Coal and the fossil record of climate change in the Canadian High Arctic

A post by Anne Jefferson

Coals exposed along Stenkul Fiord, southern Ellesmere Island, Canadian Arctic (Photo by Anne Jefferson)

Coals exposed along Stenkul Fiord, southern Ellesmere Island, Canadian High Arctic
(Photo by Anne Jefferson)

For more than 55 million years, Ellesmere Island remained in one place while the world around it changed. Fifty-five million years ago, verdant forests grew at 75¬? North latitude. These wetland forests, [comprised] of species now primarily found in China, grew on an alluvial plain where channels meandered back and forth and periodic floods buried stumps, logs, and leaves intact. Today the forests are preserved as coal seams that outcrop on the edges …[of] modern Ellesmere Island, [where] there are no forests, and the tallest vegetation grows less than 15 cm high. Large parts of the area are polar desert, subject to intensely cold and dark winters and minimal precipitation.

These are the opening lines to my M.S. thesis, in which I contrasted the Paleocene-Eocene and modern hydrological environments of Stenkul Fiord, on southern Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. My thesis goes on to describe a world that no longer exists, except in the fossil record preserved at sites in the High Arctic. This former world may provide clues as to how polar flora and fauna and their physical environment responded to global mean surface temperatures that were 2-4 degrees warmer than they are today, yet are right in line with the predictions for the end of this century. These clues, recorded in the fossil and stratigraphic record in coal and sediment layers on remote Ellesmere Island, well north of the northernmost civilian settlement in North America, are under attack. The same human demand for energy for that is driving up global temperatures is threatening to erase the very fossils that record polar life under a warmer temperature regime. The government of Canada’s Nunavut territory is currently considering claims by Westar Resources, Inc. to mine the coal beds in one of the most spectacular of all the fossil localities in the High Arctic.
During the Paleocene and Eocene, tropical vegetation extended to 50¬? N, and broad-leaved evergreens reached 70¬? N. There was no permanent polar ice, and large parts of the polar regions were covered by forests dominated by cypresses and angiosperms. Fossilized remnants of these forests are found in locations such as Spitsbergen, Greenland, the Yukon, northeastern Asia, and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. This widespread Arcto-Tertiary forest nearly disappeared as the climate cooled over the past 30 million years and modern temperate forests. Today the last remnants of this flora are preserved in the mountains of China’s Sichuan province.

Modern Metasequoia glyptostroboides. Photo taken at the Tyler Arboretum where it was identified. Photo (c)2006 Derek Ramsey via Wikimedia. (Click image for usage permissions)

Modern Metasequoia glyptostroboides. Photo taken at the Tyler Arboretum where it was identified. Photo (c)2006 Derek Ramsey via Wikimedia. (Click image for usage permissions)

Among the signature trees of the Arcto-Tertiary fossil record is the Metasequoia, a genus which was thought to have gone extinct in the Miocene until an isolated grove of Metasequoia glyptostroboides, or dawn redwood, was discovered in Sichuan in 1944. Metasequoia grows to 60 m tall and unlike sequoias, it is deciduous and loses its leaves in the winter. This would have been quite handy for life in the High Arctic, where in the Paleocene-Eocene winter temperatures might have hovered just above freezing, but would still have been dark for six months of the year.
At the site where I worked on Ellesmere Island, there were large Metasequoia logs and tree stumps still rooted in situ in the coal layers. Picking apart the coal layers, I could pull out Metasequoia leaves, twigs, and male and female cones. The siltstones between the coals preserved beautiful fossil impressions of a variety of tree leaves and stems.

Metasequoia log, Stenkul Fiord, Ellesmere Island (photo by Anne Jefferson)

Metasequoia log, Stenkul Fiord, Ellesmere Island (photo by Anne Jefferson)

Metasequoia stump, Stenkul Fiord, Ellesmere Island (photo by Anne Jefferson)

Metasequoia stump in its growth position, Stenkul Fiord, Ellesmere Island
(photo by Anne Jefferson)

My field site on Stenkul Fiord yielded only plant fossils, and for now, is safe from the development plans of Westar Resources and the Nunavut government. But a bit north at Strathcona Fiord, plants are second fiddle to the best vertebrate fossil locality of the Canadian High Arctic. At Strathcona Fiord, the fossil record shows that those Eocene forests were inhabited by alligators, giant tortoises, primates, tapirs, and the hippo-like Coryphodon. There have been over 40 papers published on the Eocene fossils of Strathcona Fiord alone. It’s not just the Eocene that makes Strathcona Fiord an amazing fossil locality either. Pliocene layers at Strathcona Fiord have yielded plants, insects, mollusks, fish, frog and mammals such as black bear, 3-toed horse, beaver, and badger. It is the only known Pliocene Arctic site with vertebrate remains.

