THE FIRE PLANET
Ager's 1973 book The Nature of the Stratigraphical Record had been recommended to me by Ager himself (CG 1-1, p.4) and by Brouwer (CG 1-1, p.8), and I duely acquired a copy and read it. It occurred to me as singularly insignificant, somewhat like a treatise on the danger of knitting-needles written during a world war. This was in 1976, the year when some God in his infinite goodness, most probably Poseidon, revealed the Martian Deluge to the uniformitarians, and then went to Mount Olympus, and sat down to have a good Homeric laugh. In Ager's book I stumbled specially on one passage about a thin charcoal layer found in southern England and dating from the Alleroed interstadial of the last Ice Age - and I challenged Ager's interpretation of the layer.
1976 (Catastrophist Geology 1-2, p.57) After a banquet in ancient Greece, guests received some eatable or drinkable gifts, APOPHORETA - 'things to be carried off', to take home. On this page a column is published in which provocative hypotheses are presented. They may serve to stimulate thought and research - and the correspondence for the 'Comments' column of this journal.
In their investigation of core samples from the Gulf of Mexico, Emiliani et al.(Science 1975,189:1083-88) discovered a section nearly two meters in thickness that yielded radiocarbon ages of about 25,000 years B.P. The section is overlain by 3.5 metres of sediment deposited in the subsequent period until the present. The section of interest contains samples with increased O-18 concentration in foraminiferal shells, which according to Emiliani et al "may represent an excess of evaporation in the Gulf of Mexico". The upper part of the section revealed "a temporary, drastic decrease in the abundance of Globorotalia Inflata. Although this could be due to a very short episode of high temperature, we are more inclined to assign it to a temporary non-linear behavior of the species in question. Examples of such behavior are known and will be discussed below". The core under study "has failed to reveal any evidence of sedimentary disturbance, including turbidite deposition."
In The Nature of the Stratigraphical Record (Halsted Press, 1973), Ager relates the following on page 40: "Along the chalk downs in southern England there are a number of short, steepsided dry valleys traditionally blamed on the devil (for instance, Devil's Dyke near Brighton). These have been gouged out of the hills, probably under periglacial conditions, and their debris spread on the lowlands below. From careful work on the snail faunas of the chalk sludge from one of these (the Devil's Kneading Trough in Kent) Dr Michael Kerney showed that the erosion must have happened in a very short time indeed. Within the sludge there is a clear black horizon, only an inch or so thick, which has now been recognised all over southern Britain. The black colouration is due to charcoal fragments from burnt wood. In fact, at one stage in this study our thoughts ran on catastrophisms of a biblical kind and we pictured half-seriously a universal conflagration to account for the black band. It is more likely, however, that it represents a short period of dry climate when there were frequent brush fires. The snail fauna suggests the same thing and enabled the bed to be correlated with the Alleroed oscillation of Denmark and northern Europe generally. This was a brief episode of climatic amelioration after the last glaciation. The charcoal made it possible to get a carbon-14 date on the deposit, giving an age of about 10,770 years before the present. This fits all over Europe and correlated remarkably well with the Two Creeks horizon of the same kind around the Great Lakes in North America."
Neither Emiliani et al nor Ager specify why they adopted a more conventional (uniformitarian) hypothesis in preference to a catastrophist one which assumes a very short episode of high temperature and a universal conflagration. The fact that I stumble over such passages without looking for them makes me wonder whether many more possible indications of fiery conflagrations in the geological recent past are being explained away in the conventional literature? What if we started looking for them?
1977: AN ALLEROED CONFLAGRATION?
(Catastrophist Geology 2-1, p.13-15)
(Comments on Apophoreta-2)
I think that the basic point I made in my 1975 paper in SCIENCE was not the behavior of Globorotalia inflata but the huge ice melting that took place about 11,600 years ago. Question: did the ice melt by surging under its own weight (mecanical collapse) and therefore temperature rose (Allerod), OR did temperature rise and therefore ice melted? If the latter alternative is correct, what produced the extremely rapid temperature rise? Something unusual, in any case, seems to have happened at that time. I have now run a second core from the Gulf of Mexico which confirms what we had previously found.
Department of Geology
University of Miami
Miami, Florida, USA
P.S. I have ordered a subscription to Catastrophist Geology for our department.
I am sorry but I was really being light-hearted; the key word in the passage you quote is "half-seriously". I put the remark in really as a joke - it's just my way and it seems to work - at least with students. As Sydney Smith said, "You must not think me necessarily foolish because I am facetious". The idea of a universal conflagration was just the sort of funny idea one casts off as a humorous aside, but it is so preposterous a notion as to not need taking seriously. That does not mean conservative narrow-mindedness, it is the fine old scientific principle of "economy of hypothesis" or "Occam's razor". One goes for the simplest solution first rather than deliberately postulating something which requires a much more difficult mechanism. In this case a "universal conflagration" (if possible) would certainly not last long enough to leave any sort of recognizable stratigraphical record, whereas a few centuries or millennia of occasional heath or forest fires, during a particular dry spell, would probably do so without requiring any special mechanism.
