Researchers return from remote Greenland cave expedition

man following rope through cave

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the Universities of Sheffield, Innsbruck, Akron, and Oxford, recently returned from a successful expedition to a remote area of Northeast Greenland located at 80°N.

Dr Andrew Sole and Dr Adam Igneczi from the Department of Geography recently returned from the groundbreaking trip to one of the areas most vulnerable to climate change. The expedition, which was funded through an FWF Start Prize to Prof. Gina Moseley (Inst. Geology), collected samples and undertook research into the region’s palaeoclimate and environment, geological history, former glacier extent, cave microbiology, and entomology.

The palaeoclimate research will be used to improve understanding of how this region, which is highly sensitive to climate change, responds in a warmer and wetter world.

The Greenland Caves Project is primarily a climate change research project, which also contains elements of adventure and exploration. In the 1960s, during the cold war, the US army worked in Northeast Greenland looking for places to land aircraft in an emergency. Subsequently, in the 1990s, the Geological Survey of Denmark & Greenland carried out the geological mapping of the region. During those explorations, several caves were discovered at 80°N in Kronprins Christian Land.

To the average cave explorer they were rather boring, as most were only a few metres long before they became blocked by ice and sediment; however, the report written in 1960 documented that one cave contained calcite deposits in the form of flowstone (like a stalagmite but forming a sheet rather than a candlestick).

This information is crucially important because today the region is extremely arid (less than 200 mm per year of precipitation) and the ground is frozen, preventing the deposition of such calcite deposits under the current climatic regime (because they need water and unfrozen ground). The presence of these calcite deposits therefore tells us that at some point in the recent geological past, this area has been warmer and wetter then today.

The palaeoglaciology team collected 22 rock samples that, combined with contextual geomorphological mapping from the ArcticDEM, will provide information about the timing of ice sheet recession and thinning in this little-studied, yet important region. Samples were also collected to help understand a more ancient glacial event at the Ordovician-Silurian boundary, 445 million years ago.

A record-breaking mission

Whilst in Greenland, the team documented and explored over 30 caves that had never previously been visited. In doing so, they broke their own records for the longest explored cave in Greenland and the most northerly explored cave on the planet.

The team will now focus on the samples they collected and analysing data before publishing their results. You can see more about the mission, here.

Professor Jenny Pickerill, Head of Department of Geography, said: "Understanding climate change and, crucially, the interrelation between scientific projects such as this and social scientific work which explores the issues of spatial justice and human drivers in such change is vital to our collective future.

"Geography is one of the few disciplines able to grasp the breadth and interdependencies of human and physical processes simultaneously, and the recognition that this project received is a fantastic indicator of the value of our research in climate change."

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Department of Geography