Strathcona Fiord is one of three sites where Westar Resources, Inc. plans to mine the coal. Mining the coal will permanently destroy the embedded fossils and the possibilities for any additional discoveries at this site. The other two Ellesmere Island areas in which Westar has applied for mining permits are the Fosheim and Bache Pennisulas. We don’t know as much about the paleontology of these areas, but the little work that has been done on the Fosheim Peninsula has already discovered Eocene leaf beds and Pliocene fossils.
Paleontologists and geologists around the world are raising their voices in opposition to the proposed coal mining at Strathcona Fiord and the other sites on Ellesmere Island. The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology has issued a press release expressing concern and urging the preservation of the fossils resources. There is also a coordinated letter-writing campaign to the Nunavut Impact Review Board. I’ve just sent a letter to the review board, which I’ve appended below. If you are a paleontologist, paleoclimatologist, geologist, Arctic lover, fossil lover, or otherwise moved by the incredible story of alligators and towering trees at 75° N, I urge you join me in writing to the government of Nunavut and encourage them to at least require more study of the localities before mining is approved. Letters can be sent electronically to

To the members of the Nunavut Impact Review Board,
I appreciate the opportunity to write to you concerning the proposed Westar coal project on Ellesmere Island. I am a geologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and my research focuses on the intersection of hydrology, landscapes, and climate. My graduate M.S. thesis research focused on the paleo-environments of the Eureka Sound Group exposed at Stenkul Fiord on southern Ellesmere Island. I used the coal and sediment layers, and the fossils they contain, to understand variability of hydrological environments that existed in the Arctic 55 million years ago. Today, I work on issues of water and modern climate change, but my perspective was profoundly influenced by the time I spent on Ellesmere Island walking amidst the coal layers and fossilized tree trunks.
The proposed activities by Westar Resources, Inc. could damage or destroy fossil sites that form an important part of Nunavut’s history and environmental legacy. These fossils tell us about the history of Arctic plants and animals, and they are recognized internationally for their scientific importance. They also provide important evidence from a time when Earth, especially the Arctic, was warmer. The fossils of the Ellesmere Island sites proposed for mining by Ellesmere Island provide clues as to how polar flora and fauna and their physical environment responded to global mean surface temperatures that were 2-4 degrees warmer than they are today, yet are right in line with the predictions for the end of this century. Ultimately, I hope that evidence from Nunavut’s fossil record can help us better estimate and prepare for future climate change.
If the fossil sites in the Westar coal project areas are destroyed the evidence is lost forever, therefore I recommend that the Nunavut Impact Review Board advise the Minister, pursuant to article 12.4.4(a) of the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement, that the project proposal requires review under Part 5 or 6. I believe that much more paleontological and paleoclimatic research can be conducted at these sites before any coal is extracted from them and we lose the opportunity to learn all that we can.
I thank you for your consideration, and request that you keep me informed of the results of this screening process.


Categories: by Anne, Cenozoic, climate science, environment, fossils, photos

Comments (15)

  1. David Marjanović says:

    Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.
    All these inconsistent prepositions keep tripping me up. Behold the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, authored by the International Committee on Zoological Nomenclature and published by the Trust for Zoological Nomenclature…
    [Anne says: “Fixed now. Thanks for the catch.”]

  2. 220mya says:

    Even though I’m a vertebrate paleontologist and thus vertebrate fossils are my first love, I’d hardly say that the Ellesmere paleobotanical record plays second fiddle! See these papers as example of how important this record is in reconstructing past climate change:
    Jahren, A.H., and L.S.L. Sternberg. 2003. Humidity estimate for the middle Eocene Arctic rain forest. Geology 31:463-466.
    Jahren, A.H., B.A. LePage, and S.P. Werts. 2004. Methanogenesis in Eocene Arctic soils inferred from δ13C of tree fossil carbonates. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 214:347-358.
    Jahren, A.H. 2007. The Arctic forest of the Middle Eocene. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 35:509-540.
    Jahren, A.H., and L.S.L. Sternberg. 2008. Annual patterns within tree rings of the Arctic middle Eocene (ca. 45 Ma): isotopic signatures of precipitation, relative humidity, and deciduousness. Geology 36:99-102.
    Jahren, A.H., M.C. Byrne, H.V. Graham, L.S.L. Sternberg, and R. E. Summons. 2009. The environmental water of the middle Eocene Arctic: evidence from δD, δ18O and δ13C within specific compounds. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 271:96-103.

