Canadian High Arctic Islands Were Once Home to Rich Forests

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Dr. West hunts for fossils using a rock hammer to split apart shale on Ellesmere Island. Image credit: Markus Sudermann.

Lush green forests grew on Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg islands of the Canadian High Arctic 56 million years ago (Paleocene-Eocene boundary), according to a new study published in the journal Palaeontographica Abteilung B.

“It’s very surprising how similar these ancient polar forests were to some of our modern forests,” said Dr. Christopher West, a paleobotanist in the Departnmet of Geological Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan and the corresponding author of the study.

“We identified fossil plants related to many modern temperate trees: birch, alder, elms — even plants belonging to the grape family. Some of the fossils are related to trees now found only in East Asia.”

“The presence of these forests gives us an idea about what could happen over long periods of time if our modern climate continues to warm, and also how forest ecosystems responded to greenhouse climates in the distant past.”

In the study, Dr. West and his colleagues, University of Saskatchewan’s Dr. Jim Basinger and Brandon University’s Dr. David Greenwood, created a comprehensive catalogue of fossil plants from multiple localities on Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg islands.

They identified and described 83 types of plants: 62 ‘dicot’ angiosperms, three monocotyledonous angiosperms, 13 gymnosperms, and five pteridophytes.

“While Earth was considerably warmer during the early Eocene, the continents were mostly situated where they are now, and northern latitudes would have had lengthy periods of darkness,” the researchers said.

“Despite the nearly total lack of light, the forests persisted, likely because of just how warm it was.”

“We won’t see a return to a forested polar region in our lifetimes, but it is important to remember that we as humans have become agents of climate change, and that our warming climate will have potentially dramatic effects on our modern ecosystems,” Dr. West said.

“If we are able to understand how ecosystems long ago responded to global warming, we may be able to better predict how our own modern ecosystems will respond to our own rapidly warming climate.”

“This research will also help climate modelers as they use data from the past to better understand our own climate.”


Christopher K. West et al. 2019. The late Paleocene to early Eocene Arctic megaflora of Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg islands, Nunavut, Canada. Palaeontographica Abteilung B 300 (1-6): 47-163; doi: 10.1127/palb/2019/0066