Formations on Axel Heiberg Island being measured by radar beams from satellite

Salt domes make scientists dream of vast energy reserves


Like toothpaste squeezed from a tube, mountains of gypsum, a soft rock, are sprouting from Axel Heiberg Island, perhaps as rapidly as five centimetres a year.

"For a mountain, it's moving quite fast," says Paul Budkewitsch, a geologist with Natural Resources Canada who hopes to learn exactly how fast the gypsum domes are growing, using information from a satellite that shoots radar beams at the Earth.

The technology works much the same way as a radar gun used by a bylaw officer to catch a speeding vehicle, except over much more vast distances, and much slower speeds.

This summer Budkewitsch attached several metal reflectors to different areas on a dome, which will help the satellite focus on the formation's growing height. He says the information gathered from the sites over the next two years should be accurate to about two millimetres.

Geologists find the domes interesting because they're the same geological formations found beneath several kilometres of ocean and metres of mud in the Gulf of Mexico, where, like the High Arctic, there are vast deposits of oil and gas.

"You've got an exposed laboratory to see these things," said Budkewitsch.

One dome at Expedition Fiord on Axel Heiberg Island is 560 metres tall. Marcos Zentilli, a professor emeritus in geology from Dalhousie University, who is also working at the site, says that would mean the dome has grown five centimetres a year since the glaciers retreated.

The domes couldn't be any older than that, because "the glaciers wouldn't have had any respect" for a rock as soft as gypsum, says Zentilli.

Because the rocks contain salt, they would also usually be weathered away by rain and snow.

The only other place in the world, other than beneath the sea, where such formations are found is in the Zagros mountains of Iran, where, as in the High Arctic, there is little rainfall.

Zentilli said Nunavut residents ought to realize such bizarre geological formations exist in their own back yard.

"I find it exciting to tell people in Nunavut that you have mountains that are growing," he says. "They're growing like mushrooms."

Zentilli also sees a practical purpose to the domes: he thinks they may be the perfect quarry for carving stone, which is in short supply in Nunavut.

"It should be for Resolute a special rock to use, like alabaster for the Greeks."

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