Between the hurricanes, droughts and invasive species, it has certainly been a summer of one climate event after another. Now, a group of scientists believes that warming temperatures may be setting the stage for the return of an Arctic forest lost millions of years ago.

Alexandre Guertin-Pasquier of the University of Montreal presented his research in Toronto this weekend at the Canadian Paleontology Conference. Guertine-Pasquier states the fossilized forest on Bylot Island is similar to current forests in southern Alaska. He points to similar plant diversity between the two environments, including willow, pine and spruce trees. Pollen found in the site also suggests the ancient forest flourished in a climate with an average temperature of 32 degrees Fahrenheit, significantly warmer than Bylot Island’s current average temperature of 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

The scientists were able to estimate the forest was at its peak between 2.6 million and 3 million years ago, a range determined through examination of the forest’s ancient sediment, particularly the soil’s magnetic particles. The Earth’s magnetic field affects movement of magnetic sediment in rocks, making them turn to the magnetic poles like a compass, so scientists were able to date the site’s sediment using the well-known history of the poles’ movement.

While forecasts predict that the climate on the Canadian Arctic’s Bylot Island won’t support a forest until the year 2100, there is a separate obstacle: Seeds must be brought to the area before any trees can grow. Migration is much easier for animals than plants, which must rely on creatures, wind and water to move a seed from place to place. For trees, it all depends on whether seeds are dispersed and taken to their new environment.

“Although it would of course take time for a whole forest to regrow, the findings show that our grandchildren should be able to plant a tree and watch it grow,” said Guertin-Pasquier.

Bylot Island is not the only place where warming temperatures could breathe new life into ancient forests. Drilling in the seabed off Antarctica revealed a 52-million-year-old rainforest that may also see revival. Scientists concluded that “without drastic changes,” the planet could be headed back to the temperatures that made possible.

Photo: View from the study site in June 2010. Credit: Alexandre Guertin-Pasquier