Petrified Wood: Days or Millions of Years?
The recent scientific discovery of how to petrify wood in a few days has again raised the question of just how long the process takes in nature.
Suppose you were walking through Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, and among all of the petrified trees, you found a petrified squirrel. Suppose when you examined it, you found that all of its delicate parts such as eyes, lips and fur had been turned to stone, so that it looked exactly like a stone statue of a squirrel. How long do you think it would have taken for the entire petrification process to happen? What is the longest period of time it might have taken before those delicate parts would have decayed?
We asked this question to several friends as we prepared this article. One immediately responded “millions of years.” When we pointed out the perishable nature of eyes, she changed her answer to “instantly.” We are convinced that the correct answer lies between these two extremes, but it is difficult to see how the process could have taken more than a few years, even if the corpse were buried quickly, which could greatly slow down the decay process.
Okay, so you’ve never seen a petrified squirrel, but what about a petrified tree? Wood lasts a lot longer than flesh without rotting, but we have likely all seen a fallen log rotting on the ground in the forest. During petrification of wood, the walls of every cell are replaced by a dissolved rock solution, such as a silicate or limestone. This has to happen before the cells decay. What is the longest that the petrification process could take before the log decayed away? And what is the shortest time in which the process could occur in optimum conditions?
On January 25, 2005, an Associated Press release announced that scientists have now succeeded in petrifying wood in only a few days. At the time of this writing, the scientific journal article had not yet been published, so we are relying on the news article’s description of the process, used by Yongsoon Shin at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Little blocks of wood less than half an inch on a side from a lumberyard were soaked in a silica solution for a few days. That allowed every cell to become saturated with the rock-forming substance. Then they were heated to 1400 degrees in an oxygen free atmosphere, and the petrified blocks were finished. The reason they made the petrified wood is for commercial purposes. Wood is filled with many little holes, which is why wood floats in water. The petrified blocks are also porous, so that they can be used in processes in which gases need to permeate a large surface area, such as separating industrial chemicals, filtering pollutants, and soaking up contamination.
The news article began with the claim that the scientists “have found a way to achieve in days what takes Mother Nature millions of years — converting wood to mineral.” It was that statement that led to this article, because the shock of seeing that it can be done in a few days caused us to think about exactly how long the process takes to occur in nature.
Does it really take millions of years? It is difficult to see how the process could take that long without having the cell structure of the wood decay. The purpose of this article is to examine the question of just how long it really takes nature to petrify wood. Why is this question being treated in an article in a Science and Religion column? While it would seem that petrifying wood has absolutely nothing to do with religion, that process has been linked to attacks on the Biblical account of the creation of the earth, so it seems appropriate to consider here. It is especially germane to discussions on hard evidence for the world-wide flood described in Genesis. The Flood could have quickly buried forests and also have provided volcanic ash and other ingredients necessary to create petrified wood. But one important question concerns just how long that process would take. So let us begin by looking at exactly what science says about the process.
What is the belief of scientists concerning the petrification process? Do the experts actually believe it took millions of years to petrify wood naturally? If so, how do they explain the lack of decay? What were you taught about this subject in school?
When we looked up introductory articles about petrification, we found that often very little was said about exactly how long the process is believed to have taken. On the other hand, most articles emphasized the age of the trees. For example, the article in World Book Encyclopedia about “Petrified forest” states that the trees in the six separate forests of Petrified Forest National Park in northern Arizona “grew about 225 million years ago.” It reports that they are mostly formed of quartz and opal, two forms of silica. They were said to be buried in mud after being carried by a river, and then water carrying dissolved minerals “fills the empty cells of the decaying wood with this matter until the structure has become solid stone.”  Thus, this article stated only when the trees were thought to have lived, as dated by fossil animals found in the area, but nothing was said about how long the petrification process took.
On the other hand, many introductory articles do indeed explicitly state that the process took “millions of years.” The ones which do not explicitly state the time required, give the impression of eons of time by pointing out that the process occurs “molecule by molecule.” While that may sound like it takes forever, that statement actually says nothing about how long the process took. An exploding stick of dynamite also reacts molecule by molecule. We found it an interesting internet search to hunt for the phrase “molecule by molecule” and discover how many articles on petrification use that suggestive phrase.
