350 million years ago. Source of prosperity, poverty, global warming, drought, famine and war.

Abundant rain and carbon dioxide-laden air stimulated lush plant growth in central Ontario, including this peony in our garden, while greenhouse gases brought dry-cracked soil of drought, famine, and war to Eastern Mediterranean, with forecast of worst to come. Top photo by Earle Gray, lower photo By Bert Kaufmann from Roermond, Netherlands (Drought) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

We live in a second carbon period. Carbon dioxide is the main force driving global warming just as it did in the first carbon period 359 million years ago. When the CO2 level rose and fell in the first carbon period, so did the temperature. Our climbing CO2 is stimulating plant growth. That could increase the world’s food production if not offset by drought, floods, and wildfires. But CO2 growth-stimulated food crops are reportedly nutrition-deficient. Perversely, that could mean both more food and more malnutrition. We have opened Pandora’s paradoxical energy box, and risk extinction. We are burning in a few centuries vast quantities of the coal, oil, and natural gas safely buried for hundreds of millions of years. Greenhouse gas emissions are burning us alive. In the Eastern Mediterranean, they are said to have caused a drought, famine and the Syrian Civil War, with worst to come. The toll of death, destruction, and displacement is rising.

Lovely little Lindsay, our town in central Ontario, is richly endowed with deciduous trees. Most are maples in rich green in spring and summer, stunning crimson in fall, except the red maples that can’t wait that long to dazzle their colour. Reaching for the sky, the trees line our streets and hem our parks. They strike my eye as not only larger, but fuller. Densely-packed leafs flutter a little less in the breeze. Front yard trees form a canopy, stretching across the sidewalk and boulevard as far at the curb, shading pedestrians on hot summer days.

In our small yard, the potentilla, peonies, tiger lilies, hostas, geraniums, bleeding hearts, and other plants exploded with growth. Two large red maples that hug the other side of our backyard fence are so dense with leaves we can no longer see the back of our neighbour’s house, with its second-floor outdoor deck, as we could last summer.

A wet spring and early summer are generally seen as the cause of so much green. Here in south-central Ontario, we received—as recorded at the Toronto weather station­—a total of 427 millimetres of rain during the four-month period March through June, 75 percent more than the average 275 mm. But it’s not just the rain that has given us crimini mushrooms larger than I have ever seen. It’s also the carbon dioxide in the air, the highest concentration in the 200,000 years since anatomically modern humans first walked the earth, 404 parts per million global average in 2016. That’s up almost half again as much as pre-industrial time, before the world began burning more than negligible quantities of fossil fuels.

Coal, oil, and natural gas account for 85 percent of the CO2 sent into the atmosphere by human activity. Coal alone accounts for more than half of those anthropogenic emissions. And most of the coal in the world originated in our first carbon period. Aptly named the Carboniferous Period, it lasted 60 million years, from about 359 million years ago (Mya) to 299 Mya.[i] The coal that began to form in this period was the foundation stone of our industrialized world. It fuelled factories, tractors, railways, steamships, iron-making furnaces, provided light and space heating and still generates 40 percent of the world’s electricity.

Burial of the vegetation that became coal stopped the oxidation emitting CO2, sending temperatures higher than today’s life-threatening levels. We will never know how much higher the CO2 concentration and temperature might otherwise have risen. We are now resuming oxidation of that former vegetation—rapid oxidation by burning coal and the other buried fossils fuels. If today’s temperatures are high enough to threaten life, would human life ever have happened if those Carboniferous plants had not been buried?

The story of how this happened is more than just fascinating: it’s necessary for an understanding what has enabled industrialized civilization, if not also enabling human existence. We will break the story into the two epochs, the Mississippian echo, in which the giant coal-forming plants first grew, and the Pennsylvanian Epoch, when the plants became buried and the coal-forming process began.

The Mississippian

In the Mississippian Epoch, the super continent Laurasia embraced most of the Northern Hemisphere landmasses of today: North America, Greenland, Europe, parts of Asia, and China. Gondwanaland, the other super-continent, lay south of Laurasia and stretched as far as the South Pole. Ice caps, as much as 2.5 kilometres (1.5 miles) thick, periodically formed and melted. When the Antarctic ice caps formed, they sucked up water, and the oceans and seas fell; when the ice caps melted, the oceans and seas rose. There is thought to have been 90 such cyclothems of rising and falling ice caps and oceans during the Carboniferous. When the seas rose too high, the swamps were swamped and sharks might have swum where giant trees had stood; if they fell too far, the swamps were drained. In between, thick layers of trees, ferns, twigs, and vegetation accumulated and became peat, the raw material of coal.

