In one week, we will depart to Greenland. First, we will conduct fieldwork at Disko Island, followed by fieldwork around the Kangerlussuaq area. We are all very excited to go and we are very busy with sorting and gathering of our gear.
Fully related to present day climate change, word of large wildfires burning in West-Greenland reached worldwide news. These fires have been burning the last weeks in an area right between the two destinations of our fieldwork trip. I wonder if we could see any of the burned areas along the way.
This reminded me that people from outside of the scientific community sometimes ask me “Is your research-topic not depressing?”..
My first reaction often is to be surprised by the question; why would I be depressed by such a topic so relevant and honorable?
My second thought, however, is less positive. It then strikes me that climate change is a frightening scenario, and a very real one indeed. As a scientist, I am busy with numbers, graphs and papers. Sometimes the occasional cool field trip too. But the reality of a changing planet is not an every-day concern to me in the sense of fear. In a over-simplified one-liner one could state that the scientist only observes and concludes, passing this knowledge along. As a natural scientist I could even say that change is natural, even if it is caused by an intelligent species. But as a human, I should be scared by this change of environment. Not only for the well being of our species, but for our moral obligation towards planet Earth.
The depressing part is that we probably won’t be able to ‘fix things’. We probably can not rid all oceans from plastics, save all rain-forests, preserve all endangered species and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to zero at the same time.. Scientists like us can probably only make efforts to limit the damage, and to learn from humanities mistakes. This is exactly where hope emerges, we can make a difference. And this fuels me.
I hope that my journey to Greenland will inspire me further to fight for the cause. I am afraid that observing the changes will also scare me a bit too…
The Arctic is undergoing dramatic changes, including unprecedented decline in sea ice and melt of the Greenland ice sheet. These changes are likely to have dramatic impacts on all of Greenland’s ecosystems including the intertidal (the bit between the land and the sea). In this project we are looking at what lives on the beaches of West Greenland and seeing if there have been any changes, by comparing samples we collect with historical literature dating back over 70 years. Our work has concentrated on two main areas, Arctic Station on Disko Island in the north and around Nuuk and Kobbefjord further south.
We travelled to Greenland from the UK (Hull and Cambridge) via Copenhagen. Once in Greenland the planes got smaller and jets were replaced with propellers. The Copenhagen flight arrived at Kangerlussuaq, an airport with two gates, one domestic and one international. We headed north to Ilulussat to catch a ferry (small boat) to Qeqertarsuaq on Disko Island. We have found that travelling in Greenland is very weather dependant and requires a relaxed and zen-like attitude to reaching your destination.
Our first week of science was spent at the Arctic Station on sunny Disko Island, one of the oldest research stations in the Arctic. This beautiful old building (and new laboratory and library) sits right next to the beach and was the perfect base from which to explore the coast and the organisms that live there. The views were spectacular with large, sculptural icebergs forming a backdrop to the sight of humpback whales. The whales were often feeding only a few hundred metres from the shore directly opposite the station.
Our second week was hosted by the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources in the capital, Nuuk. Most of our time was spent in the Institute’s field station in Kobbefjord. The field station is a an off-grid wooden structure who’s water comes from a glacial stream and electricity from a generator. The fjord is spectacular with steep mountains, dramatic waterfalls and ever-changing weather. The only other inhabitants were several million midges and mosquitoes, who seemed very keen to get know us. The intertidal habitat here was noticeably different to Disko Island, as Kobbefjord is extremely sheltered and five degrees of latitude further south.
We were surprised to find so many familiar species that we recognise from the beaches of the UK. There were some groups of common shore animals that we did not find at all including crabs, shrimps and starfish. All beaches had periwinkles (small sea snails), brown seaweed and edible blue mussels. We now look forward to getting our samples back to the laboratory in the UK to identify the smaller beasties and seaweeds to complete our picture of the diversity of West Greenland’s shores. We also collected samples of sand from every beach to test for traces of pollution such as microplastics.
