Supercontinent Pangaea's Assembly Tied To Coal Formation

First Posted: Jan 21, 2016 01:49 PM EST

A team of scientists found that super-continent Pangaea, from 300 million years ago, had a major role in the formation of coal, which was used during the Industrial Revolution and even today, according to a study at Stanford University.

Many previous studies have indicated that formation of Carboniferous coal could have been broken down by wood-eating microbes and bacteria. The researchers looked into the "evolutionary lag" hypothesis, where they examined the biochemical and geological aspects of coal formation.

"Our analysis demonstrates that an evolutionary lag explanation for the creation of ancient coal is inconsistent with geochemistry, sedimentology, paleontology, and biology," Matthew Nelsen, coauthor of the study, said in a news release.

The team carried out their research by examining old organic-rich sediments in North America, which indicated that not all plants from the Carboniferous period (360 million years ago) contained high levels of lignin, a cell wall polymer that gives plant tissues their rigidity.

Lignin is a biochemical compound that could not be broken down by ancient fungi and bacteria. The researchers found that changes in lignin in ancient fossils had no effect on the formation of coal.

"Central to the evolutionary lag model is the assumption that lignin is the dominant biochemical constituent of coal," Nelsen said. "However, much of the plant matter that went into forming these coals contained low amounts of lignin."

The researchers found that the coal deposits during the Carboniferous period were tied to a combination of tectonics and climate conditions while Pangaea was being formed. They also found that coal formation required large amounts of space where organic material can accumulate over a period without disintegrating. During the Carboniferous, massive landmasses were combined which became the super-continent Pangaea. As mountain ranges rose, basins were formed and deepened, which created the means and time for organic material to accumulate.

"With enough time...that plant matter was eventually transformed into the coal that powered the Industrial Revolution and helped usher in the modern age," said Kevin Boyce, a geobiologist and coauthor of the study. "Coal accumulation is largely dictated by geological processes that operate on timescales of many millions of years that are entirely independent of the biology."

The findings of this study were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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