Think you know what the Arctic looked like during the Eocene Epoch? Play NOVA’s Polar Lab to find out: You might be surprised by the plants and animals that used to call it home.
Fifty Million Years Ago, the Arctic Was a Warm Swamp
Published: February 25, 2020
Caitlin Saks: Fifty million years ago, the Arctic was a much warmer and wetter place. Kind of like a modern-day swamp.
Jim Basinger: We start to put all of those pieces of evidence together to form in our minds an image of what the environment was like back then on Ellesmere Island. Let’s drop ourselves in a swamp and we’re there up to our knees in water and we’re surrounded by trees, towering overhead. The temperature would have been warm and moist, humid, like a lovely summer day.
As you approach winter, you find that day length is shortening, but the temperature doesn’t get really cold. And then the sun dips below the horizon for the last time and you’re in the polar dark winter and it’s dark for three or four months and during that dark phase all of the trees have dropped their leaves and they’re just standing waiting, not in a frosty environment, they’re just waiting in the dark for spring. Spring comes and the trees respond with an explosion of growth. And off you are to another lovely, rich growing season near the North Pole.
Caitlin Saks: Fifty million years ago, animals like Coryphodon lived in a much warmer world. Coryphodon ate green leafy plants and flowers during sun-filled summers. It was even warm enough to support animals like turtles, tapirs, and alligators. Animal and tree fossils found in the Canadian Arctic are direct evidence that Earth has been what’s called a “hot house,” a world without ice at the poles. In fact, if you look back through deep time, over the last half a billion years, these warm climates were three times as common as cold climates.
Hosted by: Caitlin Saks
Production by: Ari Daniel & Lorena Lyon
Camera: Emily Zendt
NOVA Labs Editorial Director: David Condon
Additional Visuals: NMNH | Smithsonian, Videoblocks
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2020