From: David A Gabel, ENN
Published September 21, 2012 09:00 AM

Ancient Forests of Nunavut May Return within a Century

The far northern province of Canada known as Nunavut (pronounced none-of-it) is currently a largely barren land. The tundra extends as far as the eye can see, and is covered with ice and snow the further north one goes. The immense territory stretches from Hudson Bay in the south, comprising most of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. It has a relatively small population of about 32,000, mostly Inuit, spread thinly across an area the size of Western Europe. The province of Nunavut is undergoing significant climate changes, faster than most parts of the world. As temperatures rise, the ancient ecosystem of 2.5 million years ago will return, ushering back hardy trees and new life to this desolate land.

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According to a study from Alexandre Guertin-Pasquier of the University of Montreal's Department of Geography, Nunavut's ancient forests may return by the year 2100.

"According to the data model, climate conditions on Bylot Island will be able to support the kinds of trees we find in the fossilized forest that currently exist there, such as willow, pine and spruce. I've also found evidence of a possible growth of oak and hickory near the study site during this period.," Guertin-Pasquier said. "Although it would of course take time for a whole forest to regrow, the findings show that our grandchildren should be able to plant a tree and watch it grow."

Bylot Island lies off the northern end of Baffin Island. Baffin Island is the largest island of the Canadian Archipelago. Bylot ranks as the 71st largest island in the world, and 17th largest in Canada. The island has no permanent settlements, making it one of the largest uninhabited island in the world.

The fossilized forest on Bylot Island is 2.6-3 million years old. The age was determined from the presence of extinct species and from paleomagnetic analysis. This type of analysis involves examining how the Earth's magnetic field has affected the magnetic sediment in rocks.

Fossilized wood samples have been preserved over the many years in the permafrost and peat. Pollen was found by Guertin-Pasquier, which indicates that the annual average was up to 32 degrees F (0 degrees C) at one point. The current average temperature on Bylot Island is only 5 degrees F (-15 degrees C).

The remoteness of the island and fossilized forest means that there is very limited opportunity to explore them and unlock their mystery. The cold and sustained winds up to 80 km/h make researching in the area extremely difficult.

"There is so much mystery that surrounds this forest — for example, how these trees managed to survive the relentless dark of the Arctic winter," he said, adding that the next steps for this line of research could include looking more closely at other plant remains in order to get a better understanding of what the local flora was.

This study is being presented at the 22nd Canadian Paleontology Conference in Toronto.

Image credit: Alexandre Guertin-Pasquier

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