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First Plants Bring Major Climate Change

RTB’s creation model posits that the change in life throughout Earth’s history reflects the work of a divine intelligence transforming a hostile-to-life planet into one capable of supporting humanity. As the environs change, so must the life. Studies of the first plant life on the continents show how the plants altered the land and atmosphere and may have triggered an extinction of marine life—and prepared the way for new organisms.

Is animal death a good thing? Most would say no—especially when death involves something dear to us like cats, dogs, or Bambi. The Bible paints a different picture, one in which death is simply part of God’s economy. Discoveries about the first plants illustrate this principle.

Psalm 104 (a creation account parallel to Genesis 1) describes how God feeds the lions roaring after their prey (verse 21). It then describes how all animals wait for God to provide food, but when God hides his face, the animals perish (verses 27–29). Yet God sends forth his Spirit and creates again, thus renewing the face of the ground (verse 30). The psalmist clearly identifies God’s hand in providing for all life on Earth and (when integrated with Genesis 1) recognizes God’s work in transforming a primordial, hostile-to-life Earth into splendid abode for humanity.

In RTB’s creation model, we use this passage to buttress the position that, as he prepared Earth to support humanity, God regularly introduced new plants and animals for a time and then removed those organisms when they had fulfilled his purpose. This psalm helps explain why the fossil record shows different organisms flourishing at different times. As the conditions on Earth changed under God’s transforming hand, some animals and plants went extinct, only to be replaced by new life-forms suited to thrive in the new conditions.

The first land plants appeared in the fossil record around 470 million years ago during an era called the Ordovician. These specimens were not roses, bushes, and trees; rather they were more similar to mosses. Though not tall, these first plants brought dramatic changes. Land-based plants require mechanisms to extract nutrients (like phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and iron) from rocks. These harvesting mechanisms also accelerate the weathering of the rocks by factors ranging from 2 to more than 100.

Recent research shows two significant byproducts of this weathering. First, rock weathering exposes more silicates to the atmosphere with the net result of removing carbon dioxide (CO2). Modeling of the atmospheric reaction during the Ordovician showed that this CO2 removal lead to global cooling and an ice age a few million years long.1

Second, the study also reveals that higher weathering would dump more nutrients into the ocean. Since ocean life is usually nutrient limited (the amount of nutrients determines the quantity of life), the addition of nutrients would cause a large increase in ocean life, which would then deplete all the oxygen. During the Ordovician, this lack of oxygen, coupled with the lowered sea level from the glaciation, caused a large fraction of ocean organisms to perish in a major extinction event.

Scientists know that after the Ordovician-Silurian extinction, the oceans quickly filled with new life and the land proliferated with plants (ones we would recognize). This whole scenario comports well with the description in Psalm 104.2

  1. Timothy M. Lenton et al., “First Plants Cooled the Ordovician,” Nature Geoscience 5 (February 2012): 86–89.
  2. One question remains: do plants appearing 470 million years ago fit with the description of day three in Genesis 1? I think it does, but it means that the chronology may not be as strict as some would like. For example, the mention of plants in the day three description may serve to close the topic of preparing Earth’s surface for the life that would arrive on days five and six.