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Fossil Forests Found In Arctic Circle; Drastic Climate Shifts 380 Million Years Ago

Nov 22, 2015 10:09 PM EST
Fossil Forest
This reconstruction represents what Svalbard forests would have looked like 380 million years ago. Analyzing preserved stumps sheds light on what triggered the drastic climate shift experience during the Late Devonian.

(Photo : Dr. Chris Berry/Cardiff University)

Tropical fossil forests from 380 million years ago were recently unearthed on the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago located in the Arctic Ocean. After careful analysis, researchers from Cardiff University suggest the ancient forests shed light on the drastic climate shift experienced during the late Devonian period. 

"It's amazing that we've uncovered one of the very first forests in the very place that is now being used to preserve the Earth's plant diversity," Dr. Chris Berry, a professor in Cardiff University's School of Earth and Ocean Science, said in a news release. "These fossil forests show us what the vegetation and landscape were like on the equator 380 million years ago, as the first trees were beginning to appear on the Earth." 

During the Devonian period (420-360 million years ago) there was a huge drop in atmospheric carbon dioxide, which researchers believe was caused by a change in vegetation from small plants to the world's first large forests. The fossilized tree stumps examined were preserved in place and originally grew near the equator where Svalbard was located millions of years ago before tectonic plate activity shifted it northward to its current position in the Arctic Ocean.

Essentially, forests take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through a process known as photosynthesis. Because of high temperatures and large amounts of rainfall at the equator, it is likely that the forests in this area contributed most to the rate of carbon dioxide drawdown during the Devonian. Additionally, researchers concluded the forests of Svalbard consisted mainly of dense, tall lycopod trees, which are known for turning into rich coal deposits. 

"During the Devonian Period, it is widely believed that there was a huge drop in the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, from 15 times the present amount to something approaching current levels," Dr. Berry continued. "The evolution of tree-sized vegetation is the most likely cause of this dramatic drop in carbon dioxide because the plants were absorbing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis to build their tissues, and also through the process of forming soils."

Today, Svalbard is home to the world's Global Seed Vault, which is an underground, frozen seed bank home to a wide variety of preserved seeds. 

Their findings were recently published in the journal Geology

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