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P.E.I. storms and erosion reveal treasures — but also wash some of them away

A fossil on the surface of a large rock discovered at Cap Egmont in 2022 had to be extracted from the ground quickly because of concerns that the waves were washing it away.  (Submitted by John Calder - image credit)
A fossil on the surface of a large rock discovered at Cap Egmont in 2022 had to be extracted from the ground quickly because of concerns that the waves were washing it away. (Submitted by John Calder - image credit)

Scientists are still assessing the impact of post-tropical storm Fiona on fossils and other cultural artifacts buried in the Island's shoreline.

The massive storm in September 2022 washed away a record amount of shoreline, according to researchers at UPEI's School of Climate Change and Adaptation. In some places it was as much as a metre and a half to seven metres, compared to the usual annual average of 30 centimetres a year.

"From a fossil standpoint, Fiona had quite an impact. It giveth and it taketh," said John Calder, a paleontologist who works for the provincial government as a consultant.

One casualty was a site on the North Shore of P.E.I. where five very large boulders were covered with trackways of reptiles from 290 million years ago.

John Calder
John Calder

John Calder, a paleontologist who works for the provincial government as a consultant, says shoreline erosion has also had some benefits. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

"It's hard to imagine that the power of the ocean could have done that, but these things were at least a ton each and they were gone right after Fiona," Calder said.

"It was just dismay. Because these were quite nice, multiple different kinds of creatures all on this one surface. It had a lot of real story to be told."

Calder said researchers had been able to get good photographs of the boulders between their discovery and the 2022 storm, but the artifacts themselves are lost forever.

Glimpses of the past

At the same time, Calder said shoreline erosion has also had some benefits.

"Coastal erosion, which is the bane of everyone living near the shore, actually continues to reveal more and more and more glimpses of of Prince Edward Island's prehistoric past," he said. "An incredible record has emerged — especially since Fiona."

Calder said P.E.I. is becoming a hot spot for paleontology in part because of recent discoveries from the early Permian period, before the age of dinosaurs.

John Calder holds a fossilized fern discovered on Prince Edward Island.
John Calder holds a fossilized fern discovered on Prince Edward Island.

John Calder holds a fossilized fern discovered on Prince Edward Island. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Calder said coastal erosion also means it is important to be constantly monitoring changes along the Island's shoreline.

"Sometimes a continuous trackway of footprints that go into the cliffs, it's collected. Then a year or two, five years later, if we keep monitoring that site, we'll find there's more examples that the creature's trackway continues well into the cliffs...

An incredible record has emerged.
— John Calder, paleontologist

"Coastal erosion yields more and more fossil treasures around P.E.I., and it's important to be vigilant all the time, monitoring."

Calder said there are only a few trained paleontologists on the Island, so it's important for what the field calls citizen scientists to watch the shoreline as erosion continues, "to be aware, to be vigilant, especially walking on the cliffs and along the shore.

"Keep your eyes peeled, and if you see something different, bring them to the attention of the P.E.I. government. And then I'm contacted to see if this is potentially a fossil."

This fossil was discovered in late 2023 along the shores of Hillsborough Bay.
This fossil was discovered in late 2023 along the shores of Hillsborough Bay.

This fossil was discovered in late 2023 along the shores of Hillsborough Bay. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Calder cited the summer 2022 discovery of an entire fossilized skeleton of a prehistoric animal from about 290 million years ago as a situation where scientists had to react quickly before the fossil washed away.

A local teacher was the person who spotted it at Cap Egmont and reported it.

"Every tide that came in was covering it, and washing bits of it away," Calder said.

"From the time that she found it, to the time we collected, it was just a few days, but it would not have been there in another week or two weeks. It was just that brief an opportunity."

Fossil being extracted
Fossil being extracted

Another view of the large fossil being extracted at Cap Egmont in the summer of 2022. (Submitted by John Calder)

'Don't disturb'

Provincial archaeologist Christian Thériault agrees coastal erosion is a major concern when it comes to preserving traces of the Island's heritage.

"Fiona had a pretty big impact," Thériault said. "Walking around the Island, I could see a lot of known and unknown sites that have been highly disturbed by the storm, putting at risk a lot of knowledge to disappear if we didn't try to protect it."

Provincial archaeologist Christian Thériault says coastal erosion is a major concern as he and his staff try to preserve the cultural heritage of the Island.
Provincial archaeologist Christian Thériault says coastal erosion is a major concern as he and his staff try to preserve the cultural heritage of the Island.

Provincial archaeologist Christian Thériault says coastal erosion is a major concern for the work he and his staff are doing, trying to preserve the cultural heritage of the Island. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

With rising sea levels, he said, "The Island is slowly disappearing. So a lot of this cultural and geological heritage has been disappearing all the time.

"It's our job to try to identify it, and protect what we can, and maybe take it out of the ground before it disappears."

Thériault said he wants Islanders to contact his department if they find anything that might be a cultural artifact or a fossilized echo of a past life form.

Some of the artifacts that have been preserved by P.E.I.'s archaeology department.
Some of the artifacts that have been preserved by P.E.I.'s archaeology department.

Some of the artifacts that have been preserved by P.E.I.'s archaeology department. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

"After a big storm like Fiona, there was a lot of people contacting us because everything was being exposed everywhere around the Island," he said. "The main thing is not to disturb [it]. Just let us know where it is, what they found, so we can go and investigate."

Thériault's advice:

  • Take a photo of the object and place it next to an item such a coin, to provide a sense of its size.

  • Document the exact location of the object, maybe by dropping a pin on your phone's map app.

  • Contact the provincial archaeologist by email at archaeology@gov.pe.ca.