Radio essay for BBC Radio 3 – the short and long versions

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BBC Radio 3 invited Dr. Gina Moseley to write and record a creative essay for radio on the subject of our expedition to Greenland.  Gina, who hasn’t done any creative writing in over 15 years, agreed to take up the challenge and really enjoyed it.  A shortened version of the essay aired on Wednesday 9th December, 2015, as part of the Northern Lights Cornerstones series.

To hear the shortened version, please follow the link to BBC Radio 3.

To read the full version, please continue below….

Greenland’s future lies in its past

A vast lake stretches out before me. It’s long but narrow, and bounded by dark limestone hills that rise sharply from its shores. In the distance, glaciers that have spent thousands of years slowly creeping down from the highest peaks glisten in the sun, whilst immediately in front of me, a bitterly cold breeze gently breaks the icy grey surface waters at my feet.

You’re in the Arctic now.

It’s a phrase that we have heard several times over the last few days. We don’t feel like we’re in the Arctic though. Greenland is the world’s largest non-continental island and covered 80% by ice, but we don’t see the images from a coffee-table book before us. We see no beautiful blue sky, vast snow-covered lands, dogs pulling sledges, or dancing lights of the aurora borealis. Instead, grey clouds roll over this rocky barren grey-brown land. It’s drizzling slightly, and there are no people. The only settlement on the peninsula is Station Nord, 160 km away. Permanent population five!

We’re in the ice free Kronprins Christian Land in Northeast Greenland. It’s so far north that it sits underneath the little plastic disc on the top of my globe. The journey here has been long, eight years since I first had the idea, 22 months since I sent the first email, and four days of travelling and preparations since we left home. The twin otter that flew us along the east coast over ice sheets and icebergs is about to leave. It’s a symbolic moment. The quiet whistling of the wind is interrupted by the loud sound of the engine. We shield our eyes to protect them from the huge cloud of sand about to be kicked up. Chris mentions that he’s been dreaming of this moment for a long time; the moment when we are finally on our own. He’s right. I hadn’t realised the importance of the occasion before, but bouncing around inside a rattling draughty tin can, listening to the loud drone of the engine for the last five hours has been quite comforting. As the plane disappears into the miserable grey clouds in the distance, first out of sight, then out of sound, we realise we really are alone. The only sound is the flapping of the Danish flag flying proudly next to us. I’m pleased it’s flying, it means there is wind, and this means no mosquitoes.

The scientists that visited here twenty years ago reported no problems with mosquitoes. After three days of being here, I have 223 bites on my left arm alone. It’s a sign that the region is changing, a sign that it is warming up, and the reason that we are here.

In the 1950s and 60s, geologists were here for quite different reasons. They were accompanying the US army during the height of the cold war, and were involved in a programme to look for ice-free landing sites in the Arctic. The old Nissen hut, sand covered rowing boats, and big blue heavy-duty water pump are an everlasting reminder of the hustle and bustle of activities that went on here. Not to mention the shiny green tins of US army rations that have sat half sheltered under some rocks, half exposed to the elements for over half a century. We pick one out. It reads “B-2 Unit, crackers, candy, jam, Natural Storage company Inc.”. 11 55, meaning November 1955, is embossed in the lid, whilst a little tin-opening key clings to the bottom. It is too inviting. Slowly, Chris turns the little key round and round. It works better than one of today, and yields a little gold tin of grape jam, cocoa powder, and five salted biscuits. Ideal, since we are five people too!

We’re heading for 80.4 degrees north. There’s not much land left after that, and the majority of the 7.3 billion people on this planet will be south of us. Specifically, we’re heading to caves found in 440 million-year old limestone. These are some of the most northerly caves on the planet, and their existence has come as something of a surprise to my caving friends and palaeoclimate colleagues. They were somewhat of a surprise to me when I found reference to their existence buried deep within the US caving literature. Upon return from the 1960 field campaign, William E. Davies and Daniel B. Krinsley penned a short manuscript on some caves they had discovered. They described them as being on three levels, up to 40 feet wide and 200 feet long. From a sport or exploratory caving perspective they offered little interest. They were short, hard to reach, and the possibility of exploring any virgin cave was limited. However, one sentence jumped out of that original manuscript that would change the fate of those caves and our interest in them forever. It read, “The fill is capped by a flowstone deposit four-inches thick formed of coarsely crystalline calcite”.

