Is Antarctica on your bucket list of vacation destinations? It’s on mine!
What could possibly be of interest in Antarctica? After all, the continent at the bottom of the world is covered in ice and snow, and the temperatures are always below freezing. As the coldest, driest continent, it has one of the harshest environments on the planet and harbors a world of extremes. Turbulent winds and snowstorms can last days and even weeks, and the endless barren terrain makes Antarctica the world’s largest desert!
For half the year it’s a polar summer, when the unforgiving sun shines 24/7. Then, during the six months of the polar winter, the continent plunges into complete darkness.
So why would I be interested in visiting Antarctica? Well, to see rocks, of course! I’m a geologist.
Unlike the Arctic, which is simply an ice sheet floating on the ocean, Antarctica is composed of rock covered in ice and snow. Huge jagged mountain ranges jut up through nearly a mile of ice and snow, exposing rocks with all sorts of treasures, if you know what to look for.
Just two summers ago, a team was surprised to discover not just one but five “forests” piled on top of each other. They claimed the supposedly 260-million-year-old fossils represent a series of different forests that grew slowly and were buried one on top of the other over millions of years. They were looking for clues to understand how climate changes contributed to their extinction.
Finding such mysteries then putting them in the biblical perspective is why I love my profession and want to visit places most people would never consider.
Found—Fossil “Forests” of a Strange Extinct Plant
The team was led by Erik Gulbranson, a professor of geosciences at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, who set up camp in the central Transantarctic Mountains. They found several layers of tree stumps buried upright with parts of their roots still connected. They also found impressions of long, broad, flat leaves jumbled together in massive mats.1
These remains have been identified as fossils of an unusual extinct plant called Glossopteris, which is unlike any plant alive today. Pieces of this plant are commonly found in large Permian coal beds that are mined throughout the southern hemisphere, such as in Australia and South Africa.
The discovery of these plants wasn’t the big surprise. In previous expeditions the same team found similar “fossil” forests in the same rock unit in the central Transantarctic Mountains. Lab studies confirmed that all the fossil wood specimens belonged to the same genus, Glossopteris.
But their earlier analysis uncovered a surprise. The long-held assumption was that the Glossopteris plant was strictly deciduous (meaning its leaves drop annually in the autumn). Scientists made this assumption because they usually find their fossil leaves in mats, similar to thick mats on the floors of modern deciduous forests. The new analysis showed they were a mix of deciduous and evergreen trees. How could this be?
Based on their evolutionary assumptions about slow changes over millions of years, scientists suggested a possible explanation. They claimed that earth’s cooling climate had forced these late Permian polar forests to adapt to environmental stresses. The accumulation of these stresses ultimately caused their extinction.
The Five New Fossil “Forests”
The team was jubilant during their most recent expedition in late 2017, when they discovered five new fossil “forests” stacked on top of each other. Comparing the leaves in the various layers, they believed it confirmed their initial conjecture that these normally deciduous Glossopteris trees were changing into evergreens due to the environmental pressures prior to the mass extinction event at the end of the Permian.
The scientists claim these large trees grew in Antarctica some 260 million years ago (in the late Permian). They also believe sediment layers accumulated slowly around each forest of trees to bury and fossilize it. Later, another forest grew in place on top of those accumulated sediments before it, too, was slowly engulfed. Thus, five successive forests grew and were buried and fossilized in place over millions of years.
When these forests were growing, they say, Antarctica was already within the polar circle as part of an amalgamation of continental fragments in the southern supercontinent Gondwana that eventually became part of the even bigger supercontinent Pangaea. Even though Antarctica stayed geographically positioned in southern polar latitudes, evolutionists believe that these trees thrived in a much warmer climate.
Layers of Interpretation
However, it’s critical to separate the careful, observational science and the layers of interpretation based on assumptions.
These scientists have made meticulous measurements of the sizes of the fossilized stems and the spacing between the stumps. But they assume the distances between the stumps indicate something about the densities of the forests.
By looking closely at the sizes of the stumps, they also calculate the likely heights of the trees. The largest stump was almost 2 feet in diameter, so that tree was estimated to have been over 100 feet tall before it was destroyed.2
They also analyze the rocks in the sedimentary beds where the tree stumps appear, and they assume that these are the “fossilized” soils where the trees once grew. Since these sedimentary rocks and leaf mats were deposited by water, they assume they represent sediment accumulated on a former river floodplain.
