Our project leader, Dr Gina Moseley from the University of Innsbruck’s Quaternary Research Group has recently received one of this year’s prestigious Austrian Science Foundation (FWF) START prizes. The START programme is an Austrian initiative to support and strengthen outstanding research projects in science and humanities. Congratulations Gina! The €1.2 million START prize from the Fund for the Promotion of Scientific Research is aimed at top young scientists from all disciplines, who are given the opportunity to plan their long-term research on a financially secure basis. Gina’s proposal is to improve our long-term understanding of past climate and environmental change in Greenland using mineral deposits found in caves. The project will involve a number of field trips and positions for post-docs and PhD students.

Project Description

The Arctic region is expected to experience some of the greatest climate and environmental changes in the next centuries as a result of climate change, and the consequences of these changes will be experienced worldwide, for instance through rising sea-levels or changes to Northern Hemisphere weather systems. Improving understanding of how the Arctic will develop in a warmer world is therefore of paramount importance, and one way to achieve this is to look at periods of warmer climate in the recent geological past.

Northeast Greenland is one of the areas of the Arctic that is predicted to experience the greatest change. Despite this, a severe lack of knowledge exists on the climate history of this region, which is located far from the site of the deep ice cores and sparse in other high-quality climate records of long duration. The Northeast Greenland Speleothem project thus seeks to address this fundamental knowledge gap by constructing records of climate change from calcite mineral deposits found in caves (known as speleothems). In the current environment, the region containing the caves is arid and the ground is frozen, thus preventing deposition of speleothem. The presence of many speleothem deposits, which are already known from pioneering work by the principle investigator Dr. Moseley, indicates that the region must have been warmer and wetter in the past. This FWF Start project, will provide Moseley with the resources to mount a substantial expedition to collect samples and analyse them using the most cutting-edge methods. In particular the project aims to: (1) establish when in the recent geological past Greenland was warmer and wetter than today and the stability of the climate during those intervals; (2) establish seasonal climate changes during past warm intervals; (3) establish mean annual temperatures for past warm intervals.

The pilot study revealed that speleothems were deposited between 600,000 to 400,000 years ago, thus whilst ambitious, this project guarantees to improve understanding of climate change on deeper timescales than the 128,000 year limit of the Greenland ice cores.  Such an advance in the knowledge of Arctic climate has the potential to complement the longer ice-core records from Antarctica and speleothem records of Asian monsoon strength. Establishing the world’s first Arctic Speleothem Research Group at the University of Innsbruck will not only be a ground-breaking step for speleothem research, which thus far has concentrated on the mid-latitudes and tropics, but will also transform the field of palaeoclimatology by opening up a new Arctic archive for investigation.