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Interestingly, the last half of the Carboniferous Period witnessed periods of significant ice cap formation over polar landmasses-- particularly in the southern hemisphere. Alternating cool and warm periods during the ensuing Carboniferous Ice Age coincided with cycles of glacier expansion and retreat. Coastlines fluctuated, caused by a combination of both local basin subsidence and worldwide sea level changes. In West Virginia a complex system of meandering river deltas supported vast coal swamps that left repeating stratigraphic levels of peat bogs that later became coal, separated by layers of fluvial rocks like sandstone and shale when the deltas were building, and marine rocks like black shales and limestones when rising seas drowned coastlands. Accumulations of several thousand feet of these sediments over millions of years caused heat and pressure which transformed the soft sediments into rock and the peat layers into the 100 or so coal seams which today comprise the Great Bituminous Coalfields of the Eastern U.S. and Western Europe.
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arm to moderate temperatures and high humidity alone do not produce all the conditions necessary for creating coal deposits. Steadily rising sea level and/or steady regional swamp subsidence are also necessary. As a prerequisite to the formation of thick coal seams it is necessary that the rate of vegetable matter accumulation remain in general equilibrium with the rate of rising water levels for relatively long periods. Rise too fast, and the swamp gets drowned, rise too slowly and dead plant material is not completely submerged when it falls to the swamp floor where it will rot or oxidize rather than be preserved.
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Although most of the Carboniferous-age coal seams of West Virginia are on average less than 4 feet in thickness, they occasionally can be as thick as 25 feet. The bituminous coal beds of North America and Europe were laid down in swamps along coastal environments which are often dominated by meandering river deltas. Because these deltas were always moving and changing, the distribution and thickness of individual coal beds tend to be variable,--sometimes erratic.
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Coal seams are often comprised of distinct, mappable benches which laterally thicken and thin, merge and split apart, and often vary in physical properties like ash and sulfur based on their proximity to channel systems and marine shorelines at the time of deposition. There are many areas in the coalfields which contain few minable coals or no coals at all. But for the most part individual seam horizons are remarkably persistent along great horizontal distances. So much so that the geologic formations of this time period are often best correlated by using the coal seams themselves as "marker beds."
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When conditions were right, accumulating dead plants formed peat beds which after burial were subjected to heat and pressure as additional sediment layers continued to accumulate and add weight. Several thousand feet of sediments were added during the geologic ages that followed. In the Appalachian Region, most of this rock overburden was subsequently removed by erosion.