Tourists also inflict damage on fossil forest

Nunatsiaq News

AXEL HEIBERG ISLAND, Nunavut — A unique fossil forest located on Nunavut's Axel Heiberg Island is not only being threated by damage caused by careless researchers — it's also being hurt by careless tourists.

45-million-year-old wood
A 45-million-year-old scrap of mummified wood, the remnants of an ancient forest that once stood on Nunavut's Axel Heiberg Island.

The fossil forest, which lies outside the borders of the new national park on Ellesmere Island, is unprotected from the damage that visitors can inflict.

It's only a 20-minute hop by helicopter from the Canadian military base at nearby Eureka, and during one week this July two loads of military officers arrived. Every August, passengers from cruise ships arrive to tour the site.

Some trample the fossils or take pieces of wood for souvenirs. Of more than 200 stumps that researchers have recorded in one section of the fossil forest, less than half that number may still remain.

Since his first visit in 1986, Jim Basinger, a paleo-botanist from the University of Saskatchewan, said he's become increasingly concerned about preserving its unique character.

Although he admits having taken a few stumps for study and display, he has begun to seriously question the idea of allowing any further disturbance of the site.

"There are piles of so-called fossil forests, but none like this," said Basinger. "This is the only site where information is exposed in this way."

This year the Canadian Conservation Institute, a branch of the federal government's Heritage department, produced a trilingual guide for visitors in Inukitut, English and French.

"It really upsets us," said David Gratton, a conservator with the CCI, referring to the damage caused by visitors. "We know that the site needs protection."

"Avoid walking on the fossils or on vegetation," the brochure says. "Please do not disturb the fossils. The site is so delicate that any damage is irreparable and any mixing up of fossils is permanent. The site has been extensively studied and what you see on the surface is essentially the same as what you would find by digging. Most damage in recent years has been done by people."

Most of the trees that grewthe slopes of the Geodetic Hills were enormous Dawn Redwood, or Meta-Sequoia. According to the size of the stumps and branches that researchers have found, this forest was tall, with trees reaching up to 35 metres in height. Some appear to have grown for 500-1000 years.

While found at most other sites of the same age, similar forests have turned to coal or oil, but at the fossil forest on Axel Heiberg, plants and trees have still maintained their original form and composition.

Thanks to the fine sediment in which the forest grew, mineral solutions never filtered into the plants' cells. Paleo-botanists, who study ancient plants, have been able to link many of the finds at the fossil forest with living plants.

In fact, living examples of Dawn Redwood found at the site can also be found today in other parts of the world. U.S. researchers plan to recreate the growing conditions of these trees in growth chambers to learn more about how they adapted to long periods of daylight and darkness in the past.

These trees and plants, preserved for thousands of millenia by the cold, dry Arctic climate, have only recently been exposed by erosion, although once in the air, the fossils become extremely brittle.

Any disturbance paves the way for damaging erosion of the site, which is often ravaged by violent wind storms that blow exposed fossils away.

Although the Greely expedition found fossil forests on Ellesmere Island in the late 1880s, the fossil forest on Axel Heiberg was only spotted in 1985 by a Canadian Geographical Survey team.