Follow Northern Caves 2023!
During the height of the Cold War, the US Air Force and US Geological Survey undertook an extensive campaign in North Greenland to evaluate emergency ice-free landing sites. As part of that programme, a huge cave, tens of metres wide by tens of metres high, was photographed in 1958 during aerial reconnaissance. The photograph was sent to the Department of Geography at the University of Bristol, UK, and over the next few decades, numerous speleologists dreamed of mounting an expedition to this enigmatic ‘Wulff Land cave’. Unfortunately, due to the remote location, difficult and expensive logistics, none of these expeditions ever departed. The cave remains unexplored to this day!
Caves offer one of the last few remaining places on Earth where pure and true exploration can take place. Satellites do not see inside, and robots are not yet able to remotely map them to acceptable standards. Scientifically, caves can be studied to understand hydrology, climate change, biology and microbiology, palaeontology and anthropology. Caves even hold potential clues for astrobiology!
The ‘Wulff Land cave’, which is also known as Higginshule, is situated in a climatically sensitive part of the globe. The figure below from the 6th IPCC Working Group 1 report shows predicted changes in temperature and precipitation by the end of this century for 1.5°C, 2°C, and 4°C of global warming. In all situations, the Arctic is predicted to experience some of the greatest changes. These changes will lead to: melting of ice sheets causing sea levels to rise and ocean circulation to shift; thawing of permafrost releasing further greenhouse gases and causing further warming; loss of Arctic sea ice, thus lowering albedo and increasing surface warming. In addition, with a reduced temperature gradient between the Arctic and Equator, weather patterns will shift causing changes to growing patterns, migration routes will be disrupted, and extreme events (heatwaves, droughts, storms, floods, hurricanes, wildfires etc), will increase in frequency. In order to put the human-induced global warming in the context of natural climate variability, and in order to improve predictions for the future, research is continually needed to improve understanding of the climate system.
Caves are important resources for climate change scientists. Caves exist for hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions of years. Over this time, caves collect long records of climate and environmental change occurring on the surface. Some of these records are found in mineral deposits called speleothems that form from dripping water. A common example of a speleothem is a stalagmite, and these are the candlestick-like formations found on the floor in caves. Because stalagmites grow from water that has entered the cave from above, they record chemical information about the climate and environment at the time the stalagmite was growing.
2023 Northern Caves Expedition
Northern Caves 2023 Team
Thank you to the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, Global Climate Change Foundation, Petzl Foundation, Stiftung Universität Innsbruck, Mount Everest Foundation, Transglobe Expedition Trust, Austrian Academy Sciences, WINGS WorldQuest, Grayl , Cardo and StellaPro Lights for supporting our expedition! We are extremely grateful to be given the opportunity to find out what lies inside the most northern-known caves in the world and to pursue our climate research in the Arctic.
Short film from the Rolex Awards for Enterprise #rolex #rolexawards #perpetualplanet
As it happened, by Nathan Hudson-Peacock
For the last 65 years, cavers and scientists alike have wondered about the Wulff Land cave. How deep is it? Would it be possible to get inside? Could it contain samples that would answer what Greenland was like hundreds of thousands of years ago during its warmer, wetter past? Nobody has pondered these questions more than paleoclimatologist Professor Gina Moseley, our expedition leader, who first heard about this cave in 2008, sat in a pub in Bristol during her PhD. For the next 15 years, her career focused on what caves can tell us about climate change, and this enigmatic cave remained an intriguing mystery. But, in 2023, after an entire career’s worth of research and planning, countless funding applications and innumerable hours spent sorting out logistics and packing freight, the once seemingly impossible expedition was finally upon us. As the day of departure grew closer and closer, there were yet more challenges: our cost share partners postponed their expedition to 2024 leaving us €€€ short; a volcano began to erupt in Iceland potentially jeopardising our flight plans; a last minute panic when we were told our freight was 400kg over the payload due to needing more fuel. But, with support from our logistics coordinator, Sebastian, we managed to overcome these hurdles and on Monday 17th July 2023, we all met in Iceland to begin our journey to the most northern caves on the planet: a region so remote that some Arctic experts refer to it as a logistical dead zone. We flew by commercial airliner as far as we could, and from Akureyri onwards we were chartered small aircraft. A handsome red and white King Air took us on a bearing of 359º north to Station Nord, and from there, a Twin Otter – a twin-propeller aircraft with fat rubber tires and massive suspension – took us hundreds of kilometres over glaciers and sea ice, to land on a strip of rubble on a nondescript plateau in Wulff Land: our base camp. One of the team, Greenlandic archeologist Hans Lange, had been travelling for 5 days already by the time we reached Wulff Land, but there was bad news. The weather had delayed him by one day, meaning he would not make the planned rendez-vous with the Twin Otter. We were devastated to learn that he would not be able to join, a huge blow having come this far. However, we had no choice but to crack on as the helicopter would be arriving the following day and we needed to be ready. We set up camp, sleep tents upwind and surrounded by a perimeter alarm in case of a curious polar bear, and cook tent and hand-dug-toilet downwind. We spent time familiarising ourselves with our rifles and signal flare guns, and set about preparing all our equipment for the next ten days – Gina and Gabi organising the science equipment, Chris preparing the climbing gear, Robbie on the cameras and flashes, and Nathan readying the medical kit in case of emergency. On Saturday 22nd July, six days after we had all embarked on our respective journeys, we were ready to fly to the famous Wulff Land cave – a place that had occupied our minds for