Like an iceberg, 1999 cont., “Where forests grew”

Like an iceberg, 1999 cont.: “Where forests grew”

The view I lived with in July 1999 was like nothing I have ever seen before or will see again: Axel Heiberg’s Geodetic Hills, pinkish and rounded, streaked with darker lines that mark the remnants of forests which once grew in the polar region. In that High Arctic world of 45 million years ago, a tall, lush forest flourished here. Then, the mean average temperature on Axel Heiberg was seven to 15 C.

Now, 45 million years is a long time ago, and it took time to wrap my brain around this when I was on Axel Heiberg. As I sat next to the stumps and logs from that era, near leaves which covered the forest floor so long ago, I would think: one million, two million, three million until I managed finally to move slowly back in time.

An ancient stump on the Geodetic Hills of Axel Heiberg. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

An ancient stump on the Geodetic Hills of Axel Heiberg. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

The fossil remains were even more extraordinary because they weren’t petrified, or turned to stone, but mummified. The leaves and other bits of plants looked almost as fresh as yesterday’s. The stumps looked as if they were just cut down.

But these trees and plants, even though they’d been preserved for millennia by the cold, dry Arctic climate, were still delicate. They became brittle once they were exposed to the air by erosion.

Any disturbance paved the way for even more erosion during the violent wind storms that regularly passed over the hills. The fossil forest, located outside the borders of the national park on Ellesmere Island, was also unprotected from visitors. It was only a 20-minute hop by helicopter from the “listening” station at nearby Eureka on Ellesmere Island, and military officers and other personnel often came to check it out. Some were known to use the ancient wood for camp fires.

Passengers from cruise ships also regularly toured the site in August and September. Some trampled the fossils or took pieces of wood for souvenirs. Of more than 200 stumps that were once recorded in one section of the fossil forest, fewer than half that number still remained in 1999.

Ancient fossil wood, a remnant of forests which once grew here on Axel Heiberg. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Ancient fossil wood, a remnant of forests which once grew here on Axel Heiberg. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

When I arrived at the fossil forest in late July 1999, the fossil forest was pockmarked with holes and trenches where a scientific team from the United States had been exhuming fossils and surveying with ground penetrating radar and global positioning devices.

The researchers were near the end of their five weeks’ stay at the site. They had brought along two semi-permanent buildings, laboratory equipment, computers, state-of-the-art surveying equipment, a satellite phone, several cases of beer and enough food to last for three seasons. Their camp, which included a heated hut, was funded by a $1.6 million, three-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a charitable foundation that supports projects that “tend to support the well-doing or well-being of mankind.”

Team members came from the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maine, and were all-American with the exception of one Canadian, a permanent resident of the U.S. They included a forest ecologist, a fossil plant biologist, a wood anatomist and geochemist who planned to look at how the ancient forest grew and see what it said about global warming.

"Diggers" at work in the Fossil Forest on Axel Heiberg, July, 1999. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

“Diggers” at work in the fossil forest on Axel Heiberg, July, 1999. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Their ranks also included a few strong-armed graduate students who described themselves as “diggers.” They had dug holes ranging from the size of giant-sized insect hills to trenches several metres long. The forest looked as if it had been hit by bombs.

This digging, explained project leader Art Johnson, was necessary to measure specimens, look at sediments and provide data on the lay-out of the forest.

“This forest may be the biggest [fossil] forest of the world,” said Johnson. “This is why we are digging. You want to extract as much information as possible.”

After taking samples and measurements, Johnson promised that all the uncovered wood will be tagged and reburied in the same position (something that would be extraordinarily difficult to check up on, I think.)

“We desperately don’t want to be the bad guys. We have been gentler on the landscape than the people before us. We will restore the land to its original configuration and we will restore the wood to its original position and the data will be available to the scientific community,” said Johnson. “There will be no craters.”

Samples were to return to the U.S. where their atomic make-up would be analysed to reveal more about the atmospheric and environmental conditions the trees, mainly tall Dawn Redwoods, grew in.

Art Johnson talks about what his team is doing in the Fossil Forest next to an exposed piece of wood. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Art Johnson talks about what his team is doing in the Fossil Forest next to an exposed piece of wood. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

The Americans planned to recreate the growing conditions of these trees in growth chambers to learn more about how they could have adapted to the long periods of daylight and darkness in the past.

