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Science

Mummified Forest Shedding Light on Ancient Climate

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.

Additional Threat

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.

Source: Ohio State University
Image Source: Joel Barker, courtesy of Ohio State University.




4 comments
    1. Zachary Shahan

      dan,UBC: we are on the verge of the largest mass extinction since the dinosaurs. 1/5 of vertebrates expected to go extinct: http://planetsave.com/2010/11/01/animals-facing-extinction-mass-extinction/

      same with plants: http://planetsave.com/2010/09/29/one-fifth-of-plants-face-extinction/

      & essentially the same thing in the oceans: http://planetsave.com/2010/11/09/our-oceans-are-seeing-red/

      & don’t think humans are going to be fine and dandy & left out of this mess.

  1. PHNATUREBEAR

    As an individual who had the pleasure – and learning experience – to work at GREENPEACE CANADA for four years, I genuinely believe that if we do not make the correct choices regarding our present and future behaviours over the next twenty years, it will be our civilization that will be discovered at some future date buried beneath the incinerated and buried debris of what remains intact! I mean this in the sense of a potential “runaway greenhouse effect!”

    A recent report indicated that the quantity of climate change chemicals released in to the atmosphere in merely four months of forest burning in the State of Alaska alone in 2004 was equivalent to ALL OF THE CO2 RELEASED TO THE ATMOSPHERE BY ALL OF THE AIRCRAFT FLEETS FLYING IN THE CONTINENTAL UNITED STATES DURING ALL OF THAT SAME YEAR! A “positive feedback loop” if I ever saw one!

    Thank You for your time.

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