If you’ve ever visited a cave, chances are you’ve seen flowstone. It is a calcite deposit, like stalactites and stalagmites, except instead of forming from dripping water, it forms from thin sheets of flowing water. The water from which it is deposited has travelled from the oceans, through the atmosphere, soil, and rock, before finally ending up flowing through the deep dark world beneath our feet. On its travels, the chemistry of the water is affected by the climate and environmental conditions through which it passes. In turn, as the water slowly deposits thin sheets of calcite in the cave, a distinct chemical signature is locked into it, creating an archive of the climate and environment during times long past.

Our mission is to collect a sample of the flowstone described in 1960. We want to unlock its secrets and find out what it can tell us about the past climate of the Arctic. We expect it will be older than the current limit of the Greenland ice cores, which at the moment continuously cover the last 123,000 years, though with some gaps extend back to 128,500 years ago. Our results should thus provide us with completely knew knowledge about past climate in Greenland. We also expect it will be from a time that was warmer and wetter than today, and hence can be considered an analogue for how this region will develop in a future warmer world.

Our route to the caves will be long and arduous. During the preparations for this expedition, I spoke to several Arctic experts. Unanimously, they were confident that we would not see any polar bears. It was considered too far inland. Yet in front of me ripple the waters of the lake, to my right is the Nissen hut, behind me is the flag pole, and to my left, ironically propped up against a mountain of aviation fuel drums, lies the remains of a magnificent but frightening creature, a dead polar bear. The organs and tissues have long since decayed. Only the skeleton remains upon a thick bed of white fur. The mouth is slightly open, exposing large canines amongst the 42 teeth. We talked about the hundreds of miles those giant paws had carried the world’s largest land predator. Instinctively I knelt down and stroked the top of its head. It was slightly rough to the touch, my hand tiny against its massive skull. It brought a tear to my eye and a lump to my throat. This isn’t how I imagined my first interaction with a polar bear to be. The reality of our remoteness sinks in. We are far from the reach of humans, but maybe not so far from the reach of danger as we had previously expected. And as we gaze upon this terrible sight, feeling immensely sad and a little scared, the moment is interrupted by a flash of brown and white fur. It’s an Arctic stoat. Unused to human contact, it sees no danger in us and eyes us curiously from behind the large white carcass. Perhaps this harsh dry landscape is not so inhospitable after all.

We begin preparations to cross the lake, which, according to the satellite images only became ice free a week ago. The boat is inflated, the engine attached to the stern, and the equipment packed in the middle. We launch, excited and eager to start the next part of the adventure. The feeling is short lived. The river is too shallow, and now we look closer, we see that every few minutes, a huge chunk of the sandy spit of land crashes down into the water. Erosive forces are strong here and it is clear that it won’t be long before this spit of land no longer exists. In fact, when you look closer, the sun-bleached pinkish-red boards marking the boundaries of the landing strip are dangerously close to the edge. The last one is so close, it juts out over water below. Mark, who is the only person with waders, jumps in and pulls the boat back into deeper water. Problem averted. Off we go again. Or perhaps not. We’ve beached again. The weight of the boat and its load is too much for one person. There’s nothing for it. Robbie and I despondently take our boots and socks off, roll up our trousers to beyond the knees, and jump into the water. It’s icy cold. A shock to the system, but a must in the current situation. At least we’re treading on a nice sandy floor rather than sharp, pointy rocks. Twenty cold minutes later, we still haven’t found deep enough water, and Mark’s apparent ability to walk on water informs us that there is no deeper water for the next half a kilometre. Despite jumping in and out of the water, my toes are so cold I can’t feel them. I’m worried. Our remoteness means we simply can’t afford to let the situation develop further. We decide to drag the boat back to shore and rest the night hours in the Nissen hut. It’s old, but well preserved in this arid climate. The floor is covered in a thick layer of sand and dust. There are no footprints; it’s been a long time since anyone was here. My blood starts to circulate again, causing excruciating pain in my fingers and toes. We recharge on tea, powdered soup, and our first taste of freeze dried spaghetti bolognese. Delicious! Our attention then turns to the ease with which a polar bear could slice through the old sand-coloured canvas. We erect a bear fence made from thin orange polypropylene rope and a personal attack alarm. It should wake us in the event of an unwanted visitor, and hopefully scare them off, but it’s a bit of a psychological game. We all talk about it helping in the event of an attack, but private thoughts are the exact opposite.

The next morning, we try the river on the other side of the spit of land. It’s a much better plan and we cross the lake without any further problems. The lake is 20 km long, and takes about an hour to cross with a fully loaded boat. The eastern shore is much more accommodating for the boat. We glide easily into a small bay with a nice pebbly beach and set up camp. The communal tepee shaped cook tent and food boxes are placed downwind in the hope that any interested parties visit there first. The sleeping tents are upwind, held down by rocks rather than pegs, surrounded by a thin piece of orange string.

