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The Arctic 50 Million Years Ago: A Window into our Future Warm World

Fifty million years ago during the Eocene the climate was globally warm with atmospheric CO2 levels much like those predicted for our future warm world. Polar regions were free of permanent ice caps and were covered with forest vegetation, now preserved in the rock record as fossil plants. In the northern high latitudes in the Canadian Arctic broad-leaved deciduous forests were dominated by the deciduous conifer dawn redwood (Metasequoia) along with pines, spruce and larch. Flowering trees such as alder, birch, and hickory were also present, along with ginkgo and katsura. 

On Svalbard a fossil flora dominated by large birch leaves has been recovered, including also Metasequoia and the flowering tree katsura (Cercidiphyllum). Animals such as turtles, primitive horses and large browsing hippo-like mammals called Coryphodon lived in swamp-like environments. Climate signals in fossils and sediments indicate that this polar region experienced summers with relatively high temperatures (~24 °C) and with winter temperatures that remained mild, even as far as 80°N. As the present Arctic Sea ice melts are we looking forward to a tropical Arctic once again?


Jane Francis (University of Leeds)


Jane Francis is Professor of Palaeoclimatology and Dean of the Faculty of Environment at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on ancient climate change, particularly in the polar regions, the areas on Earth most responsive to environmental change. She uses fossil plants as a tool to understand the nature of past climates and to investigate the response of polar environments to climate change millions of years ago. She has undertaken twelve expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctica and was awarded the Polar Medal by H.M. Queen for her contribution to British polar research.