The northernmost mummified forest ever discovered in Canada is under the spotlight of researchers who are hoping to gain valuable information as to how plants will manage in a changing climate.
The trees are located in Ellesmere Island National Park in Canada and were perfectly preserved by a landslide some 2 to 8 million years ago, in the Neogene Period, during a time in Earth’s history where the planet cooled globally.
“Mummified forests aren’t so uncommon, but what makes this one unique is that it’s so far north. When the climate began to cool 11 million years ago, these plants would have been the first to feel the effects,” said Joel Barker, a research scientist at Byrd Polar Research Center and the School of Earth Sciences at Ohio State University and leader of the team that is analyzing the remains. “And because the trees’ organic material is preserved, we can get a high-resolution view of how quickly the climate changed and how the plants responded to that change.”
The trees being discovered were at least 75 years old when they were buried, but were suffering from a great deal of stress, resulting in spindly trees, narrow growth rings, and under-sized leaves. “These trees lived at a particularly rough time in the Arctic,” Barker explained. “Ellesmere Island was quickly changing from a warm deciduous forest environment to an evergreen environment, on its way to the barren scrub we see today. The trees would have had to endure half of the year in darkness and in a cooling climate. That’s why the growth rings show that they grew so little, and so slowly.”
The researchers hope that the trees will shed light on what trees and other plant life will do when exposed to a global warming.
In what can almost be described as another in the long line of comedic errors contributing to our planet’s changing climate, the trees are rotting as the glacier they were frozen in melts away from them, exposing them to the air around them and, as a result, causing them to release the carbon dioxide stored up inside them into the atmosphere.
A member of Barker’s team and a professor emeritus of earth sciences at Ohio State, David Elliot, makes it clear though that the threat posed is non-existent.
“I want to be clear — the carbon contained in the small deposit we’ve been studying is trivial compared to what you produce when you drive your car,” he said. “But if you look at this find in the context of the whole Arctic, then that is a different issue. I would expect other isolated deposits to be exposed as the ice melts, and all that biomass is eventually going to return to carbon dioxide if it’s exposed to the air.”
“It’s a big country, and unless people decide to walk all across the Canadian Arctic, we won’t know how many deposits are out there,” he added.