I was hanging from a thin nylon rope about 250 feet from the bottom of the ice shaft. Looking up, I noticed a spin drift (a dazzling snow blown frantically by the howling wind) sandblasting the entrance about 20 feet above me. I was happy that the weather was bad and I was hanging almost in silence.
As my eyes adapted to the lower light, I noticed that I was looking down at a crevice that was much larger than I thought it was under the surface of the Greenland ice sheet.
All I could think of was “this shouldn’t be here”.
In 2018, I went on an expedition with Canadian adventure athlete Wilgad to explore Moulin, a huge vertical cave on the Greenland ice sheet. Will was already at the bottom of the shaft. From my point of view, he looked like an insect with a headlamp.
At first glance, Will and I were a strange combination of expeditions. Will is one of the world’s top professional ice climbers. He is sponsored by Red Bull. He won ESPN’s extreme sports competition, the X Games, and dated professional mountaineer and filmmaker Jimmy Chin.
Meanwhile, I am a professor of geology at the University of South Florida. I teach undergraduate students about the physics of groundwater. I … hung out with a scientist. We do not exactly share the same social circle.
I ended up in Greenland with Will because he wanted to make an expedition film focusing on climate change. Will is in his mid-50s. Throughout his long career, he has seen climate change erase ice climbing and shrink glaciers. He pitched the movie to Red Bull. They liked it. And an expedition under the ice was born.
I wrote my PhD, so I tie me up with a rope. It is a treatise on glacier caves and has been studying them for over 15 years. I was supposed to be a science expert, but I didn’t feel like I was staring at the mysterious big hole.
I started my accidental journey to a glacier cave expert in 2004 as a student in the Department of Geology at Eastern Kentucky University. A common friend invited me to a rock climbing trip with Dr. Dougben, a glaciologist at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. While skipping classes to explore and map the caves near the campus, Doug was studying how the warming climate melted Everest’s glaciers into a network of lakes. Some of these lakes were catastrophically drained from ice caves, sometimes with devastating consequences for villages, dams and hydropower facilities. Glacier did not understand how these caves were formed, so they did not understand what controls the drainage of the lake.
During and after the climb, drinking beer, Doug and I were convinced that we could understand how the glacier caves in the Everest region were formed. I have never seen a glacier and Doug visited only a few caves, but when I combine Doug’s glaciology and mountaineering experience with my background in cave exploration and mapping, it is the best in the world. I thought it might help me figure out how to explore some of the tall caves, and maybe even survive the expedition.
The first expedition in November 2005 spent approximately seven weeks exploring and mapping glacier caves above 16,400 feet above sea level in the Everest region, including a cave that was a short hike from Everest Base Camp. Out of breath in the thin air, we survived rock slides, falling ice, and collapsing cave floors. Then, I slowly learned the secrets of the glacier cave.
The glacier caves in the Everest region that we discovered were formed along a band of porous debris in the ice. Water from lakes on the surface of glaciers flows through bands of debris and melts the ice around them to form caves. Then, as the melting rate increases, the cave expands rapidly, draining the entire lake from the cave.
After unraveling my first scientific mystery, I fell in love with it. I earned an undergraduate degree in 2006 and worked with Doug and an ever-growing list of adventurous collaborators to explore and map dozens of other glacier caves in Alaska, Nepal, Subarubar and Norway. I started to create it. Finally as a professor. In the process, I learned how to take pictures of frozen darkness so that I could share my findings with scientists who lack the technical skills to step into the glacier cave.
Our discoveries under glaciers around the world over the next decade helped document the role glacier caves play in mediating how glaciers respond to climate change. .. In Nepal, thick debris on the surface of the glacier should prevent the glacier from melting, but it was found that the glacier cave is melting the ice beneath the debris. The cave turned Everest’s glacier into Swiss cheese and rotted it inside out.
In other parts of the world, including Alaska and Svalbard, glacier caves followed ice crushing, followed by rivers of melted water on the glacier floor. The surge of snowmelt in summer smoothes the contact between the ice and the rocks beneath it, making glaciers slide faster than in the absence of snowmelt.
Before working with Will, I was exploring glacier caves around the world, but there was one place I couldn’t explore. It’s inside the Greenland ice sheet.
The Greenland ice sheet extends over 650,000 square miles, approximately the size of Alaska. If it melts completely, it can raise sea level by 23 feet.
Every summer, rising temperatures turn the frozen surface at the edge of the Greenland ice sheet into a network of rivers and lakes. All rivers and many lakes disappear into Moulin and continue to flow toward the sea along the boundary between the ice sheet and the bedrock beneath it. Increased flow of snowmelt water to its interface reduces friction between the ice and the floor, accelerating the ice sheet and sending ice to the sea faster than in winter.
Some glaciologists say that as climate warming causes more melting and new caves are formed in previously unmelted areas of the ice sheet, the ice sheet releases ice into the sea as lubrication increases. And I’m worried that it could raise the sea level faster than expected.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, I was able to set up a remote camp to study how the flow of water into the cave affects the movement of the ice sheet during the summer. rice field. But I really wanted to go back to autumn. It was when cold temperatures cut off the supply of meltwater to Moulin, allowing it to be explored safely. So when Will Gadd sent me an email asking if I “want to do something cool” in the Glacier Cave in Greenland, I was ready to go. I wanted to see if the ideas I developed for glacier caves in other glaciers would work in Greenland.
Having worked in many different glacier caves, I wanted them to be understood. But when I was confused by the size of the huge, icy shaft hanging in the middle of the Greenland ice sheet, the glacier cave was still a surprise and there were still mysteries to solve. I noticed.
Jason Gulley is an associate professor of geology at the University of South Florida and a photographer of environment, science and expeditions based in Tampa, Florida. Instagram..
His fieldwork in Greenland was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. His fieldwork in Nepal was supported by a grant from the National Geographic Society.