Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavut July 04, 2012 - 7:59 am

Hunters, researchers cautiously optimistic about High Arctic coal exploration

“All I want to say is the land claim is in place and it’s being implemented”

SPECIAL TO NUNATSIAQ NEWS
The Axel Heiberg fossil forest is home to one of the world’s most important and extensive collections of ancient stumps, leaves, cones and branches which have been carefully preserved, or “mummified” in peat-like soil for at least 45 million years. (FILE PHOTO)
The Axel Heiberg fossil forest is home to one of the world’s most important and extensive collections of ancient stumps, leaves, cones and branches which have been carefully preserved, or “mummified” in peat-like soil for at least 45 million years. (FILE PHOTO)

LISA GREGOIRE

Residents of Grise Fiord are hopeful that the strength of the Nunavut land claims agreement and the good will of Canada Coal Inc. will safeguard both hunting and history in the High Arctic.

Larry Audlaluk, member of the Iviq Hunters and Trappers Organization in Grise Fiord and chair of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association’s community lands and resources committee, said June 28 that his neighbours and friends are understandably wary of Canada Coal’s plan for exploratory drilling on Ellesmere Island next summer.

One of Canada Coal’s 75 licenses encompasses a huge swath of land about 100 kilometres north of Grise Fiord, at Sor and Stenkul fiords, an area where hunters regular harvest Peary caribou, Audlaluk said.

“Wildlife habitat areas are very important, as important as archaeological sites. Their rights are not to be violated,” he said.

Several fossil forest sites, aged 45 and 50 million years old, and a younger archaeological site that has been found to contain rare, now-extinct animal fossils, also fall within Canada Coal’s exploratory licenses.

Company president Braam Jonker said in a recent interview that he plans to suspend exploration on those historic sites and also in areas that Grise Fiord residents have identified as traditional hunting grounds.

Jonker also said that surveying and mapping this summer, and potential test drilling in 2013, will be concentrated further north, on the Fosheim Peninsula near Eureka, an area thought to contain one of the richest deposits of bituminous coal within the company’s existing licenses.

Audlaluk remained cautiously optimistic about those promises, pointing out that past exploration for natural resources in Nunavut has not always been benign or beneficial to Inuit, especially in the High Arctic.

“People come up and think it’s no man’s land up here and they fly really low and disturb the animals, chase them away,” Audlaluk said.

“The hunting community is our eyes and ears of what goes on. It’s very disturbing when you’re out on the land, trying to get your food stocks for winter—we don’t always like to eat pigs and cows. Then you see helicopters flying around and landing on the land and you ask, ‘What are you doing here?’ Sometimes we don’t even know about it.”

But times are changing, said the veteran of many Inuit organizations, and he hopes that provisions in the land claim are adequate to balance Nunavut’s dual desires for economic development and environmental protection.

“We are not against exploration,” he stressed. “All I want to say is the land claim is in place and it’s being implemented. What we say now has to be taken seriously.”

Scientists across Canada who have been documenting the Arctic’s ancient forests and wildlife on Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg islands are hoping their words are taken seriously too.

Dr. Jim Basinger, geological sciences professor at the University of Saskatchewan, was lead researcher on the 45-million-year-old fossil forest on Axel Heiberg Island.

He says the Eocene era site, located where it is in the High Arctic, is unique in the world and ought to be protected and preserved in a park setting.

“Where it is, when it represents and the quality of the material — that’s what makes this place so unique,” Basinger said. “It’s a picture of the last time the earth was ice-free. It was very much warmer than now.”

While Basinger is also encouraged by Jonker’s promise to protect the sites, he laments that the company is not incorporating archaeological research into their exploration plan.

According to a proposed budget contained in a September 2011 Canada Coal technical report, there is only one significant archaeological line item: May Point Funded Archaeology Study, $250,000.

It’s highly likely that May Point, the eastern most point on Axel Heiberg, contains fossils, but so might many of the other places Canada Coal hopes to explore, Basinger said.

“It’s a shame to have a field party and all that infrastructure and not take scientists with you,” he added.

It’s also a shame that places rich in coal are often rich in fossils too, pitting developers against scientists, Basinger said.

Coal is formed when plant materials are buried and pressurized underground for millions of years. If there are layers of peat mixed in, as in the High Arctic, you can find perfectly preserved wood and bones from that buried forest floor.

Natalia Rybczynski, a research scientist with the Canadian Museum of Nature, has been studying animal fossils at a site dubbed Beaver Pond and the nearby fossil forest at Strathcona Fiord, Ellesmere Island. She declined to comment on Canada Coal’s intentions for the area but she was clear about the global significance of those fragile environments.

“The Strathcona Fiord area includes the Beaver Pond site and other sites which preserve plants and animals from three to five million years ago, when the High Arctic was covered with a boreal-type forest,” she wrote in an email.

“As such, this fossil record is providing critical evidence for understanding the history of the landscape, plants and animals of the High Arctic. Ongoing research shows that these rocks are valuable climate archives, providing crucial data for testing climate models.”

Here’s a short Canadian Museum of Nature video on the Strathcona fossil forest site, narrated by Rybczynski:

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