Exploring the wonders of geology in response to young-Earth claims...

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Coming up short: Coal beds and the "Pre-Flood Biomass"

One remarkable topic within Flood geology is that of the pre-Flood biomass—that is, the total mass of organisms (alive or dead) on Earth before Noah's flood. In addition to explaining a water source to cover the whole Earth and a sediment source to supply the Phanerozoic rock column, young-Earth geologists must also explain how the entirety of fossilized organisms existed simultaneously on Earth at the onset of the Flood. Impossible, you say? In Flood geology, there is always an explanation.

I won't delve into the details of young-Earth arguments, however, because I don't think it is necessary. In short, Flood geologists believe that all fossils* (from frustules to shells to molds to bones) represent organisms that were alive or recently deceased when Noah's flood began (e.g. Snelling tackles the chalk issue here; see also Greg Neyman's brilliant, succinct response here). Petroleum reservoirs (coal, oil, and gas) are also assumed to be dominantly biogenic, and thus from pre-Flood plants, algae, bacteria, etc. Adding up these figures would result in a rather crowded planet, but Flood geologists assure us that climatic conditions prior to the flood were more favorable to life than today, and so Earth could accomodate such a population.

Supplying the world with coal

Dr. Andrew Snelling reviewed the particular case of coal in an article posted here from 1986. Although he concludes that Earth could sustain forests capable of supplying the world's coal reserves, his argument assumes some rather arbitrary or inaccurate conditions. For example, he uses a compaction ratio of less than 2:1 from vegetation to coal, meaning that it would take less than 2 meters of raw vegetation to produce 1 meter of coal. His reasoning was based on "modern research," which "shows that less than two metres of vegetation are needed to make one metre of coal," but he fails to cite the supposed research. As it turns out, the compaction ratio of peat to coal is much lower than geologists originally thought, but peatessentially a type of soil—is very different, qualitatively, from catastrophically buried, raw vegetation.

Dr. Snelling also supposes that the pre-Flood land surface was approximately twice that of today. "If then this vast land area was under lush vegetation," he says, "then we can account for 100% of the known coal reserves." But this scenario is not only falsified by Precambrian stratigraphy (which is dominantly marine and quite extensive), but would result in a far more arid landscape (i.e. less ocean = fewer big storms; greater average distance to water = more continentality). Vapor canopy, you say? We'll leave that one to the jury.

An article by Gerhard Sch√∂nknecht (1997; posted by CMI) analyzed the problem with more depth and honesty, but still relied on highly improbable conditions (e.g. 40% thick-forest cover over the entire Earth; near perfect preservation). Could a pre-Flood biomass account for all the coal beds on Earth? Well, perhaps...but as I said, that question is rather inconsequential to a much larger problem.

Carbon conundrum

Discussions on whether a pre-Flood biomass could supply organic carbon to the world's coal reserves are simply misguided. Why? After explaining the origin of coal, one must account for the organic carbon in all other petroleum resources, from oil to asphalt to natural gas. Furthermore, one should account for the fact that most oil/gas/coal was never preserved or has been eroded out since deposition.

After these masses are summed, one should factor in that this accounts for only 0.13% of all organic matter buried in sedimentary rocks (nearly every sedimentary rock contains some organic matter, if only 0.01%).

So where did all the carbon come from? Ultimately, today, it comes from CO2 in the atmosphere. Can we assume photosynthesis occurred before the flood? If so, the drawdown would have been so great that one must posit an extraordinary source of carbon, several thousands of times larger than today, to the atmosphere. Flood geologists have yet to create a viable, pre-Flood carbon cycle that explains both fossil biomass and isotopic values of organic matter and carbonates.

The real 'pre-Flood biomass'

How much organic carbon is actually in the geologic column? Holser et al. (1988) provided the following estimates:

Fossil Fuels:
Bitumen (recoverable coal/oil/gas): 11,400 Gigatons Carbon

Other Sediments:

Pelagic ocean sediments: 756,000 Gigatons Carbon
Unlithified shelf/slope sediments: 4,400,000 Gigatons Carbon
Sedimentary rocks: 9,000,000 Gigatons Carbon

Total Exogenic Organic Carbon: 14,160,000 Gigatons Carbon!

Let's compare that to nowadays:

Modern Biomass (living and dead): 4,400 Gigatons Carbon

In other words, the amount of organic carbon on the surface of the Earth is more than 3,000 times that found in the entire modern biomass. If every organism on Earth (dead and alive) was suddenly buried in a flood and swept to the bottom of the ocean, the amount of organic carbon transported to the deep ocean would equal less than 1/170th the amount already buried in its sediments.

Might I suggest approaching Genesis with a less anachronistic and lexically rigid hermeneutic?

*Although I say "all" fossils and petroleum reservoirs, it depends on where one assigns the 'pre-Flood' and 'post-Flood' boundaries. To be fair/accurate, I should say Cambrian–Cretaceous at minimum, but I think the point is inconsequential to my argument.

References Cited:

Holser, W.T., Schidlowski, M., Mackenzie, F.T., Maynard, J.B., 1988, Biogeochemical Cycles of Carbon and Sulfur, in Gregor, C.B., Garrels, R.M., Mackenzie, F.T., Maynard, J.B., [editors], Chemical Cycles in the Evolution of the Earth: John Wiley & Sons, New York, 276 p.


  1. Another in a great string of great posts, Jon. How long can you keep it up? Interesting that your factor of 3,000 for how far Flood geology is off is the same order of magnitude as what I came up with in my sediment transport computations (1,600+) in my PSCF paper as summarized in my Slideshare presentation.

  2. Thanks, Tim. :) Great slideshow presentation, by the way! Very well done. Mind if I repost it here?

  3. Sure, I can get you a better copy if you'd like. You kind of have to dumb down the animation capabilities to make it work on Slideshare.