The area surrounding what is now Wuda, Inner Mongolia, once teemed with tropical plants before a tremendous ancient volcanic explosion overwhelmed it. The ash-entombed forest, buried between coal layers, left such remarkably preserved fossilized plants that artists and paleontologists have been able to reconstruct the former wet-forest landscape.

Scientists took advantage of this rare opportunity to investigate, in unprecedented detail, discrete segments of a whole fossilized forest. A nearby coal mining operation removed a tough crust and exposed the well-preserved fossils, which were found over a very large area.

In their study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers called the site the “early Permian vegetational Pompeii at Wuda,”likening it to the famously preserved remains at Pompeii, Italy. “The consistent thickness of ash deposits in the region, as well as the size of individual ash particles, suggest that the volcanic blast occurred more than 100 kilometres away,” according to Nature News.2 This roughly equates to an ash blanket of 31,000 square miles, compared with the 230-square–mile blanket produced by Mount St. Helens’ 1980 explosion.3

The majority of plant fossils, such as those found in coal, were washed in from elsewhere, sorted, and compacted. But these plants look as though they were buried in place, preserving their original spacing along an ancient forest floor. Most of the plants were relatively short tree ferns. Dwarf shrubs, cycads, and clusters of ferns also grew, and much taller trees dotted the ancient scene. The study authors wrote, “It is likely that the same type of vegetation would have covered the very extensive mire in all directions and to the horizon.”1….

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