Sunday, February 10, 2008

Coal and Creationism

Not too long ago, I ran across a creationist argument that I found particularly galling. Briefly, some Creationists have been running around telling folks that some coals, particularly those from the western U.S., have been able to be radiocarbon dated. These coals, (most from the Bighorn Basin in WY) were deposited in the Paleocene-Eocene, ~65-50 Million years ago (Mya). Coal deposits are formed by the accumulation of biomass (often plants) and its subsequent burial and compaction. In the case of the Bighorn Basin coals, these were deposited in extensive swamps that persisted for some time.

The Creationists’ point is that GEOLOGISTS say these deposits are many millions of years old, BUT if they can be radiocarbon dated, they must have 14C (carbon’s radio-isotope). 14C has a half-life of ~50-60,000 years (for more info on radiocarbon dating, I suggest going to; so, to the Creationists this PROVES that geologists are morons and a magic man in the sky made everything.

Like everything Creationists say or think or believe, they have got this one all wrong. It is true that some coals do have some 14C in them, but the ORIGIN of that 14C is not necessarily related to the time of deposition for that coal. In other words, that 14C has been made in place (in situ in the science parlance) within the coal, a longtime AFTER its burial and formation.
A paper by David C. Lowe (1989, Radiocarbon v. 31, n. 2, p. 117-120: a .pdf can be found at was the first (to my knowledge) paper to raise this question, and provide a plausible explanation for the discrepancy. Lowe shows how bacteria and fungi living in the coal substrate can degrade lignite as part of their own biological activity; where there is life, there is radioactive carbon being formed. Lowe shows how formation and deposition of just 0.1% by weight of modern 14C could produce a date of 45,000 years. Additionally, Lowe mentions how the decay of uranium/thorium in the coal could also lead to the production of radium, which in its decay could produce 14C.

So, once again, the whole Creationist argument is a tempest in a teacup; scientists knew about the finite 14C age dates derived from older coals, and have subsequently explained their occurrence through a very parsimonious mechanism. Instead of having to throw out the whole body of geological observations, theory, and knowledge we’ve accumulated over the past two hundred years, we were able to provide conclusive evidence for how old coals could exhibit young dates.

The really ridiculous thing is how intellectually dishonest these Creationists are. First and foremost, whichever bible-thumping troglodyte first put forward this “evidence” for creationism MUST have run across Lowe (1989). So either they didn’t bother to actually READ the paper (where the young age is explained as an artifact of modern processes) or they IGNORED that part and tried to manufacture a controversy.

Additionally, the entire Creationist argument hinges on the ACCEPTANCE of radiocarbon dating methods, which still showed the carbon dates to be 45000 years. That’s a bit older than 6000 years, fellas. On one hand, these people will tell you that radiometric dating techniques are all nonsense. Then, on the other hand, they’ll bring up this little gem, and try and tell you how the radiocarbon dates show coals are much younger. You can’t have it both ways, folks.


Anonymous said...

It is about time you stopped calling Creationists stupid (or to that effect), and recognise that efforts to extend radio-carbon dating back in time will have to properly address what the coal seams are saying. Modern C14 is generated in the upper atmospher where radiation is >1000 times that at ground level. There is a rough radio carbon age for typical coal of 40,000 years which equates to a background radiation level of about ~100 times that of ground level. How is the to be explained when the radiation has to go through rock Which is why neutrino detectors are sited underground. Phenomena such as these need proper quantification, not rude comments.

Anonymous said...

No. It is about time creationists stopped reasoning in a stupid way. Always, whenever scientists find something that is remotely paradoxical, creationists say the world is 6000 years old. Whenever scientists have a disagreement, creationists say evolution doesn't exist. Whenever scientists cannot explain something, creationists say god must have done it. Rather than trying to understand how scientists come up with questions and answers, creationists think they already have all the answers they need and question only the people who actually do the creative thinking. And yes, that is stupid.

Unknown said...

Is a brown colored coal that is a soft fuel with characteristics that put it somewhere between coal and peat. This coal has a carbon content of around 25-35%. The carbon content is an indicator or its purity for fuel. Having a high moisture content of brown coal, carbon dioxide emissions from brown coal fired plants are generally much higher than for comparable black coal plants. This is clearly not a home heating type of coal.

Coal India