Mysterious Arctic tree trunks witness changes in the Earth. Specimens like these are found nowhere else

Today’s Arctic is a veritable land of frost and ice. Despite ongoing climate change and the dynamic increase in temperatures in this region, northern Canada and Greenland remain covered in snow most of the year. Only during the short summer does it get warm enough for the melting of ice and snow cover to expose the bedrock. This could be an interesting object for scientific observations.

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Looking at the summer landscape of Canada’s Axel Heiberg Island, at first glance, there is nothing interesting to see. The gray, gravelly ground here stretches almost the entire area. In 1985, scientists from the Geological Survey of Canada discovered an amazing element in the landscape during a helicopter flight. After long observations, it turned out that the black dots protruding from the ground are a petrified forest.

Topography and location of Axel Heiberg Island / Source: Zamonen, Wikimedia Commons, CCP-SA 4.0

Since then, several scientific expeditions have been carried out that have proven that we are dealing with the remains of tree trunks from 45 million years ago, that is, from the Eocene period. They are about a meter in diameter and of a similar height. They are currently located 3,000 kilometers north of the nearest forest. How could they have grown here in the past?

Petrified tree trunks examined by scientists from Canada and the United States

A team of scientists from Florida Museum of Natural History The University of Saskatchewan, led by Stephen Manchester, recently conducted an in-depth analysis of these unusual plant fossils. You can read the results of their work in the journal International Journal of Plant Sciences.

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As the study authors explain, the fossilized tree trunks have been preserved in such good condition to this day due to what is called mummification. They were not completely decomposed by bacteria and fungi, nor were they burned in a fire. There was no replacement of organic matter with minerals, such as silica. The Arctic forest survived until modern times thanks to its rapid burial in swamp or lake sediments and the cutting off of oxygen access.

Walnut fossils under the microscope / Source: Stephen Manchester, Florida Museum of Natural Historypress materials

The researchers reported that the forest they analyzed was primarily made up of trees similar to the walnut species. Over a period of 15 years, they collected more than a thousand nuts and seeds from the Petrified Forest, then examined them in the lab. CT scans were used to peer inside the collected samples. They were so different from modern nuts that they were given new species names within the genus. Joglans.

Why did walnut forests cover the Arctic 45 million years ago?

Walnut trees so far north may seem absurd from the perspective of today’s climate. In the Eocene, the Arctic’s thermal conditions were completely different – global warming was then taking hold. It is estimated that temperatures at that time were up to 10 degrees Celsius higher than they are today. There was so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere 45 million years ago that global warming intensified.

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As scientists acknowledge, the Canadian Arctic was once covered with redwood forests. There were also cypress swamps and mountain forests. In fact, on Axel Heiberg Island and its neighbors, in the Eocene, we can find tree species such as cedar, pine, spruce, larch, ginkgo, birch and walnut trees discussed above.

Graph of estimated temperatures on Earth over the past 500 million years / Source: Glenn FergusCC-BY-SA

One thing remained constant throughout this period, however, and that was the huge difference between the white nights of summer and the very short days of winter. The northern forests then had to adapt to very short growing seasons – they were dormant for much of the year due to the lack of light, and in the summer they compensated for the lack of sunlight with days of up to 20 hours.

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The discovery of a new species of walnut from a petrified forest also gives us a broader perspective on the evolutionary history of these trees. The nuts were previously thought to have originated in Asia, but research in recent years suggests they first appeared in the humid environments of North America and Europe before spreading to cooler regions further north.

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