The seas were rising at the start of the Mississippian, creating wide inland seas and coastal swamps, where lush vegetation thrived in the warm equatorial region of Laurasia. The earth’s largest wetland tropic forests grew in the Mississippian and Pennsylvanian Epochs.

The biological circle of life, as I choose to call it, kicked into high gear during the Mississippian Epoch. Plants, as every grade student must surely be taught, use carbon dioxide, water, and the energy of the sun to produce the carbohydrate they need to live and grow.[1] Upon this simple chemical reaction rests human and other animal existence. We eat either plants, or we eat other animals that eat plants. We have no other food.

In the photosynthesis process, plants expel oxygen, which does not increase the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. The oxygen is consumed by microbes and other critters that decomposed dead organic matter—a dead tree, a dead mouse, or a dead crocodile. The rotting organic matter and animals from microbes to protocrocodiles expelled CO2, supplying plants with food to complete the cycle. The increased CO2 raises the global temperature because of the greenhouse effect. Plants grow larger, create more CO2, which makes them larger yet. Nine million years into the Mississippian, global atmospheric concentration of CO2 climbed to an estimated 1,500 parts per million, almost four times today’s level, while global temperature also climbed to an estimated 200C,[ii] much warmer than the twentieth-century average of 13.70C (56.70F).

The rise of the CO2 level and temperature can’t be ascribed entirely to photosynthesis. The Earth’s elliptical journey around the sun, the tilt of its revolving axis, solar sunspots, methane and other global warming gases emitted from the bowels of the Earth by volcanoes, fissures in the Earth’s crust, erosion of rocks, and other causes, all affect the climate “on time scales ranging from tens of millions of years to just a few years.”[iii] But it is surely not mere coincidence that the temperature rose in tandem with rising CO2 during the Mississippian, then fell in tandem with plunging CO2 during the Pennsylvanian Epoch.

Oxygen levels were low at the start of the Mississippian, did not rise to more than about today’s level, and did little to stimulate animal growth, but plant growth exploded in the warm, humid, CO2-laden air of the tropics. Lycopsid trees, with scaly bark five times thicker than the wood they covered, grew as high as 50 metres, and dominated the wetland forests. Ferns were almost as big as today’s maple trees. Reedy horsetails that grow in marshes and wet areas, were as high as four-storey buildings. Abundant material for making coal.

The Pennsylvanian

Geologically, the Mississippian appears relatively quiet, while the 14 million years of the Pennsylvanian (323 Mya to 299 Mya) seem convulsed by change. Between intermittent falling and rising of the oceans, giant tropical plants continue to grow, die, decay into accumulating thick beds of peat. All the tropical landmass of Earth was consolidated during the Pennsylvanian, and seemed bent on producing peat. If all peat that created essentially all the Earth’s coal were assembled in a single pile, it would cover the United States—all but Alaska and Hawaii—with a dark, brown blanket about 10 feet thick.[iv]

Tectonic forces began squishing Laurasia and Gondwanaland together, forming Pangea, an even more super continent that embraced almost all the landmasses of Earth. Mountains were pushed up, forelands sank to create basins. Landslides and collapsing ground buried both dead and living vegetation, the burial extending into the Permian Period, “The highest rate of global organic carbon burial…over the past half billion years.”[v] Sealed off from oxygen, rotting of the vegetation stopped, as did the emissions of atmosphere warming CO2. Global temperature fell from 200C during the Mississippian to average 12C throughout the Pennsylvanian Epoch. That was close to the twentieth-century average so that it “resembles our own climate and atmosphere like no other” time in Earth’s history.[vi]

While the CO2 level plunged, the oxygen level rose, from 20 percent to an estimated 35 percent of the atmosphere.[vii] Oxygen-breathing animals, especially insects, became gargantuan. Beyond the edge of the swamps, more than 1,000 species of cockroaches, as big as rats; 2.6-metre (seven-foot) poisonous millipedes; and scorpions the size of footballs, swarmed the ground. Seven-metre (21-foot) crocodile-like creatures lurked in the swamps. Dragonflies, with wing spans as wide as hawks (75 cm, 30 inches) were the world’s largest ever flying insects.