The remainder of the journey to the caves will be on foot. We have so much equipment and food to take with us that it is necessary to do it in shuttle runs. To cover the 26 km between base camp and the caves, we must walk 60 km over three days. We begin our hike beneath bright blue skies on a warm sunny morning in the awe-inspiring Vandredalen. It’s almost too warm, and without the wind, the mosquitoes are out in force. A faint smell of insect repellent tickles my sense of smell for the remainder of our time in Greenland.

Vandredalen is a classic, glacially formed, flat-bottomed U-shaped valley. It’s wide, really wide. The distances seem limitless. No longer is it host to a large mass of ice, today, the base of the valley is being reworked by the aqua-marine blue waters of the river that drains the lake. A large, equally impressive flat-bottomed tributary valley, joins the southern flanks of Vandredalen, and channels the river to the sea. An eerie sound apparently coming from the tributary valley reaches our ears. It sounds like a howl, but we can’t be sure. Whatever it is sounds a long way away, but such a thought is not very comforting, since whatever made it, was likely quite big. Perhaps it was a wolf. After all, we were told that there was more chance of seeing a wolf than a polar bear.

Thanks to the mighty glaciers that have carved out this landscape over hundreds of thousands of years, the terrain under foot isn’t too difficult. At the moment, we’re walking on a flat, elevated terrace of reddish-brown Neoproterozoic sandstones that were deposited sometime between 700 million and 1.4 billion years ago. We wind through erratic boulders dotted on top of the sandstone, some the size of cars, made up of a conglomerate of red, beige and brown rocks cemented together in a chaotic colourful mess. Tall, steep, multi-coloured scree slopes pour down from the imposing carbonate cliffs to our left, occasionally giving way to a small trickle of water, winding its way down from the ice cap to the isolated lakes in the valley bottom. The small streams enable a greener, softer ground to flourish, and pretty little alpine plants to thrive. Upon leaving the Neoproterozoic rocks, we enter the Ordovician and Silurian carbonates. This is much harsher under foot. A large undulating mass of sharp shattered rock. Extra care must be taken not to slip over. A cut to a hand protecting a fall could be quite nasty. We are surprised to come face to face with a large, curly- horned, shaggy brown beast. The musk ox is well camouflaged against the barren rocky landscape. Research on this seemingly docile creature told us that they prefer to be on higher ground and can run fast. We give it a wide birth.

On leaving Vandredalen and entering Grottedalen, literally meaning cave valley, the ground turns to a spongy, polygon patterned soil. Pentagons, hexagons, heptagons. Such ground is typical in permafrost environments, and is the result of the annual freeze-thaw of the active layer. The polygon path leads us all the way to the caves, interrupted only once by a circa 10 m wide fast flowing river that requires some caution to pass. By the time we reach the caves, the weight of the rucksack is taking its toll. I’ve been carrying 50% of my own body weight for the last three days and the rest stops are becoming more frequent. I utilise any rock or ledge about waist height to perch the rucksack on and take the weight off my aching body.

The tributary valley with the caves is narrow and winding. A small river draining the local ice cap flows through the bottom and spans nearly the entire width of the valley. From the river, steep scree slopes rise up to vertical walls containing the caves. The 24 hour sun swings round above our heads in a circle, dipping later in the day but never reaching the horizon. In full sun, the east wall containing the caves lights up in a beautiful warm orange glow, but this passes quickly, and the majority of the day is spent in a bitterly cold shadow.

We know the highest level caves have not been visited before. Access to them was previously considered too dangerous, but with my expert team of cave explorers, the five of us gain access to a small part of the world that no one else has ever seen before. It’s a cliché, but yes, more people have been to the moon than some of those little caves deep within the Arctic Circle.

We first decide to head to the caves that are easy to access. On the way, we come across a number of smaller circular tubes, insignificant to most cavers and undocumented in the literature, but important nonetheless to record for our new cave registry. I crawl into the first one on my hands and knees, and after two metres find myself lying flat out on my stomach trying to ease my way through a small space at the back of the cave. Cavers are eternal optimists, always hoping that the cave continues around the next corner, through the next squeeze, or up the next climb. In Greenland we are continually disappointed in this respect; the longest cave is a mere 100 metres in length. Still, we’re here to collect valuable records of climate change from the rocks, not discover caverns measureless to man. Lying on my stomach didn’t help yield more cave, but it did help yield the first calcite sample. A slim slither about five mm thick encrusting some broken limestone. It’s a small but significant step. It means there might be other samples besides the one written about in 1960. We are not disappointed, and are soon excited to realise there is so much flowstone lying about, in both large and small caves, in situ and ex situ, that we don’t know what to do with it. It’s present on walls, as thick sequences in notches, as large boulders to sit on, and in one cave as a bridge across a passage. In several instances, several metre thick sequences are intact on the surface; the caves that once sheltered them long since gone. It’s better than we ever could have expected. We might have gone to all this effort and found nothing. Instead, there is so much material we simply can’t sample it all. We’re under-resourced and this crushes our excitement a little. We decide to sample a broad range of material. It was always meant to be a pilot study, so if we can get a good idea of the material available to us, we might be able to build on that and return in the future.

