Paleozoic Vermont

What’s the world’s oldest communal ocean reef doing in the Green Mountain State?

Lake Champlain's Isle La Motte is rich in marine fossils, some of which are 450 million years old. (Robert Lyons)
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Linda Fitch got involved in saving the reef a decade ago when she heard jackhammers. A small company had bought the Fisk Quarry and had begun cutting stone again, the first mining there in 70 years. Fitch spearheaded a fundraising program to buy and preserve the reef land. Fitch is the niece of physicist Val Fitch, who won the 1980 Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering a kind of asymmetry in the universe. Right after the Big Bang, particles of matter and antimatter annihilated each other. But for every billion pairs of particles, there is one extra particle of matter. That tiny imbalance accounts for the existence of the observed universe: the galaxies, you, me and the Chazy Reef. "An interest in our origins obviously runs in the family," says Linda Fitch.

Ken Tobin, a geologist at Texas A&M International University, calls the reef a "warehouse of knowledge" for studying the seawater chemistry of half a billion years ago, when carbon dioxide was 14 to 16 times more plentiful in the atmosphere than it is today and the earth was so warm that it was nearly free of ice. Charlotte Mehrtens lists some of the questions the reef might answer: What did the world once look like? What was the ocean's depth, salinity and temperature?

To me, the most amazing thing about the Isle La Motte reef is the variety of creatures that lived in the shallow seas half a billion years ago, lending perspective to our self-absorption with the present. We tend to see human beings as the crown of creation. Mehrtens points out that ocean-dwelling organisms dominated their world for the first 200 million years of the earth's fossil record. I for one wish we still had animals that looked like big cabbages.

Dick Teresi is the former editor of Omni and Science Digest magazines.

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