Cardiff Researchers Unearth Tropical Fossil Forests in Svalbard, Norway

Posted on November 20, 2015

Bottom of Svalbard Fossil Forest

British researchers have discovered long hidden ancient fossil forests which they believe were the cause of a major climate change event 400 million years ago. Dr. Chris Berry of Cardiff University's School of Earth and Ocean Science identified the forests, which were found in the Norwegian Archipelago of Svalbard. The fossil forests were found with the tree stumps still intact and preserved.

During the late Devonian period (420-360 million years ago) atmospheric CO2 dropped dramatically, from nearly 15 times current levels to a level close to what is on Earth today. The researchers believe this drop was caused by a change in Earth's vegetation as it changed from smaller plants to the first large forest trees.

380 million years ago, Svalbard was located near the equator. (Tectonic plate drift eventually shifted the archipelago north by 80 degrees to its present location in the Arctic.) Svalbard was covered in dense forests of lycopods which grew to approximately four meters in height. The trees were closely packed together, with only approximately 20 centimeters between the trees.

The tropical forests pulled CO2 out of the air through photosynthesis. As the forests grew taller and larger they pulled more and more CO2 out of the atmosphere leading to a global temperature drop. Dr. Berry explained the significance of the find saying, "This demonstrates that there was already geographical diversity of forest plant types and ecology just as soon as they had evolved... 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."

Svalbard is now one of the northern most inhabited places on the planet. Approximately 2500 people live there. It is also the home of the Global Seed Vault, which stores and preserves a large variety of Earth's plant seeds to ensure against diversity loss in case of a global catastrophe.

Dr. Berry's fascinating findings have been published here in the journal Geology.

Reconstructed drawing of Svalbard fossil forest


Images: Dr Chris Berry/Cardiff University