The burial of the peat was the key event of the Permian Period. More than just changing the atmosphere, lowering the temperature, and producing insects, it was what made the making of coal possible. To make coal, decomposition of peat had to be stopped by sealing off oxygen before it became as rotted as manure. Until early in the twenty-first century, earth scientists thought this was somehow accomplished by the thick, scaly, impervious, bug-resistant bark of lycopsid trees.[viii] The collapse and burial of a tropical swamp and forest 307 million years ago is a strong indication of the real method by which the decay of other pants was averted, many surviving as fossils, while further decay of peat was halted. The swamp and forest fell 4.5 to nine metres (15 to 30 feet) when an earthquake struck. Mud and sand rushed in to fill the hole, burying the trees and other plants. The underlying cause was the upheavals in the formation of Pangea. The fossil remains of the forest are now in Eastern Illinois, etched on the ceilings of shafts in a pair of coal mines, 230 feet below ground. It is said to be “the largest intact fossil forest ever seen—at least four square miles of tropical wilderness.”[ix] The fossils include the remains of 50 different plants, the giant lycopsid trees, big ferns, and the tall horsetails among them. The final blow to the theory of scaly bark stopping decay was a U.S. National Academy of Sciences paper, “Delayed fungal evolution did not cause the Paleozoic peak in coal production.”[x]

Damp vegetation will burn with 21-25 percent oxygen in the air. With 35 percent 02, the Pennsylvanian tropic forests must have been burning most of the time, filling the sky and air with smoke, despite heavy humidity. It seems like a forerunner of global warming wildfires in the twenty-first century. The fires, apparently consumed only a of the big lycopsid trees. Dead trees and at least some charcoal fell to the ground or into the swamps to add their share to the expanding peat.

While the temperature averaged 120C throughout the Pennsylvanian, by the end of the Epoch it fell to 100C. That “triggered the longest-lived and perhaps most severe icehouse” in half a billion years. It lasted seven-million years, stretching into the Permian Period.[xi]

More food, more malnutrition

That increased CO2 can stimulate plant growth is hardly news. A 1964 journal saw a potential “gold mine,” offering “unprecedented opportunity” for “the growers of greenhouse vegetables” to achieve “substantial yield increases, a marked improvement of quality, and year around production.”[xii] This unprecedented opportunity is now seen everywhere food crops can be grown, indoors or out. A flood of published studies followed the 1964 article, with a reported almost 3,000 of them in the 15-year period to 2002, and the number has undoubtedly increased. A 2017 search of a database of scholarly publications for “carbon dioxide” and “food crops” yielded 31,000 hits.

Rising CO2 levels seem certain to continue increasing the yield of food crops. Or at least it will in areas where global warming has not induced or exacerbated drought, or destroyed crops in floods and wild fires.

But all that glitters is not gold. More plant food ironically threatens to exacerbate malnutrition already suffered by half the world’s population. That because CO2-growth stimulated plants have been found to lack essential nutrients. Possibly the first to point to the problem was a mathematician and biologist engaged in postdoctoral research at Princeton University. In a published 2002 paper Irakli Loladze claimed that “high CO2 could intensify the already acute problem of micronutrient malnutrition.”[xiii]

Loladze focused on deficiencies of iron, iodine, and zinc, in the first meta-analysis of all published papers dealing with the plant affects of double ambient CO2 concentration. The diets of half the world, living mostly on rice and wheat, were already deficient in these elements. Rising CO2 levels are expected to increase their deficiencies, and extended the effects from less prosperous countries to Europe and North America. Iron deficiencies, Loladze wrote, “affects 3.5 billion people… and ‘impairs the cognitive development of children, causes productivity and educational losses, and increases morbidity and maternal mortality.’” Iodine deficiencies afflict tens of millions with goiter, brain damage and cretinism. Half the world suffers from a lack of zinc. “Deficiencies of other essential elements are also widespread, even in industrial countries,” even if not always recognized.

Loladze’s paper met with a cool reception by a number of plant experts, who considered it “too simplistic to be true.” One critic called Loladze’s work “The latest fatality in a long line of Cassandras.”[xiv] But Loladze’s work was soon confirmed by a substantial number of other published papers. “Increasing CO2 threatens human nutrition,” published in the prestigious journal Nature, 12 years after Loladze’s, claims that zinc and iron deficiencies cause 63 million life-years annually.[xv] These are silent deaths. They never make the news, but they far exceed the killing in the on-going civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemini, and parts of Africa.

