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The Bernard Pelletier Arctic Fossil Forest at Bedford Institute of Oceanography (BIO)

By Patrick Potter

Most people know that trees do not grow in the Canadian High Arctic today. What many may not realize is that, not that long ago, geologically speaking, lush forests covered polar regions for much of the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras.

In this diorama from the American Museum of Natural History, we see the Coryphodon, the largest mammal of its time, in a lush forest that was home to dawn redwood, false cypress, hemlock, pine and ferns. This is what Axel Heiberg Island in Canada’s High Arctic probably looked like some 40 million years ago.

We know this because of fossil finds throughout the Sverdrup Basin on Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg islands. Preserved tree remains and pollen grains tell the story of a time when Earth’s climate was very different than today, much warmer and wetter. This was the environment, despite the forests being in a polar setting that ensured almost six months of total darkness through the winter months.

With this information in mind, Ruth Jackson, now scientist emeritus, with the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC), had the idea ten years ago to establish a living garden that would represent the lush forests that thrived in the Canadian High Arctic millions of years ago.

Ruth worked with Claudia Currie, also with the GSC at the time, to build support for the idea within BIO management and the BIO Oceans Association, and on October 17, 2018 the Bernard Pelletier Arctic Fossil Forest was officially unveiled.

The Bernard Pelletier Arctic Fossil Forest is a collection of trees, shrubs and ferns that have been planted in designated beds in the BIO courtyard to re-create as closely as possible, the flora that existed in the Canadian High Arctic during the Mesozoic and Cenozoiz eras.

The forest is dedicated to former GSC Arctic researcher Bernard Pelletier, a pioneer in Arctic scientific research, who led some of the earliest investigations of Canadian Arctic geology, notably geophysical studies in the Beaufort Sea during the year-long CCG Hudson '70 circumnavigation of the Americas. Three of the forests’ trees are dedicated to prominent BIO scientists: a dawn redwood dedicated to the late Surat P. (Shiri) Srivastava, a maidenhair tree dedicated to Lloyd M. Dickie, and a bald cypress dedicated to Donald Gordon.

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