One cave in particular stands out as being a highlight. It’s high up in the valley wall with a fantastic view over Grottedalen. The entrance is a large oval, wider than it is high, and by Greenland standards is one of the longest at 40 m. I’m preoccupied by a large flowstone deposit that we’ve found in the entrance. It’s good quality, dense, compact calcite. I have a good feeling about it. The guys disappear into the black space at the top of the sediment slope and return saying “you have to go and look in there”. I head up the sediment bank to the crouching-size black hole. I don’t have to get too close before I can feel the bitter coldness of what lies beyond. The black hole is only a couple of metres long and shows the first signs of something special. Stalagmites 15 cm high made out of clear and white ice rise up from the floor. I carefully pick my way over them, eager not to dirty them. Beyond lies a chamber, about 1.5 metres high and 6 metres long. “WOW”! Ice crystals as big as a squash balls shimmer like chandeliers on the ceiling and walls. It’s -6 °C though, so time to appreciate them is limited.

Cave GD-20 is high on the west wall. It’s 15 metres long and ends in boulders and ice. The guys have gone off to try and get into some other entrances that they can see, and I’m on my own tidying up the loose ends. Sitting at the back of the cave there’s a mossy green pile encrusting some harder white material underneath. It looks alien to the cave. I prod it and a nasty stench escapes. I prod it a bit more. It’s something decaying. Looking round, I see more of the white material frozen into the ice. Then I notice stripy black and white feathers. It’s a bird! And its wing is frozen into the ice. Amongst the green and white mass I find its skull. It seems to be larger than any of the birds we’ve seen flying round here. Is it from a different time and climate? I can only hope. I place some of the bone and feather in clear plastic sample bags and label them GD-20-1 and GD-20-2. The bone will be sent for radiocarbon dating, then we’ll know how old it is.

With all the entrances now explored, we decide to photograph the cave described in 1960. I attempt to stand on a small pile of rocks in the middle of the passage for scale, but they’re wobbly and I fall off. Nothing is broken or hurting, but during the fall my eye caught a small, yellow piece of cardboard stored underneath the rocks. It looks like litter, so I reach through a gap to pick it up and take it out with me. Surprisingly, it turns out to be a Kodak black and white film box. It’s in excellent condition, sprinkled a little in some fine-grained, light grey cave mud, but otherwise undamaged. Even the corners and edges show no signs of wear. The text reads Kodak X-PAN fast black and white film. For cameras designed to use standard 120 films, 8, 12 or 16 exposure. I play a game of guess the develop before date with Mark, Robbie and Chris. A range of answers come back, but all are far off. Dec 1961 can just be made out in faint grey print on the outside of the box. We chatter lively. It’s exciting finding the old box, so well preserved after 54 years. The box is yet to reveal its biggest secret though. Inside I find a foil bag encased in cream paper with Kodak written in red lettering. Perhaps it once held the film that recorded those all-important original photographs of the caves in 1960. And finally, like reaching the final layer in a Russian doll, I find one page of blue-lined paper ripped out from a notebook. Curly writing in pencil covers half the page. The top right is dated June 29, 1930, and is followed down the centre by Walter H Memphis, Richard A Pirelli, Wm E Davies, AFCRC, US army and US Geological Survey attached to AFCRC Centrum Sø party visited here. W E D. It’s an incredible find. I’m elated and shocked. I never expected to experience this direct connection to the original explorers.

The end of the expedition brings a deep sadness. It’s an anti-climax. So much physical, emotional and mental effort has gone into this project over that last couple of years, culminating in just three days at the caves, which is now drawing to a close. Besides a few hiccups, which only added to the excitement and adventure, the whole thing has gone better than expected. It’s a huge relief not only to have a bag full of samples, but more importantly, everyone is going home unharmed and in full health, though perhaps weighing slightly less than when we started. It was worth coming. The reality turned out to be better than the dream. And now onto the next chapter. Months of lab work lie ahead. It’s an exciting but daunting prospect. There is still chance the samples will not be suitable for analysis and this is an unsettling thought, but after all, it is the nature of research.

Gina Moseley

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