From black to green and everything in between: cliff-side museum explores how natural resources have shaped Canada’s culture
Take a virtual tour of the museum at the UNESCO-listed Joggins fossil cliffs on the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia to celebrate International Museum Day 2018
Perched on a cliff overlooking the Bay of Fundy sits one of the greenest buildings in Nova Scotia. When the Joggins Fossil Cliffs Centre was completed in 2008, it was awarded a gold-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification by the Canada Green Building Council. Powered by the latest green technology including solar panels and a wind turbine, the building sits on the site of one of the oldest coal mines in Canada.
Dr. Melissa Grey, Curator of Palaeontology at the Joggins Fossil Cliffs Centre, likes to point out to visitors this seemingly unnatural connection between the green building and the old black coal mine on which it is built. The contradiction highlights the important role mining played in the birth of so many Canadian towns.
“Joggins was a thriving town of around 5000 people when the coal mines were open so, culturally speaking, it made a huge impact on this part of the world,” said Grey. “There wouldn’t be a town here if it wasn’t for mining. It’s fascinating to trace the natural history of how the coal was formed in peat bogs 300 million years ago to the cultural history of how towns and places are settled.”
Visiting the Joggins fossil cliffs is different from a regular museum visit. The experience begins at the Centre, on top of the cliffs, with exhibits of 300-million-year-old fossils and over 150 years of coal mining history. However, the highlight for most is the trip down to the beach. Walking tours—at low tide, of course—allow visitors to take in the story exposed in the cliffs.
“All fossils are from the late Carboniferous period over 300 million years ago, specifically 310 to 325 million years old,” said Grey. “At the time, Joggins was located near the equator and could be likened to a tropical rainforest-type environment with a high biodiversity of plants, including ferns, horsetail relatives, club-moss trees and early conifers. The earliest known reptile in the fossil record is found at Joggins.”
The conditions were perfect for fossil preservation and coal formation in the massive peat bogs that existed at the time given the way they were buried. Coal mining at Joggins began in 1847, although there are records of the Acadians using the coal over 100 years before. The Joggins No. 7 (Shore) Mine, Canada’s first underwater coal mine, opened in 1905 at the present-day site of the Joggins Fossil Cliffs Centre. However, coal mining at Joggins became uneconomical because the coal has high impurities and wider, easier-to-mine coal seams were available at nearby Cape Breton. The Bayview (Green Crow) Mine was the last operating mine in Joggins and closed in 1962.
Local coal miner and self-taught paleontologist, Don Reid, donated over half of the fossils in the museum when it opened in 2008. He worked below the ground for half his life, then became a regular visitor to the museum at the surface until he passed away at 95 years old in 2016. The fossil cliffs became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 after Reid and other enthusiasts helped demonstrate its outstanding universal value as the best place on Earth to view the late Carboniferous terrestrial landscape.
Today, the Joggins Fossil Institute (a not-for-profit charity) co-manages the site with the Province of Nova Scotia and welcomes 20,000 visitors per year.
“We try and help people understand the importance of natural resource industries like coal mining but also how we’re evolving toward different forms of energy, like the wind turbine and solar panels we have installed at the Centre,” said Grey. “We all live in this world and need to understand where our resources come from and the impact they have on the environment. The energy industry is evolving, and, as consumers, we should be aware of where the materials used to generate energy are coming from, so we can make informed choices.”
“Educational institutions like ours have a role to play in that understanding of resource management and use.”
Have your say on Canada’s natural resource management by joining the conversation at minescanada.ca or #YourCMMP.