Researchers recently unearthed ancient forests in arctic Norway from 400 million years ago. And while the fossils themselves are exciting, UK scientists believe these trees were responsible for one of the greatest climate shifts in Earth’s history.
Dr. Chris Berry, a senior lecturer at Cardiff University’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, identified the fossil forests in Svalbard, a Norweigan archipelago in the Arctic Ocean almost halfway between Norway and the North Pole.
“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,” Berry explained in a press release.
Originally a tropical forest growing near the equator, researchers say continental drift carried the trees north. With diamond pattern trunks and flared branches of needle leaves, these 12-foot-tall trees were nothing like anything in our forests today.
By examining preserved tree stumps, Dr. Berry suggests the trees lived during the late Devonian period, which existed 420 to 360 million years ago. The fossilized forest in Svalbard is one of the oldest ever discovered, eclipsed only by another Devonian forest found in Gilboa, N.Y.
The Devonian period is presumed to coincide with a 15-fold reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels that occurred during the same time. Theories attribute the drop in CO2 to tree evolution, when vegetation was changing from diminutive plants to large forest trees.
The evolution of tree-sized vegetation caused a “huge drop” in the level of atmospheric CO2 “from 15 times the present amount to something approaching current levels,” Berry explains.