Background

‘Wulff Land cave’ in North Greenland. Photo: Paul Smith

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!

Scientific Rationale

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.

Example of a cave located in permafrost from our 2019 Northeast Greenland expedition. Photo: Robbie Shone
Example of a speleothem collected from a cave in Northeast Greenland during the 2019 expedition. Photo: Robbie Shone

2023 Northern Caves Expedition

In spring/summer 2023, a 6-person team will embark on an expedition to explore the most northern-known caves in the world. The team will include leader Prof. Gina Moseley of the University of Innsbruck, National Geographic contributing photographer Robbie Shone and rope-access specialist Chris Blakeley. There will also be a medic, and two interdisciplinary scientists joining the expedition whom we hope will be native Greenlanders. Greenlanders – if you think you could benefit from our logistics and resources being in place to North Greenland and are interested in joining us, please get in touch!

Caves in North Greenland. Photos: GEUS

The team plans to explore the enigmatic Wulff Land cave as well as many other caves in North Greenland. Besides exploring, surveying, and documenting, the team are hoping to find speleothem deposits that can be analysed to improve understanding of climate and environmental change in North Greenland. If present, the speleothems will hold clues about how this region responds in a warmer world, and such records will be older than the limit of the Greenland ice cores. Our work in Northeast Greenland has already been successful in constructing such records.

Supporters

Thank you to the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, the Mount Everest Foundation, the Transglobe Expedition Trust, Petzl Foundation, Stiftung Universität Innsbruck and WINGS WorldQuest 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.

Working in Greenland is very expensive though. If you would like to support our expedition and help us achieve even more, then please contact us.