It’s cold this far north. The snow hangs around well into summer and there is no daylight between November and February – but most importantly, there are no trees up here. So what does a tree-hugging, plant loving horticulturist like me do in this permafrost infested landscape? Go fossil hunting, of course!
Welcome to the town of Longyearbyen in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. Longyearbyen, with 2,100 people Svalbard’s biggest community, is the city (?) that never sleeps, at least not between June and August when the sun refuses to drop below the horizon. I am here, perfectly timed with the Summer Solstice, to solve a mystery: why can you find fossil imprints of luscious vegetation in the moraines of the local glaciers when no vegetation exists in Svalbard (except for some pathetic, low growing but still remarkable wildflowers on the slopes of eroding mountains)?
As I climb to the top of the terminus of Longyearbyen Glacier, my eyes are fixated on every piece of shale and rock under and around my feet. I am so focussed that I totally ignore the barnacle geese, little auks and arctic fox that are watching me from the sidelines. What I am looking for is pieces of rock that clearly show imprints of perfectly formed leaves or tree branches – proof that this frozen landscape at one point in geological history, wasn’t frozen at all but warm and humid and covered with lush vegetation.
Give or take a few million years, Svalbard was located near the South Pole around 570 million years ago, well into the Precambrian period. Now it is 1,000 km (600 mi) north of the tip of Norway, well above the Arctic Circle between 74 and 81 degr Northern Latitude (NL). The archipelago’s current location is, in terms of latitude, equivalent to northern Greenland and the Canadian Ellesmere Island. Being located on the ever-moving Eurasian tectonic plate, Svalbard travelled northward, crossed the equator around 300 million years ago, collided with Greenland and then moved eastward to its present location.
Back on the glacial moraine, it was not long before I found my first piece. The perfect imprint of a pre-historic leaf catches my eye on a large rock. I am stunned, run my fingers across the image and allow the reality to sink in that this leaf with its symmetrical veins and serrated edges was blown off a tree, covered up with sediments and fossilized 30 to 50 million years ago. Then, Svalbard was still located at a lower NL and possessed a much warmer climate.
I use my hammer to chisel away at the edges of the leaf, trying my best to pry it loose from the rock while hoping not to break it in the process. After a while, I give up. The risk of chipping it and wrecking this miraculous witness of the past is too great. I abort my attempt, decide to leave the precious leaf for future generations to enjoy, take a picture of the rock and - buy a fossil in town.
If the geologists are correct, Svalbard continues to move northward and will soon (in 50 millions years from now) be located near the North Pole. I wonder what future humans will find then - fossilized Toyota Prius? I wouldn’t rule it out. After all, Longyearbyen has the northern-most Toyota dealership in the world.