Arctic Coal Mining Threatens Important Fossil Localities

12 January 2010

Reposted from the Vert-Paleo listserv:

Dear Paleo-colleagues,

As some of you may have heard, a proposed coal mining exploration project for Ellesmere Island (Nunavut) is currently under review. The proposed drilling areas include some of the most important fossil sites in the Arctic including known Pliocene and Eocene fossil sites in the Strathcona Fiord area (below this message is an overview on the paleo-significance of these areas; for map of proposed drilling, please contact Natalia).

If you are interested in writing a letter of concern, it should go to the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB). IMPORTANT NOTE: This is our ONLY opportunity in the process to put terms and restrictions on coal mining activates in these areas.
Letters to NIRB… 1) can be sent to, or via fax to (867) 983-2594.
2) must be received by 5pm MST,   January 15.
3) Letters should include a statement that follows the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement (NLCA), such as “I would hope that NIRB would recommend to the Minister a 12.4.4.”?” recommendation.”  Below is the wording and the options available under the NLCA which fill in the  “?” in the above sentence.
12.4.4 Upon receipt of a project proposal, NIRB shall screen the proposal and indicate to the Minister in writing that:
(a) the proposal may be processed without a review under Part 5 or 6; NIRB may recommend specific terms and conditions to be attached to any approval,                  reflecting the primary objectives set out in Section 12.2.5.;
(b) the proposal requires review under Part 5 or 6; NIRB shall identify particular issues or concerns which should be considered in such a review
(c) the proposal is insufficiently developed to permit proper screening, and should be returned to the proponent for clarification; or
(d) the potential adverse impacts of the proposal are so unacceptable that it should be modified or abandoned.

NOTE to protect fossil sites you should pick option (b) or (d). Option (b) suggests that more screening/baseline study is required. In practice this could              mean many more years of paleontological work would be allowed to proceed before a decision is made. Option (d) is a more aggressive option.

Below are some links and other information:

Link to coal project proposal:

Link to Westar website:

Link to article describing feasibility of Arctic mining:

Here is a brief history of the process to give you an idea of where we are so far.
1) March and July, 2009. Nunavut’s Department of Culture, Language,Elders & Youth (CLEY) reviewed coal licenses for Ellesmere Island and recommended that licenses NOT be issued for areas with known fossil localities (e.g., Strathcona Fiord, parts of Fosheim Peninsula).
2) May 2009 Westar announces that its first series of Arctic Coal licenses have been approved by INAC (Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, Canada), including four on Fosheim Peninsula and three at Strathcona Fiord.

3) Westar plans to do major drilling exploration summer 2010 at Fosheim Peninsula and Strathcona Fiord. (contact Natalia for pdf map)

4) Before Westar can start exploratory drilling they need to go through the NIRB process in order to get a land use permit.
5) The NIRB process can accept the proposal, OR put restrictions/requirements on the company, OR Require further screening, OR even modify/stop the project entirely. This is our ONLY opportunity in the process to put terms and restrictions on coal mining activates in these areas

*Please forward this information to anyone who you think may be interested to write a letter.


***Significance of paleontological
resources in Westar coal claim areas (Ellesmere Island, NU)***

Ellesmere Island has yielded a fossil record of tremendous international scientific significance. These fossils offer unique evidence for investigating evolutionary change, biodiversity, and the impacts of climate change on polar flora and fauna. Arctic fossils show us how the Earth, and especially the Arctic, has responded to changes in greenhouse gas concentrations. The Arctic is among the best places in the world to assess and predict the impacts of global warming.

Some of the most valuable known fossil-sites in the Arctic are concentrated in the Westar claim areas, particularly Strathcona Fiord.


● Warm Arctic alligator forests

Today the Arctic supports sparse vegetation, permafrost, and ice sheets. But 55 to 50 million years ago (Eocene Age) the planet, heated by greenhouse gases, was a veritable “hothouse”. The Eocene Arctic supported warm temperate rain forests of redwoods, cedar, oak, elm, and walnut. The Arctic rain forest was home to alligators, giant tortoises, primates, tapirs, and the hippo-like /Coryphodon/. We know this from fossil evidence recovered from rocks on Axel Heiberg and Ellesmere Island, mostly Strathcona Fiord. These forests surrounded an Arctic Ocean that at times during the Eocene was a freshwater lake supporting mats of the floating fern /Azolla/.

Further study of the Strathcona sites will help understand how the Arctic Ocean could become freshwater and how climates under high atmospheric greenhouse gases work. Global climate models are being tested against the fossil record of Eocene climate, which include fossil sites from Strathcona Fiord.


* First High Arctic terrestrial fossil vertebrates discovered in *1975 in* Strathcona Fiord area

* Over 30 fossil sites in coal license area

* Research is ongoing


* Planning field work for 2010 (National Science Foundation, USA)

* Reconstructing past climate andC0_2 levels

* Investigating “Deep time” model for mammal adaptation

* International research network

* Ongoing collaborations with climate modelers

* Over 40 scientific manuscripts published, including in the prestigious journals “Science” and “Geology”

● *Land of the beaver and three-toed horse
* Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predictions indicate that our planet will increase by 2-3 ºC in the next century. The last time the planet was this warm was six to three million years ago (Pliocene Age). How warm will the Arctic get? How will ecosystems and landscapes change? To answer these questions our best evidence is found in the Arctic fossil record. The most important fossil site is the Beaver Pond site. This exceptional site yields fossil wood, plants, insects, mollusks, fish, frog and mammals such as deerlet, black bear, 3-toed horse, beaver, badger, and multiple carnivores. It is the only such site in the Arctic reported to yield vertebrate remains.


* Discovered in 1961 by Geological Survey of Canada.

* Excavated from 1992-2002 by Dr. C.R. Harington, Order of Canada.

* Research is ongoing.


* Planning field work for 2010.

* Reconstructing past Arctic ecosystems, climate and C0_2 levels.

* Exceptional historical analogue for testing climate models.

* International research network.

* Ongoing collaborations with climate modelers.

* 15 scientific manuscripts published or “in press”, including in the prestigious journals “Nature” and “Geology”.

● When fish invaded land

The Devonian age rocks of southern Ellesmere Island are a resource of international scientific importance. Since the discovery of the fish fossil, /Tiktaalik/ in 2006, these sediments have become one of the most important and world renowned sources for new fossil evidence of one of the key events in earth history: the invasion of land by fish. The proposed drilling area contains sediments of the Strathcona Fiord Formation, which because of its geographic location and age, is ideal for discovering new fossil evidence equal in importance to /Tiktaalik/.

* 3 publications in journal “Nature”.

* Extensive media attention.


* The claim area on Fosheim Peninsula is known to have some leaf beds of Eocene age, and also some Pliocene fossil sites, but this area needs more palaeontological reconnaissance or inventory investigation work.

* Bache Peninsula needs palaeontological reconnaissance or inventory investigation work.

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