During one of my many visits to warm myself up in their heated weather haven, plant physiologist David Vann suggested global climate change could be very rapid, with some scientists saying that the change could occur within a period as short as 20 years and kill billions of people.

Vann said the project’s findings would likely show that the end results of global warming could be positive, despite rising sea levels and catastrophic storms — and that the “lungs” of the earth, its forests, would move north.

“It would reassure people that when it’s all done, the world would be a nicer place,” said Vann.

His words made me shiver. I’d been writing about climate change a bit, light fare such as sightings of robins in Iqaluit, but this was the first time I really think seriously about extreme climate change — something that the world won’t acknowledge until 15 years later.

But in the fossil forest, in 1999, surrounded by those ancient remnants of a much warmer past, anything seemed possible.

American researchers stand at the top of an excavated redwood, which shows how long the ancient trees were. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

American researchers stand at the top of an excavated redwood, which shows how long the ancient trees were. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

But, despite what the remains of that era could tell us, some Canadian researchers weren’t happy over the scientific dissection of the fossil forest. This surprised the U.S. team, particularly project leader Johnson. He maintained that the forest is just one small part of a much larger, equally interesting deposit in Axel Heiberg.

“There are 28 forested layers over a large area,” he said. “It’s not like it’s just one area. It’s 100 acres of resource. We have the permits to be here and everything we did was legal. I don’t need to irritate a lot of people. I don’t need to be considered as a trespasser. I feel persecuted. Some people thing that this place is sacred, others want it for a picnic spot. We think it’s a scientific resource. Maybe it’s good if Canadians decide what they want to do with it.”

Soon we had to leave. It had been snowing, and while my new down sleeping bag was finally warm enough that I dreamt I was in a sauna, it was hard to look for fossils in the snow. We packed up the camp and got ready to leave.

Back in Resolute Bay, I had to say good-bye to my new friend Yusheng Liu, who taught me so much about fossils on Axel Heiberg. I knew I’d never see this patient teacher and good cook again. That’s how it was, although I’d enjoyed listening to him talk about his family or simply spending time hunting for fossils.

Jane George and Yusheng Liu in the Fossil Forest, July 1999.

Jane George and Yusheng Liu in the fossil forest, July 1999.

Nothing happened quickly to protect the fossil forest which even 15 years later remained not safeguarded.

The following summer, in 2000, the Nunavut Research Institute, that issued the permits to the U.S. team, took some local politicians on a tour of the site, but that was more to justify its decision to let scientists tear up the fossil forest than to work on ways to protect this unique place for future generations.

I waited for the Nunavut government to do something, which it finally did, but so slowly. The future territorial park gets a name at least: Napartalik, where there are trees.

But the fossil forest remains too remote and too old to evoke much interest  or money— particularly when the pressing problems of today are so large.

In July 2000, when I was once again in the High Arctic, I visited another ancient forest located near the tip of Ellesmere Island. Its stumps had petrified and turned to yellow stone.

This petrified forest on Ellesmere Island now lies way above sea level. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

This petrified forest on Ellesmere Island now lies way above sea level. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

The stumps were located on a high slope located above the water, in a place that’s only accessible by the Geological Survey of Canada helicopter I was riding in. I could see over Nares Strait to the rocky cliffs of Greenland and across to mountainous coast of northern Ellesmere Island.

Later, as I took a break from a hike on a mossy hillside in a deep valley, full of wild flowers and a sparkling stream, somewhere in northern Ellesmere, I was able to contemplate the strangeness of that petrified forest and the valley thousands of kilometres north of the tree line where flowers are now growing in the heat of the summer sun: how was it possible huge trees grew here? Was every day as beautiful, warm  and sunny as this one and what does this mean about the world?

This valley in northern Ellesmere is the most beautiful place I ever see. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

This valley in northern Ellesmere, seen here on a sunny July day, is the most beautiful place I ever saw in the High Arctic. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

These questions couldn’t be answered, but I would spend much of the next 10 years thinking about climate change in the Arctic.

Later, as more extreme weather events are linked to climate change — and the world appears unable to agree on what to do — I wonder why, if scientists suspected catastrophic climate change was in store for the world 15 years ago, did no one act earlier or get the warning out?

Like an iceberg continues June 2.

