Mummified forest yields climate clues

Dec. 15, 2010 at 5:36 PM
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COLUMBUS, Ohio, Dec. 15 (UPI) -- A mummified forest found in Canada's far north is producing clues to how plants struggled to survive during ancient global cooling, researchers say.

Researchers from Ohio State University believe the trees, buried by a landslide and exquisitely preserved 2 million to 8 million years ago, can help them predict how today's Arctic flora will respond to global warming, a university release said Wednesday.

"Mummified forests aren't so uncommon, but what makes this one unique is that it's so far north," Joel Barker, a research scientist at OSU's Byrd Polar Research Center and the School of Earth Sciences, said.

"When the climate began to cool 11 million years ago, these plants would have been the first to feel the effects. And because the trees' organic material is preserved, we can get a high-resolution view of how quickly the climate changed and how the plants responded to that change."

Researchers say the most common trees at the site on Canada's Ellesmere Island, spruce and birch, were at least 75 years old when they died, but with very narrow growth rings and under-sized leaves that suggest they were suffering a great deal of stress when they were alive.

"These trees lived at a particularly rough time in the Arctic," Barker said. "Ellesmere Island was quickly changing from a warm deciduous forest environment to an evergreen environment, on its way to the barren scrub we see today.

"The trees would have had to endure half of the year in darkness and in a cooling climate. That's why the growth rings show that they grew so little, and so slowly," Barker said.

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