The green and the scorched

While lovely Lindsay luxuriates in lush green—at least this year—it belies the world’s unfolding global warming and related catastrophe. A quick scan of one week’s web news items (dated July 12 to 19, 2017) compiles an ominous report..

Wildfires in British Columbia have forced the evacuation of 46,000 with 17,000 more on alert notice, while the smoke from 155 fires, covering much the province, can be seen. That doesn’t match the 80,000 evacuations of Alberta’s Fort McMurray wildfire last year, which destroyed 2,400 houses, with record insured loss of C$3.97 billion—but the B.C. fires are still burning…. Wildfires are raging in California and Nevada….   Thousands of firefighters are tackling wildfires in five countries in southern and central Europe. A forest fire near Nice “spread as unusually hot and dry weather hits much of France….

Drought: “The final forecast of the 2016-2017 season for Florida’s struggling citrus industry shows the orange crop falling 16 percent from the previous season—which, itself, had been at a five-decade low.” Madison County Courier….   “Saskatchewan farmers say drought is worse in decades.” CBC News….   “Drought could mean disaster for the corn crop,” with almost half of Iowa facing drought after lack of June rain and “abnormally high temperature.”Ottuma Iowa Courier….   In North Dakota, “virtually anything that grows and needs water to survive is in danger” from an intensifying drought. The Progressive Farmer, Birmingham, Alabama….   “Crops are withering in Northeastern Montana where the nation’s worst drought now stretches 350 miles.” Billings, Montana, Gazette….    “Poor rains across East Africa have worsened hunger and left crops scorched, pastures dry, and thousands of livestock dead.” UN Food and Agricultural Organization…. Australia’s Victoria State preparing for drought after 80 percent less than average rainfall in June, the lowest since records began in 1900, and continuing into three weeks of July….”615,000 people are currently displaced by drought in Somalia.” Relief Web…..   India’s state of East Palaniswami “is gripped in what is arguably the worst drought in 140 years.” India TV News….   In Spain, “grapes shrivel” while “animals and plants struggle to survive as heat dries up the land.” London Guardian.

Refugees and Internally displaced persons fleeing disasters and global warming increased from 33.9 million in 1997 to 65.6 million in 2016. Aid and International Development Forum.

Famine: “More than 20 million people in four countries [Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria] are at risk of starvation in the coming months, in what the United Nations has called the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Washington Post…. “Less than a fifth of Americans are aware that extreme hunger threatens the lives of 20 million people in Africa and the Middle East, yet the overwhelming majority regard it as the most pressing global issue once they have been told, a poll of US voters has revealed.” London Guardian.

Global warming generates displacement, refugees, and mass migrations in two related ways. People flee from famines. Global warming drought, floods, and storms cause poverty and loss of homes, livestock and other property, inciting violence civil war, and more refugees and displaced people. “Climate change can indirectly increase risk of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence by amplifying… poverty and economic shock,” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states in its fifth and final report in 2014.

IPCC was not the first to link violence and climate. A 1940 compilation by Hong Kong scholars linked more than 1,000 years of Chinese conflicts to adverse climate and harvest failures. Europe’s seventh-century wars and rebellions were blamed, at least in part, on climate change by Voltaire, France’s leading intellectual. “As abrupt climate change lowers world’s carrying capacity, aggressive wars are likely to be fought over food, water, and energy,” the U.S. Pentagon warned in 2003.[xvi]

Drought, famine, and the disastrous Syrian war were caused by emissions of global-warming greenhouse gases, and the worst is yet to come for the eastern Mediterranean, according to a report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences [NAS]. The report examines a three-year drought and famine in rural northeastern Syria and part of Iraq, the heart of the Fertile Crescent that spawned ancient Mesopotamian civilization. The 2007-10 drought, the worst since records were kept, was followed by the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. Farmland became a desert of parched, hard, dry, cracked earth, hundreds of villages were abandoned, and sandstorms swept the land, reportedly burying hundreds of villages in Iraq. Farmers and herders lost almost all their livestock, 85 percent by one estimate. Homeless and destitute, as many as 1.5 million migrated to the outskirts of southern Syria cities, packed in ragged tent towns. With the loss of its best farmland, beset also by failed government agricultural policies, Syria had to import grain. Prices of wheat, rice, and feed doubled.

