Found after 300m years: rainforest fossils show how climate change could look

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A series of fossilised forests the size of small cities have provided prehistoric evidence of how tropical rainforests are destroyed by global warming.

The fossil remains represent the first rainforests grown on the planet and their demise more than 300million years ago “points to the future” of the modern-day Amazon.

Six petrified forests, dating from 303.9 million to 309 million years ago, have been discovered in coalmines in the United States. Because they straddle a period of intense global warming researchers have been able to see the effects of climate change on an ancient landscape.

One forest that stretched 10,000 hectares (100 sq km) is the largest fossil forest yet found, dwarfing a 1,000ha forest that was announced last year as the biggest.

Howard Falcon-Lang, of the University of Bristol, said that the forests were frozen in time and show changes in the tree cover before and after the global warming began.

Fossils reveal that the landscape now deep beneath Illinois and Kentucky was covered in huge club moss trees, horsetails and ferns 309 million years ago. Once global warming had taken place 306.5 million years ago, the landscape altered enormously and the trees were replaced with “weedy ferns”.

“These are the remains of the first rainforests to evolve on our planet,” Dr Falcon-Lang said at the British Association yesterday. “They had lush rainforest vegetation, not dissimilar to the Amazonian rainforest. These are the largest fossil forests in the world. It's quite extraordinary to find a forest landscape preserved for miles.”

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