Arizona Geological History: Chapter 3: Devonian to Permian Time

Arizona warms from ice age, becomes tropical again, gets flooded by the ocean, suffers another ice age, warms up, makes coal, and suffers a major extinction of life.

In this chapter we will complete the Paleozoic Era with four periods: Devonian (416- to 359 million years ago), Mississippian (359-318 mya), Pennsylvanian (318- 299 mya), and the Permian (299-251 mya). In the European classification, the Mississippian and Pennsylvanian are, together, called the Carboniferous period because it was during this time that most coal deposits were formed.

Paleomap 390After recovery from the Ordovician ice age (about 440 mya), Arizona was apparently a highland on the southwest edge of a continental mass, about 30 degrees south of the equator. I say apparently, because there is no record from the Silurian period (444- to 416 mya ), so Arizona may have been dry land that was subject to erosion.

Paleomap 306During the last four periods of the Paleozoic, Arizona was mainly under water. The rocks deposited during this time represent deposition on a continental shelf environment. There were several episodes of transgression (encroaching) and regression of the sea from the west. Only what is now the northeastern corner of the state remained above sea level for most of the time. The rise and fall of the sea was due to both tectonic shifting of land and changes in water volume from the glacial epochs.

Limestone was the principal rock deposited during this time along with relatively minor shale and sandstones. All the formations contain fossils. These limestones currently make up most of the mountain ranges south of Tucson.

Mississippian rocks rest unconformably (not at the same angle or with evidence of erosion) on Devonian and older rocks. This means that there was some tectonic adjustment and erosion between the two Periods. (And by the way, the geologic Periods are usually defined by their distinct fossil assemblages). The principal formation of the Devonian is called the Martin Formation with type area in Bisbee. The principal Mississippian limestone is called the Redwall Limestone near the Grand Canyon and the Escabrosa Limestone in southern Arizona. Kartchner caverns are in the Escabrosa Limestone, but the caves formed recently.

Paleomap 255Pennsylvanian and Permian rocks represent complex cycles of transgression/regression by the sea, caused by changes in water volume due to glacial epochs, and by tectonic uplift and sinking of the continent. This tectonic shifting was the result of the collision of Gondwana on the south with Pangea on the north. Carbonate rocks dominate in the northwest and southeast, while sandstones and conglomerates dominate in central and northeast Arizona.

Most coal deposits  in the world were developed during the Carboniferous period.  Coal is mostly carbon accumulations from fossil plant material deposited in swamps so devoid of oxygen that bacteria and other critters couldn’t survive to feed on their remains. This implies that climate was warm and wet, and that the cyclic transgressions/regressions of the sea were relatively quick enough to bury the swamps before the luxuriant plant life could be destroyed.

Arizona coal was formed during the Cretaceous Period. It is mined in Navajo county, and, according to the Arizona Department of Mines and Mineral Resources, ranks second only to copper in economic importance.

Worldwide coal formation stripped the atmosphere of carbon dioxide. Beginning in mid- Devonian time, about 380 mya, through early Mississippian time, atmospheric carbon dioxide dropped from around 4,000 ppm to near current levels of 400 ppm by 340 million years ago. Temperature, however, remained high (about 68 F world average vs 57 F today). But near the Pennsylvania-Permian boundary time, about 270 million years ago, the planet was plunged into another ice age. Note the 70-million-year gap between lowered carbon dioxide and decreased temperature. By the end of the Permian, temperatures rose again to an average of about 63 F, soon followed by a rise in carbon dioxide to just under 3,000 ppm. (Rising temperature causes more carbon dioxide to be exsolved from the oceans.) Volcanism contributed to the rising carbon dioxide.

The first known land vertebrates, amphibians, appeared in late Paleozoic time. Devonian rocks contain fossils of amphibians called stegocephalians (roofed head) because of flat, broad heads. Most were one- to two inches long, but later forms became as large as a crocodile and most were probably carnivorous judging by the teeth.

Reptile fossils appear in Pennsylvanian rocks. The first were small like amphibians, but later Permian reptiles got up to eight feet long. One group, the Therapsids, had teeth differentiated into incisors, canines, and molars similar to present-day mammals.

The Permian ended with a mass extinction in which about 90% of species disappeared, including marine fauna, plants, and terrestrial animals. The reason for this extinction is unknown although there are many speculative theories. This extinction happened over a period of several million years and is coincident with the coalescing of continents and extensive volcanism.

When Pangea and Gondwana collided is reduced marine habitats and brought deep, oxygen-poor ocean water to near surface environments. Major volcanism, in what is now Siberia, lasted for about one million years and annually spewed billions of tons of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. These two events are probably contributory to the extinctions.

But, with the dawning of the new Mesozoic era, life rebounded and became more diverse and more robust.

OmphalotrochusPHOTO: Omphalotrochus (snail) from the Permian Colina formation, collected about 2 miles southeast of the Tombstone airport. Notice also the pits made by rain drops differentially eroding the limestone.




  1. Nice article once again Jonathan. Just a couple of comments as a matter of general interest. There is actually some coal in southern Arizona that has been mined in small quantities. One such area is located on the southwestern tip of the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation just east of Winkleman. Another nearby curiosity the presence of a very thin equivalent of the Permian Phosphoria Formation.
    The geologic record seems to indicate that periods of global warming and increased atmospheric carbon dioxide content may be caused by something other than humans burning fossil fuels. How can this be?

    1. The geologic record shows no correlation between carbon dioxide and temperature.  While correlation is highly suggestive, it does not prove causation.  On the other hand, lack of correlation disproves causation.

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