Dpt. of Geology and Oceanography
University College of Swansea
After a forest fire the forest usually recovers, and the ashes are incorporated in the humus layer. But you speak of "..a clear black horizon, only an inch or so thick", which is found interbedded with the debris from an erosion that "must have happened in a very short time indeed". That the layer is preserved would indicate that it was covered with sediments immediately after its formation. This leaves us with only one enormous forest fire, which is moreover correlatable from southern England to the Great Lakes of North America. Doesn't that sound somewhat like a universal conflagration? I wonder whether the sedimentary layers under the black horizon are disturbed by roots, in other words whether the material was carbonised in place or came from the surroundings by the action of wind and/or water?
We must clearly agree to differ about this. The dark band I refer to marks the Alleroed oscillation in southern England, which is dated (so far as I recall) as between 11000 and 8000 B.P. Its dark colouration is due to very small fragments of charcoal and I see no reason why these should not have accumulated over a very long period of time. It proved quite difficult to accumulate enough pure charcoal to get the carbon date we did, and the date arrived at was certainly not an indication of accumulation in a single year, or anything like it. The correlation with the Two Creeks horizon in North America and elsewhere in Europe was on the basis of a short-lived climatic amelioration of the same age. I had no intention whatever of implying a "conflagration", on any scale, throughout this vast area and I don't think what I wrote in my book suggests that I do. I have never seen the Two Creeks horizon, all I know about it is what I have read of the forests spreading north at this time and then being pushed over by the ice as it moved south again.
I cannot remember seeing any roots below the band, which is contained within a fairly pure white mud derived as hill-wash from the neighbouring chalk hills. The absence of any sizable fragments of wood or charcoal confirms the evidence from the snails that this was heath or scrub-land rather than forest. I doubt if such plants would leave much in the way of root traces, but in any the case I am thinking of something like Macbeth's "blasted heath" with dry dusty material blowing backwards and forwards, without any accumulation of sediment, over hundreds of years. The shear abundance of the snails at this level compared with those in equivalent thicknesses above and below suggests to me that deposition was extremely slow.
We should be careful here not to prefer a gradual mechanism over a sudden one on purely emotional grounds. There lingers a deep distrust of the religious establishment, which is, I think, very understandable and historically justified. But such a distrust is directed against a powerful and repressive religious establishment as it was over a century ago, and if we continue Darwin's and Thomas Huxley's fight we would be battling windmills.
Let me make clear that I am not in favour of a catastrophist interpretaion of the black layer. For one, I have never seen it. But I am strongly in favour of considering the possibility. If you do not wish to do that without using a stringent argument, you should rather be classified as a crypto-uniformitarian, and not as a neo-catastrophist as you have called yourself.
So, in the case of these Devil's Valleys, I want to take up the role of advocatus diaboli, and I have written to the Smithsonian's Center for Shortlived Phenomena, Massachusets, and also to Mr.X, an anonymous Fortean scholar in Kingston, Canada. I received several data on sudden infestations of snails, from Helix virgata to the giant African snail, Achatina fulica. As a rule such infestations seem to occur after heavy rains. Also, a plague of the giant African snail occurred in Ceylon in 1911 (Charles Fort: Lo!) and another in Florida in 1969 (Center for Shortlived Phenomena, event No. 121-69). Some kind of disequilibrium seems to be involved, whether meteorological or ecological. So, the abundance of snail shells in the debris of the Devil's Valleys might point to a disruption of the ecology due to a "fiery catastrophe", accompanied by heavy rains causing gulley erosion. There is also another argument against a gradualistic explanation of the dark band (living in Brasil I should have thought of that before). In tropical countries pastures and savannas are burnt every year. In parts of Brasil this practice has been going on for nearly 500 years now, not counting the presumably less intensive burning in pre-Columbian times. No charcoal-rich layer is formed anywhere, the ash is incorporated into the humus layer or washed away.
Two large problems seem to haunt your pages, both connected with time: dates are strewn about, and homeless catastrophes range around the text. For the ash layers in England and the U.S., mentioned in Apophoreta-2, the following quotes may be relevant (from Wendorf F., Said R., Schild R., 1970: Egyptian prehistory: some new concepts. Science 169(3951): 1161-71): p.1166: "(..) a burnt layer believed to be an important regional chrono-stratigraphic marker. This marker appears to have been caused by a wide spread brush fire which seemingly swept over the vegetation along the (Nile) valley for a distance of almost 200 kilometers on both side of the river. Evidence of this fire was observed at several localities near the top of the Sahaba silt from Esna northward to beyond Qena." "Carbonaceos silt from this brush fire yielded a date of 10,550 B.C.~230 years" p.1167: "There is clear evidence in both Nubia and Upper Egypt that around 10.000 B.C. or slightly later the level of the Nile fel significantly from the maximum attained during the aggradation of the Sahaba silts." p.1168: "The Dishna recession appears to have been brief. In Nubia, silts of the Arkin formation began aggrading around 9200 B.C. (..)" p.1170: "(..) the Dishna episode, dating between 10,000 and 9,000 B.C., may be roughly correlated with the Older Dryas (10,000 to 9,800 B.C.) and the Alleroed (9,800 to 8,900 B.C.)".
I have little doubt that in other parts of the world already more such layers, dating from the same period, have been described, but it will take some time and determination to dig them out of the literature.