Welcome to You Ask Andy

Alan Bates, age 11, of Veradale, Washington, for his question:

Why do they say the Carboniferous Age was so important

People who make statements of this sort take a rather biased view of life on earth. What they mean is this: The Carboniferous Age of the remote past was superior because it produced coal that happens to be useful and therefore important to modern human beings. What they tend to forget is that the story of life develops in logical stages. Every stage is a necessary link to the total, complex world necessary to our survival.

Earth scientists estimate that the Carboniferous Age began roughly 300 million years ago and may have lasted 100 million years. It is merely one chapter in a long series of geological ages built one upon another. Each inherited progress made in the past and handed on its own advances to the future. All these links from the past were necessary to develop the world we inherited. Ecologists tell us that all the items in our world are directly or indirectly related to each other. And each was perfected by a long chain of links into the past.

Each and every geological period of the past is equally important to the finished picture. The Carboniferous Age enjoyed a long period of mild, moist climate. Warm, shallow seas swamped much of what later became dry land. It inherited the descendants of the first plants and animals that left the water cradle of life in the seas. There were scorpions and roaches and wide winged dragonflies. Giant amphibian salamanders wallowed in the mud.

The plant world made the best of the climate and the earth's earlies trees thrived ankle deep in the soggy swamps. Compared with our luxurious forests, these ancient trees were weird and scrawny. There were tree sized ferns and very tall horsetails, tangled with twining vines. There were thick velvety mosses and masses of vivid water weeds. Animal life was still rather limited    but the Carboniferous Age was choked with thriving vegetation.

In later ages, the climate became drier. Some of the Carboniferous plants adapted to the new conditions. Their decendants improved and finally became the seed bearing, flowering plants of our modern world. But many choked forests perished from thirst when their soggy swamps became arid land. Shifting debris buried masses of this vegetation deeper and still deeper, creating great pressures. Through millions  of years, the earth carbonized this ancient plant material into layers of shiny black coal.

Now you know why people put stress on the importance of the Carboniferous Age. Coal is one of our most important fuels. And most of our underground supplies were created from plant material that grew in those soggy swamps around 300 million years ago.

Coal is classed as a fossil fuel because it is the fossilized remains of plants that lived long ago. Much of our industry depends upon it. However, we are beginning to learn that its fumes add pollution to our global atmosphere. Someday, we shall find and substitute cleaner fuels. Then, no doubt, shall the Carboniferous and all other past ages be equally important.



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