  3. BrianR says:

    Fantastic post … would love to see some more photos

  4. Ultimately, I hope that evidence from Nunavut’s fossil record can help us better estimate and prepare for future climate change.
    If all this coal is mined and burned, as proposed, the changes will be self-evident and irreversible. You won’t need fossils.

  5. 220mya: I love your defense of the plants! I didn’t mean to write off the floral fossils, but rather to highlight the thing that sets Strathcona Fiord apart from localities like Stenkul Fiord and the Geodetic Hills – and that’s the diversity and abundance of vertebrate fossils at the site. Thanks, too, for listing the Jahren refs. Hope Jahren is the one who made it possible for me to go to Ellesmere. Her work is fascinating.
    BrianR: I’ve been meaning to write an Ellesmere/Eocene post for ages, and this was the unfortunate kick in the pants I needed. I’ll try to get some more photos up at some point the future.
    Douglas Watts: While the change in climate might be self-evident, the response of biota to it isn’t as readily modeled. That’s one of the things the fossil record can help us understand, plus the fossils are just quite interesting in their own right.

  6. Anne — I agree wholeheartedly. And I applaud you for your stance. Thank you.

  7. Jimmy says:

    One story I know from the “horse’s mouth”- the site geologist of a producing coal mine was warned off and then fired because he published a paper on dinosaur tracks found at the minesite, potentially interrupting production during any ongoing research period. The mine management had no sense of responsibility for the knowledge which was being destroyed since there is no way in our current economic system to apply an offsetting NPV to something like dinosaur tracks. Heart breaking really.
    Great article and blog, thanks!

  8. Lars says:

    Was that the Smoky River Coal Company, Jimmy?

  9. BrianR says:

    Do you have a good reference for the PETM paleogeography and tectonic configuration at this latitude? The Eocene strata on Svalbard also contain coal-rich formations … was just wondering if these two locations were a similar paleo-latitude.

  10. Brian — during the Eocene the continents were at a similar latitude as today.

  11. BrianR says:

    Douglas, thanks.
    How about any higher-resolution paleogeographic reconstructions? If my memory serves me correct, Svalbard, northernmost Greenland, and Ellesmere Island were all part of a contiguous sedimentary basin? Is that right?

  12. BrianR: The cite I give in my thesis for the paleolatitude is a bit obscure, though I have a copy of it somewhere if you really want it.
    Irving and Wynne. 1991. The paleolatitude of the Eocene fossil forests of Arctic Canada. Pages 209-211 in Christie and McMillan, eds. Tertiary fossil forests of the Geodetic Hills, Axel Heiberg Island, Arctic Archipelago. Geological Survey of Canada.
    More generally, the sediments of the fossil forests are alluvial plain sediments derived from the events of the Eurekan Orogeny, which featured rifting, volcanism and flood basalts affecting a region including from the Labrador Sea, Baffin Bay, northern Greenland, and northern Ellesmere Island. Compression and uplift to the northeast of the fossil forest caused some erosion of shield rocks, resulting in high sedimentation rates on the alluvial plain. (At least according to my thesis, which cites Harrison et al., 1999 Bull. of Can. Petroleum Geol. 47:223-254. It’s been a long while since I’ve thought through these things in any detail.)

  13. BrianR says:

    Anne … awesome, those references oughtta do it. Thanks!
    I also found this paleogeog map for Paleocene —

  14. Jimmy says:

    Lars: No not Smoky River, but it was in the ‘Rockies’. The minesite in question is finished production and reclaimed now. But the Co remains a major and the personnel have moved on to prominent positions. So I wouldn’t want to attract attention by mentioning names.

  15. Jan Frederic Dut says:

    For years, I have been aware of the Axel Heiberg/Ellsemere metasequoia remains and fossils. I have never been there to see them but have always been amazed at the level of preservation noted at some sites (undecomposed soft plant tissue of leaves, cones, and seeds. It is that these remains were covered and spaired decompostion and then later exposed during colder periods of more recent ages, or the result of preservation in situ from a rapid climate change scenario, or both? What is the prevailing sense of it?

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