so long with nothing but a grainy photograph from the 1950s and a few satellite images for visual inspiration. Helicopter pilot Mathias fired up the rotors and we flew over the permafrost patterned ground, past herds of musk ox, glaciers and waterfalls, until eventually, a vast expanse of the purest white came into view – the frozen Apollo lake, flanked by cliff faces almost a kilometre high, within which lay the Wulff Land cave. It was a beautiful sight to behold, and brought a tear to our eyes. We landed on top of the cliffs overhead, and Chris set about rigging a way down to the cave entrance. A sturdy rock acted as the anchor point, and over the edge he went, rope in hand, expertly navigating his way down this previously untouched cliff face. The suspense was palpable as we listened intently to the deathly silence, waiting for the sound of Chris’s voice to echo up confirming he had made it. Eventually, we heard a distant call – Chris had successfully rigged the route, and he was on his way back up. Nathan stayed with the helicopter in case of emergency, and the rest of the team headed back down the rope, being careful not to dislodge the loose scree onto the climbers below. It was an impossible task, and there were some tense moments as small rocks did make contact. However, a precarious 200 metre descent later, and finally, after 65 years, we became the first humans in history to enter the Wulff Land cave. The cave itself is perched 800 metres off the valley floor, and stretches almost 40 metres high by 100 metres deep. A vast cavern filled with boulders, a frozen lake on the cave floor, and hoarfrost that glistens around the edges. It was too large to survey and sample that afternoon, and so we returned to camp in time to celebrate Chris’s 50th birthday, making the most of the midnight sun. The next day, it was straight to work. We surveyed the cave, took samples from the lake, and searched for the necessary samples. We were looking for speleothems, calcite deposits formed hundreds of thousands of years ago by water dripping from the limestone. But we searched high and low, and there was nothing. No speleothems, no calcite. The mystery surrounding the Wulff Land cave was finally over, and the answer was an incredible disappointment: this cave did not contain the samples we had hoped for. After all these years, all of this effort, all of these set backs – had it all been for nothing? We returned to base camp, excited by having achieved our primary goal of reaching the cave, but disappointed by the lack of samples. But we didn’t lose hope, because from the helicopter, we had spotted tens if not hundreds more caves throughout the region. Might one of these, perhaps, contain the samples we needed? Before we had a chance to find out, a storm arrived. With it, 35 knot winds hit base camp and wreaked havoc. One of the sleeping tents was destroyed, the tarp protecting our electronics had blown loose, our base camp tent was flapping violently and the perimeter alarm was shrieking continuously as the wind kept dislodging the trigger pins. We all set to work: we repaired the tent, collected rocks to weigh down the tarp and base camp tent, and nervously, we were forced to disconnect the bear alarm. 2 days later, on the Tuesday, there was a brief weather window for three of the team to explore a couple of nearby caves: beautiful structures lined with ice, but no samples. And then the weather closed in once more. Days went by, with little sign of the weather improving. The wind had slowed, but now we had rain, and snow was rapidly approaching. Helicopter pilot Mathias received a call by satellite phone advising him to leave urgently, as he was at risk of being stranded if the helicopter was exposed to such extreme elements. Stress levels were escalating: we had come all this way, time was running out, and still we had no samples. It was now Thursday 27th July, and the helicopter was going to have to leave that evening ahead of the approaching snow. But there was one last weather window, a few hours in which we could explore the nearby terrain. The team split up: Gabi and Nathan to an unexplored canyon littered with small caves; Chris, Robbie and Gina to a cave they had spotted at the start of the week – a distinct, keyhole-shaped cave perched under an overhanging cliff edge. This was our last chance to find samples. Gabi and Nathan clambered up and down through scree, exploring cave after cave, but there were no samples. Robbie and Gina laboured their way down a 200 metre scree slope into a much larger cave, absolutely stunning inside with branching passages and tunnels of ice, but again, no samples. Meanwhile, Chris had found a way into ‘Keyhole Cave’ – through a small crack in a narrow ledge precariously positioned on the cliff edge. Gina and Robbie joined him and followed him through the small crack, and into the last cave of the expedition. It was dark inside, their head torches illuminating the way; still nothing. But then, hiding in the rubble under a low ceiling of glistening hoarfrost, Gina spotted it: a piece of calcite – the sample that was so desperately needed! The hunt was finally over – in the last minutes of the last cave of the expedition, we had success. Back in camp, we said our goodbyes to Mathias before he disappeared over the horizon back towards Station Nord. However, it was still 4 days until our extraction, and bad weather was rapidly approaching. We counted our food supplies, wondering if we might need to start rationing. The snow arrived, the landscape transformed by this wintery flurry, and we had some close encounters with a musk ox and some curious Arctic wolves finding their way into camp. Countless cups of tea went by, and our backs ached from being hunched over in the base camp tent sat on metal boxes for days listening to the howling wind. But finally, Monday arrived, the snow seemed to have settled and we received the news we had been hoping for: the Twin Otter was able to fly. And so we set about deconstructing camp, carefully packing away the invaluable samples, and boarded the Twin Otter back to Station Nord. We celebrated late into the polar night, and the following day, we flew to Svalbard for a final meal and celebration before heading our separate ways. The expedition had been a success. What happens next is up to Gina, Gabi and their team of colleagues at the University of Innsbruck as they start to analyse the samples, to unlock the secrets they hold. How warm was Greenland hundreds of thousands of years ago? Was there a time when it was once covered in thriving forests? And what might climate change mean for the future of the Arctic?