• Scientist James Basinger with a tree stump believed to be the remains of a 45 million-year-old forest on Axel Heiberg Island in Canada's High Arctic. (Photo: CanGeo Archives)

Since the early 19th century, Arctic explorers have observed relics of ancient forests preserved in the permafrost — a surprising sight in the otherwise barren landscape.

In 1985 Paul Tudge, a helicopter pilot for the Geological Survey of Canada, first spotted the remnants of a previously undiscovered ancient forest just 1,100 kilometres from the North Pole on Axel Heiberg island, Canada’s northernmost island. It looked like a smattering of wood and large stumps, but Tudge knew it had to be something.

He passed his observations, and some photos, on to two scientists at the GSC office in Calgary who in turn elicited the help of botanist and paleontologist James F. Basinger.

In “Our tropical Arctic,” published in the Dec. 1986/Jan. 1987 issue of Canadian Geographic, Basinger pens a story on the expedition that followed Tudge’s discovery. [Read the full story here.]

Equipped with a team of scientists, graduate students and experts on fossilized wood and forests, Basinger set out on June 25, 1986 to Axel Heiberg Island to determine just how significant a find it was.

“Walking among the ancient stumps and logs, it is so easy to let imagination to erase tens of millions of years,” he writes. “ It is a feeling I have never before experienced, for no where can the contrast between ancient and modern environments be so marked as that…of Axel Heiberg Island.”

Basinger goes on to observe the incredible preservation of the wood, appearing “freshly cut” and splintering and burning like kindling. The forest, it turns out, is not petrified, making it a remarkable find and extraordinary look at an ancient ecosystem. Basinger dates the primeval forest to approximately 45 million years old, and hypothesizes the cause of its incredible preservation, suggesting a catastrophic event such as a massive flood could have enveloped the forest in silt.

Since this expedition, numerous groups have studied the forest; however, the site remains unprotected. In recent years, the Nunavut government has considered creating territorial parks to protect its fossil forests (there are several) as well as the possibility of designating them World Natural Heritage Sites. As Basinger writes, “That we wish to return is without question. So much remains to be learned, to be discovered, in the Canadian Arctic.”