Safely back at base camp and the team dig into the 60 year old US army rations left behind by previous visitors. It was edible despite a best before date of 1955. The treats included meatballs and beans, grape jelly, biscuits, coca powder, and vanilla crème. (Photo: Chris Blakeley)
The mysterious note dated 29th June 1930 was actually left by US geologists who explored the caves in 1960. (Photo: Robbie Stone).
The remains of what turned out to be an ancient snowy owl found in Dead Bird Cave. (Photo: Robbie Stone).
Chris Blakeley heads off to one of the higher caves. (Photo: Robbie Stone).
Team member Chris Blakeley looks up at frost formations in the Crystal Palace cave. (Photo: Robbie Stone).
Team member Mark Wright explores an ice wall in one of the caves. (Photo: Robbie Stone).
Expedition members Christopher Spötl and Gina Moseley collect sediments from one of the caves. (Photo: Robbie Stone).
Gina Moseley holds up a piece of speleothem, which she took back to Austria for analysis. In total, the team collected 16 samples of speleothem, which mostly formed between 220,000 and 500,000 years ago. (Photo: Robbie Stone).
After 3 days of hiking, the team finally reached the caves. You can see the entrances in the steep hillside of the limestone valley. They explored 26 caves in total. (Photo: Robbie Stone).
Expedition members, Mark Wright and Chris Blakeley trek through Vandredalen Valley on their way to the caves. (Photo: Robbie Stone).
The team set off across the lake to make base camp on the other side. They picked a good time to make the crossing, as the lake only became ice-free in the week before the team arrived. (Photo: Robbie Stone).
The team arrives at Centrum Sø. They set up a security fence to keep out any polar bears and spend the night in the old US army hut (Photo: Robbie Stone).
Rivers drain the Greenland ice sheet between Danmarkshavn and Centrum Sø, the last stop before reaching basecamp. (Photo: Robbie Stone).
The team set off on a twin otter plane to Centrum Sø where they made base camp. There were plenty of photo opportunities during the five-hour flight. Here you see melt water pooling on the dark surface of the ice sheet. (Photo: Robbie Stone).
At Mestersvig, the team battle with Arctic mosquitoes as they check through all of their equipment before setting off on their Arctic expedition. (Photo: Robbie Stone).
Flying over Greenland, on the way to the Danish military base at Mestersvig. (Photo: Robbie Stone).
Expedition leader, Gina Moseley looks out at the ice on the flight from Iceland to Greenland. (Photo: Robbie Stone).

Caves will reveal Greenland climate from before the ice sheet

GREENLAND: A team of scientists has explored some of the most remote caves on Earth to uncover Greenland’s climate before the ice sheet formed. Preliminary results are exciting, say scientists.


High in the Arctic Circle at 80 degrees north, scientists have been exploring some of the world’s remotest caves to see what they can tell us about Greenland’s climate before the Greenland ice sheet formed.

A team of scientists trekked through the remote landscape of northeast Greenland for three days before reaching the caves. Inside, they found rock formations, some of which are up to 500,000 years old.

“This will be the first record of palaeoclimate derived from caves so far north and we now have the prospect of extending the [climate] record for Greenland beyond the limit of the ice cores,” says lead scientist Gina Moseley, from University of Innsbruck, Austria.

Science in Greenland is in Greenland in May to cover research in and about the Arctic.

We'll be covering everything from social conditions, mineral extraction, biodiversity, education, archaeology, and climate.

See our full list of "Science in Greenland" articles, which will be updated throughout May.

Moseley presented her team’s preliminary findings at the 2016 European Geosciences Union General Assembly.

Rock formations reveal climate up to 500,000 years ago

Moseley and her team collected 16 samples of speleothem--rock deposits that form when rainwater or melted snow percolates down through limestone and enters a cave as drip water.

It is generally too dry for speleothems to form today in northeast Greenland, so Moseley knew that the samples they found were old and must have predated the Greenland ice sheet. Preliminary dates suggest that the samples formed at various times between 220,000 and 500,000 years ago.

Just the presence of speleothems in the caves tells us that northeast Greenland was once wetter than it is today, as they need flowing water to grow, says Moseley.

This suggests that atmospheric circulation must have been very different than it is today.

“There is a big question as to how you get moisture to this part of Greenland as it’s so dry today,” says Moseley. “Climate models for this century show a retreat of Arctic sea ice and storms tracking north. So our hypothesis of a warmer, wetter world back then fit with projected climate scenarios for the future,” she says.

Video: Northeast Greenland Caves Project.

Preliminary data need to be confirmed

Moseley and her team have also analysed the chemistry of the speleothem samples and she believes that they record a clear climate signal from which they can figure out how different the climate was when these cave deposits formed.

But she emphasises that all of these data are still preliminary, and that it is too early to draw any specific conclusions just yet.

“We’ve done some stable isotope analyses and we see some very large shifts, so there is a climate signal in there. But we don’t know exactly what it is yet,” says Moseley.

The scientists now plan to carry out more analyses to piece together Greenland’s pre-ice sheet climate.

Colleague: Exciting Project

The project has been met with excitement from a colleague who also studies historical climate change.

“The project is a truly amazing and inspiring journey of scientific discovery and adventure, in its own right, with the aim of developing the first cave-based records of palaeoclimate from the arctic,” says geochemist Adam Hartland, from The University of Waikato, New Zealand. He was not involved in the new research but is familiar with the preliminary results.

Hartland expects the project to lead to important records of climate for Greenland, which he describes as a “critically important region for the global climate system.”

Read more: Greenland melt linked to weird weather in Europe and USA

Three-day trek to unexplored caves

To reach the caves Moseley and her team flew to a remote corner of northeast Greenland. They crossed a lake in an inflatable dinghy before embarking on a 3-day trek across valleys, plains, and loose scree hill slopes to reach the caves.

The last known visitors had been a team of cavers in 1983. Before that, a team of scientists from the US geological survey explored some of the caves while looking for aircraft landing sites during the cold war.

The expedition team also discovered some new, undocumented caves.

“There’s one particular high-level cave that we know no one had been in before and it was covered in ice crystals. That was really amazing. And knowing that the arctic is warming, and that we might be the only people to ever see that was really special,” says Moseley.

But exploring such a remote landscape is hazardous, despite the thrill of being the first humans to ever step foot in some of these caves.

“I was on eggshells the whole time I was there. As exciting as it is, I knew that we all needed to get home safe and well and in good health,” says Moseley. “We even talked about having our appendices removed before the trip,” she says.

“It hit me at the end, when we were due to be picked up [by aeroplane]. The weather was great where we were, but south of us [where the plane was taking off] there was terrible weather and we were stranded for a couple of days as no one could get to us. We realised that if there’d been an accident, no one could get to us,” says Moseley.

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