Authors of the NAS paper found no apparent natural cause for long-term warming and atmospheric pressure trends, but said the trends are consistent with “the response to increases in greenhouse gases. Furthermore, model studies show an increasingly drier and hotter future mean climate for the Eastern Mediterranean.”[xvii]

Civil wars in Sudan, South Sudan, and Yemen have also been related to famine. At least five million Sudanese—among millions of others—have been displaced while 2.6 million have died from starvation, disease, and fighting. A famine is defined as two starvation deaths per day per 10,000 people. For 20 million people, that implies at least 4,000 deaths per day, not counting war, other violence, and disease.

The greatest prosperity and highest living standards the world has ever known, the unfolding global catastrophes, and the risk of extinction, all started with the plants that grew in that first Carbon Period more than 300 million years ago.


[1] Plants also need nitrogen fertilizer, but neither plants nor people can use the inert nitrogen that is more than three-quarters of our atmosphere. The inert nitrogen must be split and formed into a chemical compound. Lightning can do that. It can split atmospheric nitrogen and flash-weld into ammonia (NH3), which falls to earth as one source of nitrogenous fertilizer. To the extent that higher temperatures induce more lightning, global warming might add a bit of fertilizer to accompany the increased CO2 volume.

[i] “Phanerozoic and Precambrian Chronostratigraphy 2016,” Geologic Time Scale Foundation, https://engineering.purdue.edu/stratigraphy and the ICS www.stratigraphy.org.

[ii] Robert A. Berner and Zavareth Kothavala, “Geocarb III: A Revised Model of Atmospheric CO2 over Phanerozoic Time.” American Journal of Science, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 182-204.]

[iii] Anthony J. McMichael, Climate and the Health of Nations,” Advance reading copy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017, p.27.

[iv] Total coal deposits estimated at about 20 trillion short tons (most still undiscovered, buried too deep or otherwise inaccessible to be economically mined, and almost certainly never needed). U.S. has estimated 3.9 trillion feet, about one-fifth of the world total, U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates, https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.cfm?page=coal_reserves.

One ton coal=40 cubic feet, based on average weight of 50 pounds per cubic foot, https://www.reference.com/science/bulk-density-coal-e55167b75b4deafc. One square mile coal 10 feet deep is 5,280x5280x10=278,784,000 cubic feet / 40 = 8,000,000 tons of coal.

20,000,000,000,000 tons / 8,000,000 = 2.5 million square miles.

[v] Isabel Patricia Montoñez, “A Late Paleozoic climate window of opportunity,” Proceedings the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 113, no. 9, March 1, 2016, pp. 2344-2336.

[vi] Monte Hiebe, Plant Fossils of Western Virginia. “Climate and the Carboniferous Period.” Geocraft. http://www.geocraft.com/WVFossils/Carboniferous_climate.html Accessed June 17, 2017.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Matthew Nelsen et al, “Delayed fungal evolution did not cause the Paleozoic peak in coal production,” Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 13. No. 9 March 1, 2016, pp. 2442-47.

[ix] Guy Gugliotta, Smithsonian, July 2009, pp.14-17, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-worlds-largest-fossil-wilderness-30745943/, accessed June 27, 2016.

[x] Nelson et al.

[xi] Montoñez.

[xii] S.H. Wittwer and Wm. Robb, “Carbon Dioxide Enrichment of Greenhouse Atmosphere,” Economic Botany, vol. 18, no. 1 (January-March 1964), pp34-56.

[xiii] Irakli Loladze, “Rising atmospheric CO2 and human nutrition: toward globally imbalanced plant stoichiometry?” TRENDS in Ecology & Evolution, Vol.17 No.10 October 2002.

[xiv] Graham Lawton, “Plague of Plenty,” New Scientist, 176.2371 (Nov. 30, 2002

[xv] Samuel S. Myers et al, Nature, no. 510, pp. 139-142, accessed June 5, 2014.

[xvi] McMichael, pp. 232, 238-39, 290-91.

[xvii] Colin P. Kelly et al. “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 112, no. 11, March 17, 2015., pp. 3,241-46. Robert E. Worth. “Earth is Parched Where Syrian Farmers Thrived,” New York Times, October 13, 2010. McMichael, p. 392.

2 thoughts on “350 million years ago. Source of prosperity, poverty, global warming, drought, famine and war.

  1. Another interesting essay, Earle.

    What I have noticed over the past few years in Lindsay is consistently higher wind. Sometimes I can lean into it and it holds me up.

    Last night BBC reported 150,000 Europeans are predicted to die, each year, from heat waves going forward.

    This all reminds me of the description of humans in verse three of Woodstock by Joni Mitchell:

    “We are stardust, we are golden,
    Billion year old carbon”


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