In a world first, British caver, polar explorer and climate change scientist Gina Moseley is preparing to lead an expedition to the planet’s northernmost caves in Greenland. While the expedition will explore several caves, there is one giant cave in particular that Gina is captivated by.
She first found out about it in a conversation with fellow University of Bristol Spelaeological Society member, the late Charlie Self. Charlie described the cave and gave her a folder containing an intriguing article that related how, during the Cold War, US reconnaissance aircraft looking for emergency ice-free landing sites spotted a giant cave set high in a cliff above a lake in Wulff Land on the tip of northern Greenland. And there the story was frozen for 60 years.
Gina tells Darkness Below: “Charlie could never have known what he would start the night he gave me his treasured folder full of information on caves in Greenland. He, along with many others, tried numerous times to raise funding for an expedition to North Greenland, but these never came off due to budget and logistical constraints. Somehow, by chance, the baton was passed to me that night during the weekly UBSS pub meet.
“For years I have dreamt of finding out what lies inside this cave, and whether it holds calcite samples that are critical for understanding past climate history in the Arctic. I have long thought that the only way to make this happen is to apply for the Rolex Award for Enterprise. Rolex have a long history of supporting innovative exploration projects, including caving expeditions, and so over the years I’ve been waiting for the right moment to apply. That said, I still can’t quite believe I’m a 2021 Rolex Laureate. Thank you Rolex for the recognition and support, and thank you Charlie and everyone else who has supported the Greenland Caves Project over the last few years.”
Gina’s six-member team will have a long journey to reach the region. Once there, they will travel long distances on foot in the 24-hour sunlight. They hope to explore the cave which, despite much interest and speculation, has never been visited, because of its remote location, difficult logistics and the very high cost of an expedition to north Greenland.
“The substantial funding provided by Rolex for exploration is a unique opportunity to achieve this,” says Gina. Most organisations, she points out, require proof of concept before giving out funding. Rolex, however, recognises the value of exploration teamed with science and is committed to supporting such ventures. Without Rolex’s support, she adds, scientific questions in her research about climate change “are unlikely to be answered for many decades.”
Gina − a trailblazing scientist who says that she is always looking for the next place to explore − has already led three previous expeditions, including in 2015 and 2019, to remote caves in north-east Greenland. She says that one of the best ways to understand climate change is in studying the chemical history of caves, to look for the presence of calcite deposits, speleothems, formed from dripping water. For water, with its telltale deposits, to enter the caves, the climate would have to have been warmer and wetter than it is today.
If calcite is found on this expedition, Gina’s research could potentially extend the existing climate record for the far north fourfold − up to half a million years ago. By comparing Greenland’s cave records with other climate records and with sea levels, it is possible to build a more global picture of the planet in a warmer period.
Greenland is a region vital to the planet’s future. Its ice sheet is melting at record rates. On a single day in 2019, it added up to 12 billion tonnes of water to the oceans. And world sea levels are rising by more than a millimetre a month, a rate which scientists did not expect to see for another 50 years. When the Greenland ice cap is gone, sea levels will be lifted by six to seven metres. The Arctic is warming at more than twice the rate of the global average, Gina says, adding that understanding more about how this sensitive part of the world responds in a warmer world is crucial. Rising temperatures in Greenland will influence global patterns of rainfall, ice formation, ocean currents and weather systems affecting heavily populated areas around the world.
The remoteness of the cave’s location and the difficulty of access mean that Gina’s team is limited to six members. An expert climber will provide vital assistance in accessing the cave and there will also be a doctor in case of any health issues. To gather the all-important samples and study the cave’s interior, two scientists have been selected to take part, who, with Gina, will cover the disciplines of palaeoclimatology, geology, glaciology and microbiology. A photographer will record the expedition for a film and for social media.
Gina believes that the expedition, particularly with the hook of a cave yet to be explored even though discovered 60 years ago, will focus attention on Greenland and on the effects of climate change. For this goal, she is confident about the prospect of an extreme polar expedition taking place in the name of climate science and for everyone’s future benefit.
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Report: Graham Mullan