Early geological researchers into the coal measures of the Carboniferous System sought to explain its origin in terms of geological processes operating over eons of time. Yet the evidence that they were continually uncovering presented more and more difficulties within that framework of thinking. Particularly troublesome were the difficulties relating to the roots of the fern trees, the dominant Carboniferous vegetation. The confusion even extended across national borders with the ideas of the geologists on the Continent conflicting with those in England and America, such as the Silvomarine hypothesis of the German Otto Kuntze. This confusion led the early geologists to devise secondary hypotheses to salvage their paradigm, hypotheses that are today part of the standard explanation for the origin of coal but are still inadequate to resolve the problems. The evidence suggests that geological processes were qualitatively different and of a larger scale than the pioneers of the discipline were prepared to consider. In other words, their paradigm needs updating.

Focusing on the Carboniferous

The Carboniferous was the very first complete section of the geological column to have been described. The name ‘Carboniferous’ or ‘coal-bearing’ (from ‘carbo’, the Latin for ‘coal’, plus ‘fero’, the Latin for ‘I have’) was proposed by the English geologists William Conybeare and William Phillips in a paper published in 1822 to designate the coal-bearing strata in north-central England. Conybeare and Phillips’ Carboniferous Order included the Mountain or Carboniferous Limestone at its base, the Millstone Grit (or graywacke) in the middle, and the Coal Measures on top.1


Figure 1. Schematic of a Lepidodendron fern tree showing the location of some of the numerous ‘form genera’ associated with it.

As the early geological researchers sought to explain the origin of the coal measures and to understand the fossils contained within the measures, they thought in terms of modern depositional environments. Their framework of thinking involved geological processes that operated slowly over eons of time, yet they uncovered evidence that demanded processes of larger scale than they were prepared to consider….

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