One example explanation is from the Reader’s Digest book Scenic Wonders of America. It states that, “Over millions of years, flowing rivers and inland seas laid down layer upon layer of sediment.” The petrified logs “were formed when trees dying in the Triassic jungle became buried in the accumulating sediments.” After the trees were “covered up by hundreds of feet of later sediment” then volcanoes “produced deep layers of ash, and rainwater sinking down through this dissolved silica from it. As the water penetrated into the logs, the silica precipitated, replacing the logs’ organic materials with glasslike deposits of silicon dioxide” (such as quartz crystals.
No explanation whatsoever is given on just what process would magically keep the wood from decaying over those “millions of years” of being buried. That problem is acknowledged, but is glossed over with the sentence, “By a process scientists do not fully understand, many of the trees did not simply break down into their constituent elements.” Do not fully understand? They should perhaps say, “By a supposed process difficult even to imagine, which would contradict all known scientific evidence, the trees did not decay for millions of years.” The rest of the process they describe all sounds very believable if it were to occur in a matter of months or years. That is, the trees could have been buried quickly under many feet of mud in a flood, which would account for their branches having been stripped off the logs. Then the silica minerals could seep into the cells before they decayed. The only unbelievable feature of the scientific theory is the “million year” part that admittedly has no explanation.
Thus, this Reader’s Digest article verifies that the general public has indeed been taught that petrified wood took millions of years to form. But what do scientific experts say?
Age of the Earth Debate
There has been an ongoing debate during the last century between creationists and evolutionists about the age of the earth. You can easily find many articles on the subject on the internet, but in a nutshell, several creationists have used the evidence for rapid petrification as evidence for the Great Deluge having buried the forests rather than the slow accumulation of sediment of millions of years.
How do the evolutionists respond? It turns out that when the experts are so confronted, they gleefully announce that they already knew that the petrification process probably only took at most a century. That is the only known way to explain the lack of decay, and this the experts admit. Nevertheless, they point out that the time required is irrelevant to the debate because the trees in Arizona can be dated at some two hundred million years for other reasons, such as the fossils found in the nearby strata. But it is conceded that the actual process of petrification is only believed to have taken a few decades. We find it curious that the time required is almost never mentioned in introductory articles.
Thus, the news article might better have stated that scientists “have found a way to achieve in days what takes Mother Nature decades to do.”
Let us here digress slightly to clarify our view of the overall debate between science and religion. Should we expect any solid, irrefutable proof that the scriptures are true before the Savior returns to reign after the wicked have been destroyed, the mountains have flowed down, and the isles have fled? We don’t think so for the following reasons.
Absolute Proof of Scriptures Not Expected
In an earlier era, all that was required to end an argument regarding a question of God’s hand in the creation of the earth was the Bible itself. In our day of raging unbelief, many great and powerful people say that the scriptures are the “foolish traditions of your fathers . . . the effect of a frenzied mind.” They demand signs and wonders and scoff at the knowledge of God that is fed by the still, small voice of revelation.
In Christian Sunday School manuals, the discussion on the existence of God is often only a short paragraph. For example,
“There are millions of stars and planets all in perfect order. They did not get there by chance. We can see the work of God in the heavens and on the earth. The many beautiful plants, the many kinds of animals, the mountains, the rivers, the clouds that bring us rain and snow — all these testify to us that there is a God.
Many of us long for the ultimate proof of the truthfulness of the scriptures to be unearthed, or for the atheistic view of creation to be finally proved false. For those of us who have already had a witness of the Holy Ghost, the amazingly compact DNA code with its programming instructions certainly witnesses of a Divine Programmer. For us, the variety of the plant and animal kingdom and the coordinated body systems in living beings such as the eyes, beak, wings and talons of the eagle certainly testify of a Divine Creator. For us, the wide variety of opinions on the age of various fossils and formations leaves ample room for the Biblical account of the creation and Flood.
