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The Coal Age

This posting has absolutely nothing to do with growing aquatic plants in
aquariums, but enough of you have e-mailed me and asked for further details
following my last posting that I think it might be of general enough
interest to post publicly. If I bore anybody, I'm sorry, feel free to jump
to the next article...

The subject was laterite, and someone posted that it was only found in
"tropical countries". I interjected with the simple fact that just because
the climate in North America is temperate now, it wasn't always the case.

Therein lies the tale...

I grew up in the town of Sydney Mines, on the island of Cape Breton, jutting
out into the cold north Atlantic. Three hundred million years ago, during
the Coal Age, the land which was eventually to become the Island of Cape
Breton was situated far to the south, just a few degrees north of the
equator. The climate was tropical, the flora consisted of forests of
towering tree ferns, horse-tails and other primitive plants, none of which
have survived into the modern era in the same form or size. Insects were
discovering flight, and huge dragon-flies swooped over the surface of the
prehistoric lakes, looking for food. Most of the land was swampy, and over
the millennia sediment covered layer after layer of plant remains.
Eventually, this lush landscape became the source for some of the most
extensive coal and oil fields in North America. The coal and oil bearing
deposits are found throughout Atlantic Canada, both under dry land and under
the sea-bed.

My Daddy was a coal miner, as was his father before him. As a child, I was
quite interested in science and nature, pursuits encouraged by both of my
parents. My father regularly brought home fossils from deep under the ocean,
where they were found at the "coal face" - the vein of coal which snaked
it's way under our feet and far out to sea. Even before I learned it in
school, I was aware that Cape Breton had a very exotic past. Fossils were
everywhere - you didn't really have to look very hard to find pieces of rock
which showed impressions of fern fronds or other plant parts. Both of my
parents probably grew very tired of me bring home yet another knapsack full
of rocks with fossilized plants contained within them.

Several years ago, the true nature and extent of this "buried treasure" came
to the attention of the scientific community. Dr. John Calder, a geologist
with the Department of Natural Resources has discovered that the town I grew
up in overlays at least ten separate fossil forests - representing tens of
millions of years of history BEFORE the dinosaurs roamed the Earth. These
fossil records are clearly visible today, along the shoreline and are
starting to attract a lot of attention. The most amazing thing about this
particular deposit is that many of the trees were buried while still
standing, and there they remain to this day, pillars of fossilized ferns and
trees underlying the town.

For anyone interested in knowing more about this, please point your browser
at the following URL: http://www.capebretoner.com/Samples/v6-5/cliffs.html.
Pat O'Neil, another "down homer" published an article called "The Cliffs of
Sydney Mines" in the Fall 1998 issue of "The Cape Bretoner", a local
magazine from the area. The article is archived at the magazine's website
and makes fascinating reading, even if you didn't happen to grow up there.

For the more scientifically inclined, Dr. Irwin Zodrow, a geologist with the
University College of Cape Breton would be a likely source for further
information. Only, don't tell him I sent you - he taught me during my first
few years in university (when he was still just plain Mr. Zodrow) and he was
a pain in the neck then and I doubt that time has mellowed him (or was I the
pain in the neck....???).

Now, back to algae outbreaks and trace element discussions....

James Purchase