Back in the laboratory, these scientists counted the growth rings of the fossil tree trunks and measured their widths. They also intensely studied the growth rings under a microscope. In modern trees, we know that their annual growth rings differ depending on the climate. So, based on their measurements of the fossil tree rings, these scientists assumed we could interpret the changing environmental stresses that each forest faced.
Gulbranson also commented that the wood is so well preserved it contains fossilized plant cells that are virtually mummified, “preserved down to the cellular level.” They could even extract some of the amino acid building blocks that made up the trees’ proteins.
A Creationist Perspective
Scientists who start with the Bible’s history will look at the same evidence—the stumps, the leaf mats, and the sediment—but interpret it very differently because of their different assumptions.
Scientists who start with the Bible’s history will look at the same evidence—the stumps, the leaf mats, and the sediment—but interpret it very differently because of their different assumptions. They also notice details that secular scientists sometimes miss because they don’t fit their assumptions.
Stumps, Not Complete Trees
Let’s start with an observation about the stumps. The published photos of these fossil tree stumps show “intact” roots branching from the bases of the stems. But closer inspection reveals the ends of the roots are missing, having been broken off. So these trees didn’t grow where they are now buried! Instead, they must have grown somewhere else, and then been uprooted and transported by the same water that carried and deposited the sediments in which they are buried.
A further clue is Gulbranson’s reported statement that “the fossilized trees look a lot like the petrified forests of Yellowstone National Park.” Decades ago, creationists studied this supposed “series” of petrified forests at Yellowstone and showed that, instead, it indicates a single event, that all the layers settled out at about the same time from the same tree-choked slurry.
Like the tree stumps in Antarctica, the ones at Yellowstone also had their roots broken off when they were uprooted and transported from where they grew elsewhere. The best analogy for the observed features of these tree stumps in both Yellowstone and Antarctica is what happened to the trees uprooted by the May 18, 1980, volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens when they ended up buried upright in a series of sediments on the bottom of nearby Spirit Lake.3
Thus, these are not fossil “forests” but tree stumps buried rapidly and sequentially in upright positions by waterborne sediments.
Leaf Mats Laid by Water, Not Autumn
Another clue that all these layers came from the same flood waters is that the wood, bark, twigs, and leaves of these same Glossopteris trees are found buried in coal beds in the same rock unit throughout the southern hemisphere. A similar bed of organic debris accumulated rapidly on the bottom of Spirit Lake after the Mount St. Helens catastrophe.
Waterborne Sediment, Not Soil
Since the tree stumps were washed in with the sediments that now entomb them, those sediments were never a “fossil” soil. Nor were the sediments deposited on a former river floodplain. Instead, they catastrophically accumulated during the global Genesis flood cataclysm only about 4,350 years ago. Indeed, they had to accumulate very rapidly and recently for even proteins and original amino acids to be preserved in the fossilized wood cells.
There was no end-Permian mass extinction during which these trees got environmentally stressed. Instead, these trees grew on the supercontinent of the pre-flood world but were destroyed during the flood cataclysm like billions of other plants and animals.4 They became extinct because they didn’t survive through the flood into today’s post-flood world.
What about the slight chemical differences between the different layers? We need to remember that the forests that grew on the pre-flood supercontinent were in a different location than they are today, and they went through a lot before they reached their final resting place. The supercontinent broke apart into smaller continents at the beginning of the flood, and the forest fragments moved around before the sediments were deposited on these continents in different latitudes.5
When the tree stumps were deposited on the Antarctica fragment, it was already close to its present polar location. So their growth rings and leaves don’t reflect the climate in Antarctica where they were buried.
Wearing our biblical “glasses” allows us to view the same evidence but to see how it confirms God’s eyewitness record of the earth’s history, the Bible. These fossilized tree stumps are not a record of life evolving over millions of years, but a warning of the coming eternal judgment for those who follow human reasoning alone, rather than first trusting in God and his Word.
That’s why I love what I do and will take a vacation to Antarctica if the opportunity ever arises!