During the past ten years this author (Ron Millett) has been privileged to know the details about and encourage John Pratt’s research into ancient calendars. It is as powerful a testimony of God and His works as this author has ever seen to witness how the specific dates in the scriptures synchronize with these varied sacred calendars. The Book of Genesis that many consider to be merely “campfire stories” really does have its dates verified by the great clock of the earth, sun, moon and planets to amazing quarter-day accuracy.
But, in spite of these many evidences, we will probably search in vain for the ultimate proofs that will convince everyone. That is because this earth really was created for the purpose of being a testing ground for God’s children. It is essential that even though we can receive evidence that encourages us in our journey of faith, the absolute proof of God’s existence and details of how he has created and maintained the world will leave many questions unanswered. In fact, for earth life to be a fair test, even the atheistic world view must have plausible and reasonable arguments in its favor.
Listening in on a Celestial Courtroom
In the Biblical book of Job we listen in on a discussion between the Lord and Satan. Satan is claiming that Job had been favored and protected, and that the Lord had “made a hedge about him, and about his house, and about all he hath on every side.” Satan claimed that if the Lord would only “put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.” The Lord gave Satan the “fairness” he demanded and said “Behold, all that he hath is in thy power” . Evidently for Job, a fully fair test in this life included the tremendous trials he would face. Afterward, with his children killed, possessions destroyed, friends and grieving wife tormenting him to “curse God and die” , this great prophet in his own Gethsemane still testified: “I know that my redeemer liveth . . . and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” .
What if at the end of our own lives, Satan were truthfully able to argue that we had been so favored that he didn’t have a fair chance? What if he could say that we had so many compelling proofs of the gospel truthfulness that he couldn’t tempt us successfully. He could claim that he must be allowed to exercise power to make the test equal to our preparation during the premortal life. He could claim that the earth test for us had been a sham and that a mistrial should be declared. What would happen if after all of the Divine effort to create the earth, synchronize the solar system, and place God’s children to dwell herein, that after all of this, our crucial test was judged as being too easy and that the essential experience of discerning good and evil for ourselves had been short-circuited?
This is why, in our opinion, many of the answers of how the Lord created the earth will be saved for that great day when the Lord promises to tell “things which have passed, and hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth, by which it was made and the purpose and the end thereof.” Being among those who have struggled with the persuasive arguments of the many opinions on these issues, we hope to be on the front row when the Lord begins this along awaited presentation.
Rapid Petrification in Nature
Hopefully it is now clear that we authors are not trying to present any position about the age of the earth, nor enter into that debate in any way. While we both firmly believe the scriptures that there was a world-wide Great Deluge which buried much of the existing flora and fauna, we have seen that both sides of the debate agree that the actual time of the process of petrifying wood is not a factor in the debate at all. So the purpose of this article is simply to further examine any evidence of just how long the process takes in nature. In particular, if all agree that petrification can occur in nature on a time scale of only years, then the question arises, is that rapid process going on today anywhere? Are there any petrified log houses being formed? Or what about the wild idea presented at the beginning of this article about the possibility of a petrified squirrel? Is there any chance that a petrified animal could be found, or is the process simply too slow for that to happen before the corpse has decayed? The fossil bones of dinosaurs are formed by a similar process, where the bones are replaced by rock after the soft tissues have decayed away. Can fossilization of an animal occur in nature rapidly enough to preserve the soft tissues also?
Mother Shipton’s Cave
As we searched the internet and read some of the articles in the Creationist/Evolutionist debate, we found an interesting quotation from the reputable journal Scientific American which describes a “petrifying stream” in England. Here is an excerpt from the original article:
“There is a well known petrifying stream of water at Knaresborough, Yorkshire, England . . . It is a cascade from the River Nidd, about 15 feet high and twice as broad, and forms an aqueous curtain to the cave known as Mother Shipton’s Cave. . . . This cascade has an endless variety of objects hung up by short lengths of wire to be petrified by the water trickling over them, as sponges, books, gloves, kerchiefs and veils, hunter’s cap, fox, cat, dog, birds, boots, etc., just as fancy prompts people to seek petrifying results. A sponge is petrified in a few months, a book or cap in a year or two, a cat or bird a little longer. . . . I have a human head petrified, but by what action I do not know. It was found in digging a trench through gravel in the park at Bulstrode, in Buckinghamshire, England.”