 

You can read earlier instalments here:

Like an iceberg: on being a journalist in the Arctic

Like an iceberg, 1991…cont.

Like an iceberg, 1991…more

Like an iceberg, 1992, “Shots in the dark” 

Like an iceberg, 1992, “Sad stories”

Like an iceberg, 1993, “Learning the language of the snows”

Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Spring”

Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Chesterfield Inlet”

Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., more “Chesterfield Inlet”

Like an iceberg, 1994: “Seals and more”

Like an iceberg, 1994, cont., “No news is good news”

Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., more “No news is good news”

Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., “A place with four names”

Like an iceberg, 1995, “More sad stories”

Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “No place like Nome”

Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “Greenland”

Like an iceberg, 1995, cont. “Secrets”

Like an iceberg, 1996, “Hard Lessons”

Like an iceberg, 1996 cont., “Working together”

Like an iceberg, 1996 cont., “At the edge of the world”

Like an iceberg, 1996, more “At the edge of the world”

Like an iceberg, 1996, cont. “Choices” 

Like an iceberg, 1997, “Qaggiq”

Like an iceberg, 1997, more “Qaggiq”

Like an iceberg, 1997, “Qaggiq” cont.

Like an iceberg, 1997 cont., “Qaggiq and hockey”

Like an iceberg, 1997 cont., “Brain surgery in POV”

Like an iceberg, 1997 cont.: “Masks on an island”

Like an iceberg, 1997 cont., “Abusers on the pulpit”

Like an iceberg, 1998, “Bearing gifts”

Like an iceberg, 1998 cont., “At the top of the world”

Like an iceberg, 1998 cont., “A bad week” 

Like an iceberg, 1998 cont.: more from “A bad week”

Like an iceberg, 1998 cont., “Memories”

Like an iceberg, 1999, “The avalanche”

Like an iceberg, 1999 cont., “An exorcism, followed by a penis cutting”

Like an iceberg, 1999 cont., more on “the Avalanche”

Like an iceberg, 1999 cont., “Robins in the Arctic”

Like an iceberg, 1999 cont., “Fossil hunting”

 

 

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Like an iceberg, 1999 cont., “Fossil hunting”

Like an iceberg, 1999 cont.: “Fossil hunting”

My destination in July, 1999: a huge windswept island, Axel Heiberg, located 700 kilometres south of the North Pole, just off Ellesmere Island.

You can see fossil litter on the top of a hill overlooking the valley on Axel Heiberg where we camp in July, 1999. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

You can see fossil litter on the top of a hill overlooking the valley on Axel Heiberg where we camp in July, 1999. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

On this remote High Arctic island, fossils were everywhere, and, by the edge of a fast-running river in July, 1999, I saw millions of years of nature tumbling down into the water. With little vegetation to hold the soil together, earth and rocks constantly broke off along the river’s edge, creating clouds of dust as they fall.

Each time this happened, the fossils of trees and plants that grew here more than 40 million years ago were lost, carried away to the ocean or slowly dissolved in the swift current. The fragments of fossil wood were batted around in the water or cast up on the shore. Boulders embossed with the imprints of leaves were piled along the bank.

The fossil material is grey and dry after millions of years in the cold storage of Axel Heiberg. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

The fossil material is grey and dry after millions of years in the cold storage of Axel Heiberg. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

“It’s like a fossil superstore,” said Yusheng Liu, a fossil plant biologist, originally from China, who was then studying on a fellowship with paleo-botanist Jim Basinger in Saskatoon, who had invited me to see his High Arctic research team at work in 1998.

Liu expertly hammered a thick gray rock into sheets and quickly uncovered several remnants of leaves, some in almost mint condition, that were hidden in the clay.

“Canada has so many fossils, but so few paleontologists,” said Liu. “We have so much to learn.”

While the quantity of fossils on Axel Heiberg was unusual, so was their quality because they weren’t petrified, or turned to stone, but rather mummified or simply pressed into clay.

While fossil gathering, we mainly concentrated on the rocks by the water and on exposed leaf litter that sticks out of the eroding outcrop above. We tried not to disturb any materials that aren’t already at risk from erosion. The only tools used were a small pickaxe, a knife and a magnifying glass. Some clay boulders contained a treasure trove of fossils. We examined each chunk for fossils, and foundseveral intact leaves.

