What Spirit Lake and Mount Saint Helens Teaches Us About the Origins of Coal.

By JR1 | JR1 | 15 Mar 2021

Today I learned what Spirit Lake and Mt. St. Helens teaches us about the origins of coal.

This article will discuss (1) Popular Theory on Coal Origins, (2) A New Theory Emerges, and (3) What does Spirit Lake and Mt. St. Helens have to do with coal.


1. Popular Theory on Coal Origins

It is generally accepted that most coals formed from plants that grew in or adjacent to swamps in warm, humid regions millions or billions of years ago (aka “swamp theory”) [1].

It is thought that material derived from these plants accumulated over thousands of years in wet low-lying areas and was converted to peat (precursor material from which coals are derived) through the activity of microorganisms. According to Britannica, this organic material (peat) continued to accumulate over tens of thousands of years and was later converted into coal [1].

The popular “swamp theory” estimates it takes 1,000 years to create one inch of peat.

Differing eras of coal formation range from the Proterozoic Eon (approximately 2.5 billion - 541 million years ago) where Anthracite material (the highest coal rank) was formed by algae, to the Cretaceous Period (145 million years ago) considered to be “the younger era of coal formation” [1].


2. A New Theory Emerges

After spending years studying coal beds in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and various areas across the Eastern United States, Dr. Steve Austin realized the “swamp theory” could not explain the abundant sheets of tree bark found in the layers of coal.

In 1979, Dr. Austin presented his dissertation on a new theory to explain the formation of a coal bed in Kentucky, titled “Floating Mat Model for Origin of Coal.”


TDLR of the dissertation: the Kentucky coal bed was formed by a “floating mat” of foliage that rubbed together due to the water’s movement. This resulted in the bark and water soaked plant material (peat), being deposited at the bottom of the body of water.

Dr. Austin believed it was possible for the peat and coal bed to be formed rapidly and did not require millions or billions of years.

It was unknown to Dr. Austin at the time, but he was just 10 months away from having the perfect opportunity to observe and test the validity of his new theory.


3. What does Spirit Lake and Mt. St. Helens have to do with coal?

Background: The Build-Up

In the early spring of 1980, the pressures within Mt. St. Helens had reached the point of instability and the volcano’s cryptodome (side or body of a volcano) was creeping rapidly toward failure [2].

At 8:32am on May 18, 1980, a magnitude 5.1 earthquake under Mount St. Helens dislodged the north slope of the volcano [2].

This abrupt pressure release expanded explosively, initiating a hydrothermal blast directed laterally, resulting in a massive landslide that flowed into Spirit Lake [2].



Image: Aerial view of Spirit Lake and Mt. St. Helens [3]


Aftermath: The Mount St. Helens Incident

The force of the resulting landslide was so great that it pushed the water from Spirit Lake up, approximately 860 feet, on to the side of nearby Mount Margaret. 

Ripping all the trees and plant life from the side of Mt. Margaret, the water then circled the basin around the lake and created a type of “scour vortex” according to Dr. Austin [4] . This vortex tore millions of trees and plants from the surrounding landscape, ultimately dragging them back into the lake.

The images below show the devastating impact this incident had on the area.




In the 40 years since the Mt. St Helens eruption, Dr. Austin has dedicated his time to studying the floating foliage and learning all he could in hopes of testing the hypothesis outlined in his dissertation.

Dr. Austin has observed, “Most of the plants and logs initially floated horizontally on the surface of the water,” rubbing against one another stripping the bark and branches (image below).


Over time, the root-end of the plant gets soaked with water, becoming heavy, causing the plant to begin to float in an upright position (image below).



As the plant becomes more waterlogged and heavier it eventually sinks, oftentimes standing upright at the bottom of the lake.

While diving in Spirit Lake to observe this phenomenon, Dr. Austin noticed, “large logs with root mass […] at the bottom of the lake. Just standing there as if the tree grew there at the bottom of the lake” [4].

Sonar readings of the lakebed showed over 10,000 logs standing vertically, making the bottom of Spirit Lake appear as if a forest initially grew there prior to the lake’s formation (sonar image below) [4].


Throughout the 40 years of observation, Dr. Austin noted that the various trees and plants floating on Spirit Lake do not float for the same duration. For instance, the Noble Fir and Silver Fir were some of the first types of foliage to sink to the bottom. It is estimated, at this time, over 50% of all the plants and trees have deposited at the bottom of Spirit Lake and the only species still floating is the Douglas Fir [5].

What can now be observed at the bottom of Spirit Lake are essentially species stratified layers of plant deposits formed over the last 40 years caused by the different floating durations of the various plant species (image illustration below) [5].


Say 500 years in the future, the lake dries up, and scientists are analyzing the area. Dr. Austin says it would resemble a series of forests that grew at different times, one on top of the other. “Isn’t that the natural way to think? Here is the forest that is growing here today, there is the ancient forest that grew there […] thousands of years ago.” Imagine climate changes resulting in an “ecological succession of forests” with different types of plants growing in each forest [5].

With over a million plants initially floating in Spirit lake, the bark and waterlogged plant matter milled from the foliage has begun to settle amongst the layers of plants on the bottom of the lake [5].

As previously mentioned, the popular “swamp theory” estimates it takes 1,000 years to create one inch of peat. However, what can be found at the bottom of Spirit Lake is a thick layer of peat well over 30 inches deep that has been created in only 40 years.

“The plant material (peat) that accumulated in the bottom of this lake is very much, in the texture and composition, like the coal beds in the Eastern United States” said Dr. Austin [5].

The eruption of Mt. St. Helens resulted in turning Spirit Lake into, what Dr. Austin describes as, the precursor of a coal bed. While this is the first step to creating a coal bed, “we have not completed the coal bed operation” says Dr. Austin. A future mudslide, summit avalanche deposit, or volcanic eruption are a few of the numerous events that could finalize this process, by compacting the mass amounts of peat found at the bottom of Spirit Lake [5].

Dr. Austin believes that a survey of the lowest levels of the sediment, being compacted by all subsequent layers, could possibly show coal is already being created. When asked if he thought this process could produce coal in that short of time, Dr. Austin replied, “I do. I think it can” [5].


What does Spirit Lake and Mt. St. Helens teach us about the origins of coal?

While some coal beds may have been created over long periods of time, it is possible for this process to take place in just a few decades and it does not require millions or billions of years.

Heck, we can produce coal from start to finish in about 7 days in a laboratory. What made us think there was not a faster way for mother nature to do the same?


[1]  Origin Of Coal – Britannica
[2]  1980 Cataclysmic Eruption – USGS.gov
[3]  Volcano World: Mt. St. Helens – Oregon State University
[4]  How does the log mat at Mount St. Helens help explain the origin of Coal? - Dr. Steve Austin
[5]  What Do Floating Log Mats Have to Do with Noah's Flood? - Dr. Steve Austin 

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