Nunavut considers a new park for Axel Heiberg’s fossil forest
Napaaqtulik would protect ancient trees
Over the course of the past 50 million years, a forest of towering trees thrived on Nunavut’s Axel Heiberg island, then died back and was buried under the sandy soil of the Geodetic Hills.
That is, until 1985, when a Canadian Geographical Survey team spotted the rows of ancient mummified trunks which had been swept clean by erosion.
Since then, these unique remnants of a much warmer polar past have remained unprotected from visitors.
But now Nunavut is looking at how best to protect the fossil forest, which lies outside the borders of Quttinirpaaq national park on Ellesmere Island, possibly by setting up a territorial park.
The park even has a name: Napaaqtulik, where there are trees.
Nunavut’s environment minister Daniel Shewchuk told the Nunavut legislature’s committee of the whole on Oct. 25 that his department is now studying whether to make the fossil forest into a park.
But it could take at least 10 more years before the fossil forest becomes a territorial park.
“It is very hard for us to determine when it will become a park or even if it will become a park. We need to, first of all, do research on it, and find out exactly what is out there, the level of support in the communities, and then look at what is the best tool to protect the site,” said David Monteith, Nunavut’s director of parks and tourism, to the committee members. “Should it be a park or should it be some other conservation area and who has that legislation?”
More than 10 years have already passed since the idea of protecting the fossil forest first came up, but Monteith said the project was postponed until the Inuit impact and benefits agreement was signed off for the first batch of territorial parks.
“So that is now behind us and now we’re kind of eagerly looking forward to proceeding with coming up with something that is meaningful for Napaaqtulik,” Monteith said.
Most of the trees that grew the 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 to 1,000 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 turning them into stone— as is the case for several other fossil forests in Nunavut’s High Arctic islands.
On Axel Heiberg trees and plants, preserved for thousands of millennia by the cold, dry Arctic climate, were 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 windstorms 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 25 years ago.
Since then, it’s been studied by several research teams, dug up by a group of American scientists in 1999 and left unprotected.
Visits to the fossil forest occur regularly during the warmer months.
The fossil forest lies only a 20-minute hop by helicopter from the Canadian military base at nearby Eureka.
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.