 Yusheng Liu carefully wraps up every interesting fossil when we are on Axel Heiberg in July, 1999. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Yusheng Liu carefully wraps up every interesting fossil when we are on Axel Heiberg in July, 1999. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Liu was especially pleased when he finds a well-preserved seed, cone or leaf. Most of the fossil leaves came from the huge Dawn Redwood, which flourished here during the warmer Eocene Era, some 45 million years ago.

This tall tree shed its leaves every year, casting thousands of its distinctive fronds on the ground, many of which survived the passage of time. Liu also found leaves from beech trees, kiwi-like seeds and cones from evergreens.

He said studying such fossils under an electron microscope could reveal what levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide existed in the atmosphere of that much warmer period and show how these plants differed from their modern counterparts.

“If we study these fossils, we can get an image of the paleo-vegetation and we can use it to reconstruct the climate because it’s a good indicator of the climate,” he said.

Every fossil selected for further study was sprayed with latex to keep the plant tissues fresh. Then,  the fossils were wrapped up in newspaper and taped, so that they would travel without breaking. Months later, the scientists would carefully unwrap the fossils.

After an afternoon by the river, we headed back to camp, weighed down by our load of heavy, clay rocks. We held hands as we forded across the water, which in the heat of the day, had risen with melt water from the nearby glaciers.

We camp out in a valley where the sun shines all day and night. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

We camp out in a valley where the sun shines all day and night. My tent is the blue and yellow one at the far left. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Our field camp was a small group of tents pitched on a rocky slope. I had my own tent and — finally — I had invested in a warm sleeping bag. In the evening, along with the three other members of the team, we made a simple supper— Liu whipped up a Chinese-style soup based on the dry ingredients that could easily be stored in the camp refrigerator — a hole dug in the frozen ground — such as cabbage, carrots, onions and bacon.

After a couple of days by the river, we moved on to another site, by the Fossil Forest, where the stumps of 50-million-year-old trees were exposed.

That’s where the weather changed, from a 20 C to a windy, cold and snow-filled, and at the fossil forest, I also find a group of American scientists who were digging it up.

Like an iceberg continues May 30.

You can read earlier instalments here:

Like an iceberg: on being a journalist in the Arctic

Like an iceberg, 1991…cont.

Like an iceberg, 1991…more

Like an iceberg, 1992, “Shots in the dark” 

Like an iceberg, 1992, “Sad stories”

Like an iceberg, 1993, “Learning the language of the snows”

Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Spring”

Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., “Chesterfield Inlet”

Like an iceberg, 1993 cont., more “Chesterfield Inlet”

Like an iceberg, 1994: “Seals and more”

Like an iceberg, 1994, cont., “No news is good news”

Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., more “No news is good news”

Like an iceberg, 1994 cont., “A place with four names”

Like an iceberg, 1995, “More sad stories”

Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “No place like Nome”

Like an iceberg, 1995 cont., “Greenland”

Like an iceberg, 1995, cont. “Secrets”

Like an iceberg, 1996, “Hard Lessons”

Like an iceberg, 1996 cont., “Working together”

Like an iceberg, 1996 cont., “At the edge of the world”

Like an iceberg, 1996, more “At the edge of the world”

Like an iceberg, 1996, cont. “Choices” 

Like an iceberg, 1997, “Qaggiq”

Like an iceberg, 1997, more “Qaggiq”

Like an iceberg, 1997, “Qaggiq” cont.

Like an iceberg, 1997 cont., “Qaggiq and hockey”

Like an iceberg, 1997 cont., “Brain surgery in POV”

Like an iceberg, 1997 cont.: “Masks on an island”

Like an iceberg, 1997 cont., “Abusers on the pulpit”

Like an iceberg, 1998, “Bearing gifts”

Like an iceberg, 1998 cont., “At the top of the world”

Like an iceberg, 1998 cont., “A bad week” 

Like an iceberg, 1998 cont.: more from “A bad week”

Like an iceberg, 1998 cont., “Memories”

Like an iceberg, 1999, “The avalanche”

Like an iceberg, 1999 cont., “An exorcism, followed by a penis cutting”

Like an iceberg, 1999 cont., more on “the Avalanche”

Like an iceberg, 1999 cont., “Robins in the Arctic”