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Scientist probes fossil oddity: Giant redwoods near North Pole

Once upon a time, Axel Heilberg Island was a very strange place.

Located within the Arctic Circle north of mainland Canada, a full 8/9ths of the way from the equator to the North Pole, the uninhabited Canadian island is far enough north to make Iceland look like a great spot for a winter getaway, and today theres not much to it beyond miles of rocks, ice, a few mosses, and many fossils.

The fossils tell of a different era, though, an odd time about 45 million years ago when Axel Heilberg, still as close to the North Pole as it is now, was covered in a forest of redwood-like trees known as metasequoias.

Hope Jahren, an assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at The Johns Hopkins University, recently published results that partially demystified Axel Heilbergs vanished forests. Jahren and colleague Leo Sternberg of the University of Miami uncovered evidence that the Axel Heilbergs forests probably received equatorial water and warmth from a prehistoric weather pattern unlike anything in existence today.

Other challenging mysteries remain, including how a forest could develop given the sunlight it would receive on Axel Heilberg. Because of its closeness to the North Pole both now and in the time of the redwoods, Axel Heilberg spends four months of each year in continuous sunlight and four months of each year in continuous darkness.

We dont have plants that can survive under those conditions today, let alone forests, Jahren says. For a tree to endure four months of daylight is like you or I going without sleep for four months.

Through a grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, Jahrens research group has made three summer visits to Axel Heilberg, excavating hundreds of fossil metasequoias. The fossils are immaculately well-preserved.

Some of this stuff looks about like driftwood on the beach, but its 45 million years old, Jahren says. These fossil
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Contact: Michael Purdy
mcp@jhu.edu
410-516-7160
Johns Hopkins University
21-Mar-2002


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