Arctic fossil forest sparks U.S.-Canada research war

Canadian researchers say a team of U.S. scientists may be destroying a priceless heritage site on Axel Heiberg Island.


AXEL HEIBERG ISLAND, Nunavut — Canadian researchers in the High Arctic are furious that U.S. researchers have dug up a unique fossil forest site on Axel Heiberg Island, apparently violating Canadian guidelines for the site’s use.

“I don’t like the fact that it’s fair to dismantle this forest just for a few facts. We’ve seen the effects of what we’ve already done,” says Jim Basinger, a paleo-botanist from the University of Saskatchewan.

At stake is a 45-million-year-old fossil forest that lies in the barren Geodetic Hills of Axel Heiberg Island, about 700 kilometers south of the North Pole, just off Ellesmere Island.

The area is now being considered for declaration as a National Historic Site, and as a United Nations World Heritage site

This year, Basinger was surprised and dismayed to discover a lavislhly-funded and well-equipped U.S. team at work. Basinger, who has studied the forest since 1986 on a meagre shoe-string budget, said he only heard about the team’s presence when he arrived in Resolute Bay earlier this summer.

Basinger said he had earlier expressed doubts about the invasiveness of the U.S. project and refused to participate

Approval from Nunavut Research Institute

Despite that, the U.S. team received a research licence from the Nunavut Research Institute and approval from the federal government’s Polar Continental Shelf Project.

The site is unique, because its ancient remains reveal that a tall, lush forest once covered its slopes. Forty to fifty million years ago, during a period called the Eocene, the mean average temperature in the polar region was a balmy seven to 15 degrees.

Stumps and logs from that era, as well as remnants of the leaves that covered the forest floor, can still be found in their original positions. These fossil remains are even more extraordinary because they aren’t petrified, or turned to stone, but mummified.

But today, the fossil forest is pockmarked with holes and trenches dug this month by a research team from the U.S. The 13-member team has exhumed fossils and done survey work with ground-penetrating radar and global positioning devices.

The Americans arrived on Axel Heiberg Island on June 29 to spend five weeks there at the fossil forest site. They brought two semi-permanent buildings, laboratory equipment, computers, state-of-the-art surveying equipment, a satellite phone, several cases of beer and enough food to last for three seasons.

Their well-equipped camp was funded by a $1.6 million, three year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a charitable foundation that supports projects that “tend to support the well-doing or well-being of mankind.”

Team members came from the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Maine. All are American, with the exception of one Canadian, a permanent resident of the U.S.

The team includes a forest ecologist, a fossil plant biologist, a wood anatomist and a geochemist, who plan to study how the ancient forest grew and see what it reveals about global warming.

Plant phsyiologist David Vann said that its findings would likely show that the end results of global warming might be positive, despite rising sea levels and catastrophic storms. “It would reassure people that when it’s all done, the world would be a nicer place,” Vann said.

Extensive holes and trenches

Their ranks also included a few strapping young graduate students who described themselves as “diggers.” During their first three weeks at the site, they dug holes ranging from the size of giant-sized insect hills to trenches several metres long.

This digging, explained project leader Art Johnson, was necessary to measure specimens, look at sediments, and provide data on the layout of the forest.

“This forest may be the biggest forest of the world,” said Johnson. “This is why we are digging. You want to extract as much information as possible.”

Johnson promises that all the uncovered wood would be tagged and reburied in the same positions as before.

“We desperately don’t want to be the bad guys. We have been gentler on the landscape than the people before us. We will restore the land to its original configuration, and we will restore the wood to its original position, and the data will be available to the scientific community,” said Johnson. “There will be no craters.”

They’ll send tree fossil samples to the U.S., where their atomic make-up will be analysed to reveal more about the atmospheric and environmental conditions that the trees grew in.

But after fielding criticism from Canadian researchers and scrutiny from two journalists who showed up at the site independently, the Americans feel increasingly defensive.

“We have the permits to be here and everthing we did was legal. I don’t need to irritate a lot of people. I don’t need to be considered as a trespasser,” said Johnson. “I feel persecuted.”

But due to the emerging furore over the project, he is thinking about not returning to the site next year.

“Some people thing that this place is sacred, others want it for a picnic spot. We think it’s a scientific resource,” said Johnson. “Maybe it’s good if Canadians decide what they want to do with it.”

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