Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Axel Heiberg ,
arctic as arctic can be, plus fossil trees from the Eocene


Axel Heiberg Island is an island in the region of Nunavut, in Canada's High Arctic. Located in the Arctic Ocean, just aside the huge Ellesmere Island, it is a large island with an area over 43 000 km2.


Coordinates: 79° 26′ N, 90° 46 ′ W
Uninhabitated -  Only in summer, a small crew works at McGill Arctic Research Station (MARS)

Ridged cliffs are a common landscape in the island


Axel Heiberg Island was discovered in 1900 by Otto Sverdrup during his Norwegian Polar Expedition of 1898-1902. Peary and Cook were also brief visitors to the island.

An ice cap covers the central area of the island, feeding several glaciers and lakes

Polar desert” is the term that best describes most of the landscape of Axel Heiberg.


A barren land that hardly supports life, but surprisingly is home to muskox herds, caribou, arctic foxes, hares and wolves, ermine and owls, as well as a spectacular flora.

 Arctic wolf.

Ermine jumping.

Flowers abound in early July, when masses of purple saxifrage make the tundra appear red, then later in the month yellow mountain avens, arctic fireweed and impressive arctic poppy which, despite of its considerable size, blossoms even in the strongest of winds.

Purple saxifrage.

Mountain avens.

Arctic fireweed.

Firewood nearby the Crusoe glacier.

Poppies around Crusoe glacier.


Phantom Lake and its surroundings is one of the most striking landscape features of central Axel Heiberg.
With a surface are of approximately 6 km2, it is dammed by Thompson Glacier.

Astro Lake and the Thompson glacier - one of the best studied glaciers on earth.

Crusoe glacier, from the tongue upwards to the accumulation area.

Midnight view of White Glacier.

But Axel Heiberg is best known among scientists for two geologic features:
- the Lost Hammer spring and
- the Mummified forest.

The unusual fossil forests date from the Eocene period:

Metasequoia occidentalis mummified.

'About 55 million years ago, the fossil forest on Axel Heiberg Island was a wetland forest. Temperatures hovered around the 18-degree Celsius mark, not the -10 degrees of today. Silt-rich flood waters preserved the flora - palm trees, dawn redwoods, bald cypress and cycads - perfectly.'

The trees reached up to 35 metres in height; some may have grown for 500 to 1000 years. Instead of turning into petrified "stone" fossils, they were ultimately mummified by the cold, dry Arctic climate, and only recently exposed by erosion.

Lost Hammer Spring
(79° 07' N, 90° 21' W)


The Lost Hammer Spring, located in the central west region of the island, is the coldest (it gets down to -50º C, easy) and saltiest of all springs on earth described to date, and is characterized by perennial discharges at subzero temperatures, hypersalinity, rich in sulfates - similar to possible springs on planet Mars !


While Axel Heiberg is already inhospitable enough, the Lost Hammer spring is even more so !

MARS on earth

Coordinates: 79° 26′ N, 90° 46′ W


In 1959, scientists from McGill University installed a small base in central Axel Heiberg Island - the McGill Arctic Research Station, MARS.


It consists of a small research hut, a kitchen and 2 temporary structures that can comfortably accommodate 8-12 persons. The station was busiest during the early 1960s, during which a population of 20 was present.


The station is now only used during the summer months, when the sun shines almost continuously and there is enough power, which is supplied by solar panels.


MARS is situated on the west coast of Axel Heiberg Island, just 8 km from the ocean. Although its surroundings are typical High Arctic polar desert, this local is dominated by the presence of the fjord's glacier.


The kitchen hut is a half-century old structure.

Even a small emergence library has its place in the hut interior.

MARS provides access to glacier, ice cap, and polar desert environments. The surroundings are mountainous and glaciated. Research activities include glaciology, climate change, permafrost hydrology, geology, microbiology.