamps such as those in Indonesia that are considered modern analogues of the eastern United States' Pennsylvanian coals. It has even less similarity to coal.

It can be questioned whether peat is even the proper term for the shredded wood and bark found at the bottom of Spirit Lake. From the descriptions that Austin (1986) and other creationists have given of this material, it sounds likes a relatively unaltered layer consisting of fragments of ground up wood and bark of varying sizes. Geologists call such woody debris "coffee grounds." Coffee grounds consists of wood and other plant debris that have been carried out of the mouth of the delta, rolled around and fragmented by waves for while, and deposited as sand- to pebble-sized chunks of sorted plant debris on the beach, back beach, or abandoned channel areas. This material is called "coffee grounds" because of its visual similarity to coffee (black or brown little bits of wood). In ancient deltas, coffee grounds have accumulated within abandoned deltaic channels to form high-quality, but very thin, coals (Coleman 1982, p. 39). However, these coals, like the coffee grounds of the modern Mississippi Delta, lack the lateral continuity, paleosols, and presence of recognizable foliage or root material that characterize the widespread Pennsylvanian coal seams (DiMichele et al. 1986, Gardner et al. 1988, Wnuk 1989).

Claim no. 4: Only burial and slight heating is required to transform the Spirit Lake peat to coal.

This is another false claim that burial and slight heating will convert the coffee grounds that they call peat into coal. The conversion of this material takes considerable burial and time to convert to the quality of coal found in Pennsylvania. In the case of anthracite, very intense tectonic metamorphism is also needed for the conversion of this material into coal.


The web page that I examined contains a number of claims about the significance of the "coffee grounds" found at the bottom of Spirit Lake relative to the formation of Pennsylvanian coals in the eastern United States. It can be concluded that Spirit Lake lacks very little instructive value in explaining how coal is formed. There are some transported coals, however they are very rare and can be better understood by looking the coffee grounds that accumulate within the modern Mississippi Delta. The web page examined here is nothing more than a bunch of creationist text-bites designed to sound good despite lacking any scientific value.

Final Notes

1. While reading Austin (1986), I found a remarkable coincidence of text and ideas between it and the coal beds HTML page. For example, Austin (1986) states:

The peat layer in Spirit Lake, however, demonstrates that peat can accumulate rapidly. Swamp peats, however, have only very rare bark sheet material because the intrusive action of tree roots disintegrates and homogenizes the peat. The Spirit Lake peat, in contrast, is texturally very similar to coal. All that is needed is burial and slight heating to transform the Spirit Lake peat into coal. Thus, at Spirit Lake, we may have seen the first stage in the formation of coal.
and the web page states:
This development demonstrates that peat can accumulate rapidly. Swamp peat rarely contains bark sheet material because the roots of trees disintegrate and homoginize the peat. In contrast, the Spirit Lake peat is texturally very similar to coal. coal. All that is required to transform the Spirit lake peat to coal now is burial and slight heating.

2. Coal balls are concretions composed of either calcite, siderite, or some other carbonate mineral that formed within peat prior to the peat being compacted and coalified. As a result, the minerals that comprise a coal ball infill the cellular structure of and surround the plant remains comprising the peat within it. Thus, well-preserved and identifiable remains of the plant material comprising the peat can recovered from these the coal balls.

3. Information about polystrate tree fossils can be found at:

References Cited

Austin, Steven A. (1986) Impact No. 157 - Mount St. Helens and Catastrophism. Institute for Creation Research, El Cajon, California, 4 pp.

Coleman, J. M. (1982) Deltas Processes of Deposition and Models for Exploration. International Human Resources Development Corporation, Boston, 124 pp.

Flores, Romero M. (1981) Coal deposition in fluvial paleoenvironments of the Paleocene Tongue River Member of the Fort Union Formation, Powder River Basin, Wyoming and Montana In. Recent and Ancient Nonmarine Depositional Environments: Models for Exploration, F. G. Ethridge and R. M. Flores (editors), pp. 169-190, SEPM Special Publication no. 31, Society for Sedimentary Geology, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 349 pp.

Donaldson, A. C., Renton, J. J., and Presley, M. W., (1985) Pennsylvania deposystems and paleoclimates of the Appalachians. International Journal of Coal Geology, vol. 5, pp. 167-175.

DiMichele, W. A., Phillips, T. l., and Willard, D. A. (1986) Morphology and Paleoecology of Pennsylvanian-age coal-swamp plants. In Land Plants Notes for a Short Course, R. A. Gastaldo (editor), pp. 97-144, University of Tennessee Department of Geology Studies in Geology, no. 15, Knoxville, Tennessee, 226 pp.

Gastaldo, R. A. (1990) Early Pennsylvanian Swamp Forests in the Mary Lee Coal Zone, Warrior Basin, Alabama. In. Carboniferous Coastal Environments and Paleocommunities of the Mary Lee Coal Zone, Marion and Walker Counties, Alabama, R. A. Gastaldo, T. M. Demko, and Y. Liu (editors), Guidebook for Field Trip VI, Alabama Geological Survey, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Gardner, T. W., Williams, E. G., and Holbrook, P. W. (1988) Pedogenesis of some Pennsylvanian underclays; ground-water, topography, and tectonic controls. In Paleosols and Weathering Through Geologic Time: principles and Applications, J. Reinhardt and W. R. Sigleo (editors), Geological Society of America Special Paper no. 216, pp. 81-102.

Joeckel, R. N. (1995) Paleosols below the Ames marine unit (Upper Pennsylvanian, Conemaugh Group) in the Appalachian Basin, U.S.A.: variability on an ancient depositional landscape. Journal of Sedimentary Research, vol. A65, no. 2, pp. 393-407.

Meissner, C. R., Cecil, C. B., and Stricker, G. D. (1977) Coal Geology and the Future. U. S. Geological Survey, Reston, Virginia.

Moore, E. S. (1922) Coal Its Properties, Analysis, Classification, Geology, Extraction, Uses and Distribution. John Wiley and Sons, Inc. New York.

Shopf, J. M. (1973) Coal, Climate and Global Tectonics. In Implications of Continental Drift to the Earth Sciences, Volume 1, D. H. Tarling and S. K. Runcorn (editors), Academic Press, New York, pp. 609-622.

Wnuk, C., (1989) Ontogeny and Paleoecology of the Middle Pennsylvanian Arborescent Lycopod Bothrodendron Punctatum, Bothrodendraceae (Western Middle Anthracite Field, Smamokin Quadrangle, Pennsylvania. American Journal of Botany, vol. 76, no. 7, pp. 966-980.

Prepared June 15, 1996

P.S. Again I thank an anonymous geologist for the invaluable comments and references given me.

It is by the fortune of God that, in this country, we have three benefits: freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and the wisdom never to use either.

-- Mark Twain

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