What? You’ve never heard of a “petrifying stream?” Neither had we. And are you surprised to find such an article in the pro-evolution Scientific American? Well, it turns out the article was published in 1889, when Darwinism was still considered highly speculative. We were so astounded by the claim of a simple stream existing which petrified books and boots and even cats in a year or so that we had to find the original source. After all, if this claim is true, then the idea of a petrified squirrel is not so outlandish after all. Sure enough, the article was real enough, sitting in the archives of the University of Utah. Finding it led us to ask even more questions.
For example, if in fact such a stream existed in 1889, then why have we never heard of it? Shouldn’t it be something like a national monument, or at least a major tourist trap where people can still be found hanging a variety of objects in the stream to make conversation-piece bookends, and the like? When we found the original article in Scientific American, it turned out to be only a letter to the editor, and hence may not have been checked out by the editors as rigorously as a full fledged article. In other words, if there really was such a stream in 1889, is it still petrifying objects today? We had to find out.
Well guess what! The stream is still running, the site is indeed a famous tourist destination, and objects are still being petrified on a regular basis. Go to the web site “www.mothershiptonscave.com/petrifying.htm” and check it out for yourself. You can see in the pictures here, taken from that site, that objects are still being hung in the waterfall, and the process is still occurring naturally, molecule by molecule, in a matter of months.
The main point of this article is simply to update readers on the state of knowledge of the process of creating petrified wood. While it may not even be a relevant topic in the “age of the earth” debate, it may be important to recovering artifacts from the Great Flood. We are simply reporting that the actual process of petrification in nature is currently being observed to occur on the time scale of months, and that now scientists can successfully complete the process in a few days. So the next time you see some petrified wood, do not think “millions of years” but simply “years.”
- ↑ “Topping Mother Nature, lab makes petrified wood in days,” U.S.A Today (25 Jan 2005), www.usatoday.com/tech/science/discoveries/2005-01-25-petrified_x.htm .
- ↑ “Petrified Forest,”World Book Encyclopedia (Chicago: World Book, 1990), vol 15, p. 328.
- ↑ “Time Fashions Stone Logs like Jewels,” in Scenic Wonders of America (Pleasantville, N.Y.: Reader’s Digest, 1973), p. 392. Note how even the name of this article indirectly implies eons of time. Both the diagram and the explanation are from the article.
- ↑ Ibid., p. 391-392.
- ↑ Actually this quote is from the anti-Christ Korihor, who lived before Christ. See Book of Mormon (Alma 30:14, 16.)
- ↑ Taken from the LDS manual,Gospel Principles (Salt Lake City: LDS Church, 1997), p. 8, after quoting the Book of Mormon prophet Alma: “All things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator” (Alma 30:44).
- ↑ Job 1:10–12
- ↑ Job 2:9
- ↑ Job 19:25
- ↑ Doctrine and Covenants 101:33.
- ↑ “Petrifying Springs”, Scientific American (March 23, 1889), p. 181.
- ↑ Here’s some geological information from that site: “The water springs from an underground lake and seeps up through the earths crust via a layer of porous rock called an ‘aquifer.’ The spring has never been known to dry up, a measured 700 gallons or 3,200 litres of water flow over the Well every hour, summer, winter, rain or drought! The water’s extremely high mineral content means that everything in it’s path is turned into stone. The waters leave behind mineral deposits that build up to form a crust of new rock. The minerals that are most abundantly present are calcium, sodium and magnesium with traces of lead, zinc, iron, manganese and aluminium. These exist in the form of sulphates and carbonates with some chlorides and a little silica. The proportions have remained more or less the same for centuries. As the waters flow down the front of the Well they leave a small deposit on its face, slowly building up over the years. Twice in its recorded history this has led to the collapse of the Well itself in 1816 and again in 1821 when large pieces became so top heavy they snapped off – Some large pieces can still be seen in the river. However there is no danger of a similar incident today, the Well face is scrubbed and scraped with wire brushes every 8 weeks. It’s a painstaking job that stops the Well face becoming too top heavy.”