Exploring Super-Remote Caves in Greenland

Gina Moseley loves caves. She started caving for sport when she was 13 years old, and now she’s in it for science. Moseley is a geologist and National Geographic grantee who traveled to a remote region of northeast Greenland to conduct climate-change research. She is constructing the first cave-based record of past climate change for Greenland.

The climate record is created by analyzing the chemical signature of each layer in a calcite core, much like tree rings. The calcite stalagmites form when water seeps through soil and limestone and drips into a cave. Because the drip waters were once connected with the atmosphere and Earth’s surface, information about temperature, moisture, and vegetation get locked into the cave deposit, drip by drip and layer by layer. By analyzing the carbon and oxygen content of the cores, Moseley will be able to reconstruct the region’s climate between 200,000 and 500,000 years ago— older than the current limit of Greenland ice cores.

A four-person team joined Moseley to explore, survey, photograph, and sample caves. “None of us had been to the Arctic before,” Moseley said. “This was the first time for all of us. We really had to think long and hard before we went, about what might go wrong and just to make sure we had enough time to do what we needed to do. It took two years of planning.”

To begin the expedition, Moseley and the team were dropped off by plane. The closest people were 160 kilometers (99 miles) away. “When we stood there, it felt like a dream come true but also completely unrealistic. We really felt alone and like explorers.” The team walked for three days from their base camp to caves above 80 degrees north. The landscape was barren, bright, and hotter than they expected. Moseley said, “This was my first experience with 24-hour sunlight, and it's amazing. The sun just swings round and round above your head all day and never touches the horizon.” While it may be hard to imagine sleeping when the sun doesn’t set, Moseley said the real issue was that it was too hot for the sleeping bag she packed.  

There were other surprises on the expedition too. When Moseley was photographing in one of the main caves, she slipped on some rocks and found an old Kodak film box. There was no film inside, but there was a legible note. It was signed by the original explorers who inspired Moseley to visit those caves. “I had found a paper by the original geologists who visited these caves in 1960. The note that was in this film box was from these original explorers. It was really like a time capsule and a direct connection with the people who brought us there in the first place.”

After trekking back to their base camp, they found another time capsule left behind: canned U.S. Army food rations from 60 years ago! After 10 long days of eating freeze-dried food and porridge, it’s understandable that the team decided to sample the goods. “It was nice to have something with a bit of sugar and something that just tasted different to add to our diet. It was great!”

The expedition was a success. Moseley said she didn’t know what to expect, but that element is part of what keeps her motivated. “Caves are one of the last places on Earth for real, true exploration. You have to actually go there and travel through them and look what's around the next corner to find out what's there … I was amazed to find so many more samples than I ever imagined.”

The samples from inside the caves reveal a warmer, wetter time for northeast Greenland. Long-term climate change records in the Arctic Circle are important. “Understanding how fast the climate is capable of changing from one state to another is currently one of the key questions that climate-change scientists are working to answer,” said Moseley. She hopes what she produces will be useful to scientists who are modeling future climate.

Despite the freeze-dried food, not sleeping well, and hundreds of mosquito bites, Moseley loves being in the field. She said, “The best part of my job is that I get to go and see these absolutely amazing places in the world and from them produce something that is hopefully valuable to all of us in the future.”

Find out more and see more video about the Northeast Greenland Caves Project. Watch the entire Best Job Ever web series online.

PRODUCER/EDITOR: Carolyn Barnwell
VIDEO: Robbie Shone
SERIES PRODUCERS: Chris Mattle and Jennifer Shoemaker
GRAPHICS: Chris Mattle