Norwegian trees survived Ice Age

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There’s no question that Norway has a lot of trees. New research now shows that the abundant Norwegian spruce and pine have been around much longer than previously thought, since before the last Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago, and aren’t just relative newcomers from Russia.

Spruce and pine trees are abundant in Norway, like here in Nordmarka north of Oslo. New research shows they've also been around for several thousand years longer than previously thought. PHOTO: Views and News

The new findings by a large team of international researchers were published this week in the magazine Science (external link), and alter the history of Norwegian species. Norway had been thought to be barren until the ice thawed, but now it seems today’s trees can be distant descendants of hearty pine and spruce that actually survived the Ice Age.

In their article entitled “Glacial Survival of Boreal Trees in Northern Scandinavia,” the researchers report how new discoveries of old DNA reveal roots of both spruce and pine trees in Norway that go back as far as 22,000 years.

They found the ancient traces of DNA at the bottom of lakes on the windswept island of Andøya, off the coast of northern Norway, and in Nord-Trøndelag. Mari Mette Tollefsrud of the Norwegian Forest and Landscape Institute (Norsk institutt for skog og landskap) was among the team of more than 20 researchers from 16 institutions in 11 countries involved in the project, and claims the findings shed new light on how trees, for example, can be influenced by and adapt to climate change.

Tollefsrud and Laura Parducci of the University of Uppsala in Sweden, who led the project, wrote in Oslo-based newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Friday that portions of the northern tip of Andøya had remained ice-free, allowing small plants to survive the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago.

Tollefsrud told her institute’s web site that one of the research team’s groups worked with fossils and old DNA found in sediment at the bottom of the lake Endlevatnet on Andøya. The DNA proved to stem from pine that was 22,000 years old and spruce that was 17,000 years old.

That challenges earlier theories that Norway’s pine arrived from the east around 9,000 years ago while spruce trees started growing in Norway around 3,000 years ago.

The new discoveries also support the work of Professor Leif Kullman of the University of Umeå in Sweden, who long has claimed that Scandinavian spruce doesn’t stem entirely from sources in the east, specifically Russia. He found what’s believed to the world’s oldest tree, a spruce that’s been rooted at its site at Fulufjellet east of Trysil for 9,950 years. Trees that old don’t exist in Finland, east of Norway, Kullmann told newspaper Aftenposten.

Many spruce trees in Scandinavia can be traced to Russia after the last Ice Age, Tollefsrud and Parducci wrote in DN, but not all. Kullman, they note, also has found remnants of spruce fossils at Åreskutan in Jämtland, Sweden, that are around 11,000 years old.

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen and Tromsø Museum were also involved in the project, which Tollefsrud calls “an important contribution to our understanding of how nature and species have been influenced by climate change,” and also for charting the trees’ genetic resources.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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