Policy Statements

Concern Over Possible Loss of Fossil Resources

Overview of Eocene fossil-bearing sediments near Strathcona Fiord, Ellesmere Island
Overview of Eocene (50-40 million year old) fossil-bearing sediments near Strathcona Fiord, Ellesmere Island. Image courtesy of Jaelyn Eberle, University of Colorado.

A proposed coal mining project by Westar Resources, Inc. on Ellesmere Island (Nunavut) in Canada's eastern High Arctic is currently under review by the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB), an environmental assessment agency established under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement whose objectives are to protect and promote the well-being of the residents, communities and ecosystems of Nunavut. The proposed development area includes fossil sites of a broad range of ages that include some of the most significant sites in the world, and the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) is deeply concerned over the possible loss of these valuable resources.

These unique, world-renowned sites near Strathcona Fiord include fossil plants and animals that lived during one of the warmest times in all of Earth history, when Ellesmere Island was blanketed in forests inhabited by alligators, turtles, primates and hippo-like animals. Despite over three decades of searching the High Arctic, no sites of comparable age and fossil richness have been discovered elsewhere in the Canadian Arctic.

Younger fossil sites near the head of Strathcona Fiord indicate that this area was home to larch forests, horses and beaver just a few million years ago, and underscore how quickly and dramatically the Arctic can change. In this time of global climate change and ecological precariousness, such knowledge can be invaluable to understanding and predicting the effects of future climate change in high-latitude regions, including its impact on traditional lifestyles of first peoples living in such regions. "Destruction of these fossil sites will strongly affect our ability to understand how global climate change will impact these regions over the coming century," says SVP President Blaire Van Valkenburgh.

Partial skull of ancient tapir (Thuliadanta), found in Eocene sediments.
Partial skull of ancient tapir (Thuliadanta), found in the Eocene sediments. Image courtesy of Jaelyn Eberle, University of Colorado.

Whilst not disputing either the need for finding new sources of energy, or the economic benefits that may accrue from the development of the coal mining, it is the hope and belief of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, as representative of vertebrate paleontologists worldwide, that it will be possible to preserve the invaluable fossil resources in the area alongside other objectives.