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OSU researchers analyze arctic mummified forest

Humans aren’t the only thing that can be mummified. 

Joel Barker, an Ohio State research scientist, is leading a group in analyzing a mummified forest in the Canadian arctic.

The trees are believed to be 2 to 8 million years old.

The forest, located about 500 miles away from the North Pole on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, is the farthest north a mummified forest has been found.

“The most unusual thing about this is that there were forests located at this very, very north location,” said Robert Blanchette, a professor in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Minnesota who is working with Barker on the study. “The trees that were growing there had to live under very difficult conditions and they were living with half the year dark and half light.”

The researchers are hoping to discover the climate of the ancient forest and how it responded to climate change in the arctic.

“What is neat about it is the diversity of the wood we are finding,” Barker said. “It is such low bio-diversity, which suggests that this was really a sight where the ecosystem was just right on the edge probably due to climate deterioration. We know that in the past up in the high arctic it was quite a bit warmer so you did have forests growing up there.”

Discovering how the ancient forest responded to climate change might help predict how current forests will respond.

“When you talk about climate change it does not really matter if you are talking about a warming or a cooling,” Barker said. “By doing this maybe we can identify certain thresholds, almost like a comfort zone for the ecosystem. So was the ecosystem responding quick to the cooling and if it was, can we expect a quick response to a future warming.”

Researchers have been able to identify different types of trees in the ancient forest including white pines, spruce and birch.

“We can look at the species distribution of trees … and compare it to modern analogs, or where we find similar tree species today. And then we can look at the climate where those trees are growing today and hopefully that information will support the research that Joel is doing (at Ohio State),” said Joel Jurgens, a research scientist in the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Minnesota, who is also working on the project.

Mummified wood is different than petrified wood, which is more commonly known.

“This mummified wood is just like the wood you would find out there today, it’s just dried out; you can still light it on fire. How it has been preserved that way is you just cut it off from oxygen and cut it off from water being able to circulate through it and it just persists for millennia,” Barker said.

Barker, 37, from Calgary, Alberta, discovered the main deposit of the forest while working on an un-related project for his postdoctoral at the University of Alberta.

“It was really a surreal sort of experience,” Barker said. “It’s hard to sort of wrap your head around it, especially when you start digging into where this stuff is coming from and you find intact leaves that are millions of years old. So it was not like a ‘wow’ or anything, it was a ‘holy smokes, what is going on?'”

Barker said the Canadian arctic might hold more undiscovered treasures.

“There are definitely more. There have been at least a dozen sites in the Canadian arctic that have been identified with mummified wood,” Barker said. “I am sure there are other sites around there, it’s just such a big country people have not found it yet.”


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