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Volcanoes erupt coal – Fox News 8 January 2010

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Everything you thought you knew about geology is wrong. Allow Fox News to open your eyes:

The tremendous volcanic eruption thought to be responsible for Earth’s largest mass extinction — which killed more than 70 percent of plants and dinosaurs walking the planet 250 million years ago — is still taking lives today.

Scientists investigating the high incidence of lung cancer in China’s Xuan Wei County in Yunnan Province conclude that the problem lies with the coal residents use to heat their homes. That coal was formed by the same 250-million-year-old giant volcanic eruption — termed a supervolcano — that was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs. The high silica content of that coal is interacting with volatile organic matter in the soil to cause the unusually high rates of lung cancer.

That’s right – the dinosaurs were killed off 250 million years ago (the end of the Permian) before they had got around to evolving (which happened after the Permian, in the Triassic and Jurassic, hence there wasn’t a dinosaur movie called Permian Park), and they were killed off by volcanoes that erupted coal.

Heaven knows what the authors of the serious and interesting article upon which this travesty is based think about it all. This is what is actually being argued:

From a geological perspective an aspect of this coal that has not been considered and could have produced coal with unusual properties is its paleogeography and geological setting, precisely adjacent to the Permo-Triassic Boundary (PTB). This geological boundary coincides with the largest known mass extinction event, an event that resulted from a major geochemical perturbation of the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere and may have influenced the coal chemistry. This creates the fascinating prospect that the environmental conditions that resulted in the extinction event may have produced particularly toxic coal chemistry that is affecting the people using it today.

(To be fair to Fox News they do say near the end of the article that ‘massive volcanic eruptions worked to deposit silica in the peat that formed Xuan Wei’s coal’, which is a bit closer to the mark than claiming that the coal ‘was formed by’ a ‘giant volcanic eruption’ … but they also repeat the claim that the PTB geological boundary ‘coincides with the mass extinction of the dinosaurs’.)

UPDATE. While I was writing this Chris Rowan has expertly had his say at Highly Allocthonous: Fox News: volcanic coal kills off dinosaurs before they even evolved.

The Volcanism Blog


1. Chris Rowan - 8 January 2010

Thanks for the link – nice to know someone thinks this is as awful as I do.

Out of interest: is it really valid to refer to flood basalts like the Siberian Traps as ‘supervolcanoes’? Or is the term only quasi-scientific to start with? I always thought it referred to large caldera eruptions.

2. admin - 8 January 2010

There seem to be two ways ‘supervolcano’ is used. One tries to retain scientific validity by applying the term to very rare and very large volcanic eruptions (see the USGS ‘questions about supervolcanoes’ page at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory*), and which does basically relate to large caldera events. The other is the much vaguer Discovery Channel version which is more interested in the ‘doomsday’ factor than any particular scientific meaning: a supervolcano is just huge, destructive and doomy, and flood basalts are fine for that. The best thing, I think, is to try not to use the term at all. It isn’t really helpful in any way.

As for the Fox story, yes, I think it’s absolutely awful. American friends tell me I shouldn’t be surprised at how trashy and dumb Fox News can be, but it still shocks me.

Thanks for linking back.

* http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/yvo/about/faq/faqsupervolcano.php

3. Chance Metz - 8 January 2010

Dumb an dtashy how about we just ban Fox News from showing anything realated to science since they have no clue what it is. Better yet stop spewing all of this poltical garbage on global warming everyday like a volcano erupting and spewing steam.

4. mark - 9 January 2010

Did that eruption cause The Flood? How did Fred Flintstone survive? Fox should have checked with their topnotch scientist, Bill “There’s-24-hours-in-a-day–that’s-science” O’Reilly for confirmation.

5. LT - 9 January 2010

It says that 70% of the dinosaurs were wiped out 250 million years ago. That’s correct, no?

6. LT - 9 January 2010

No no no. I’m wrong. massive extinction, yes, dinosaurs, no.


7. Boris Behncke - 10 January 2010

I agree that the term “supervolcano” should be rather avoided, if not abolished at all, because it’s sensationalistic (volcanoes are sensational as they are, without being “super”), and because “super” means “more than”, so it’s like saying they’re actually something beyond volcanoes. Huh??? After all, Yellowstone, Toba, the Large Igneous Provinces, are still volcanoes, only that they’re capable of producing really large eruptions.

8. Steve - 12 January 2010

Well hat do you expect from Fox News. The person who owns that also owns the Sun Newspaper in Britain (I use the term newspaper, in the loosest possible terms). As this publishied toilet paper is often full of C#?P.

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