As we pack up our equipment, samples and clothes for the long journey home we want to thank the staff of both institutes for their help and support in making this highly successful expedition possible. We have been fortunate enough to meet some interesting and friendly people on our travels and look forward to ongoing collaborations and friendships.
We’ve been at Tarfala Research Station for a week now, and making great progress with our sampling schedule! Unfortunately, the weather has well and truly called a halt to fieldwork due to rain/snow/hail/gale force winds, but we’re making the most of it by staying warm and dry and catching up with processing our ice surface sediment samples in the lab (and discovering just how smelly cryoconite is while drying in the oven!).
In addition to completing our sampling of the moraines and proglacial stream outlets, we also had a go at taking a sediment core from the bottom of one of Isfallsglaciären’s proglacial lakes. To do this we carried a dinghy from Tarfalasjön to Isfallssjön across multiple moraines, which turned out to be a seriously physical task! Coring proved to be much trickier than expected as the proglacial sediments are very fine and dense and the corer struggled to penetrate the sediments at the lake bottom. Although this was a disappointment, and we ended up having lunch in a bothy bag to shelter from the bad weather, taking the boat out on Isfallssjön was a a really fun experience… We’ll try again when the weather improves!
We’re really glad that we decided to front-load our fieldwork schedule and have collected most of what we need, as the weather is really putting a spanner in the works at the moment. Good company and nightly saunas are going a long way to keeping spirits high! To end on a VERY positive note, following some cricket coaching from Nick and I (the only Brits at the station), Team Tarfala went on to win back the “Ashes” from Kebnekaise Mountain Station at the annual cricket match! HOWZAT?!!!
After journeying from Plymouth by car, plane, bus, and helicopter, we arrived at Tarfala Research Station in Arctic Sweden on Monday 7th August (a very happy moment for me after a long three years since my last visit!). We were greeted by Tobbe and the station staff and immediately made to feel at home, and began our fieldwork on Monday afternoon by scoping out our field site on and around Isfallsglaciaren.
We have begun our field campaign by collecting samples of cryoconite from the surface of Isfallsglaciaren, and taking sediment samples from the proglacial stream outlets, moraines, and fluted glacier forefield, for eventual analysis back in Plymouth. Isfallsglaciaren has retreated significantly over the past century, leaving behind a dynamic and very beautiful proglacial area, which makes fieldwork here a joy (even the rain couldn’t dampen spirits completely…)!
Processing the samples (drying and separating fine sediments) at the end of the day is a bit of a slow process with so many samples to get through, but we’re looking forward to more exciting field days ahead both on the glacier and when we take the boat onto Isfallssjon to take a sediment core from the proglacial lake. It’s been a great start to our visit so far, and we’re looking forward to the rest of our time here at Tarfala!
SUCCESS LEVEL: > 100 % NUMBER OF COLLECTED SAMPLES: > 450 NUMBER OF INVESTIGATED PLOTS: 175 NUMBER OF INJURIES: 0 NUMBER OF ENCOUNTERED POLAR BEARS: 0 ENCOUNTERED PROBLEMS: Weather! 😦 ENCOUNTERED REAL PROBLEMS: 0 SATISFACTION LEVEL: HIGH! 🙂
Looking for cryptogam species.
I’m back to reality and civilisation now. It’s hard to forget emptiness of Arctic. I’m still thinking about things I did during my fieldwork. When I close my eyes I can see cryptogams and my 1sqm research plot with stones, mosses and lichens. I really miss it now as it is 35 C degrees outside and there is no snow or glacier in the field of view. I miss the silence of the moraine when there is car traffic outside and miss the emptiness as I am walking across city centre.
But there is one thing I know for sure. I’m absolutely sure that what I love is to explore things that were unexplored in that cold polar world.
It’s time to work in laboratory now… to identify species, to create reports, to calculate all the costs and to write articles. There is still a lot to do, but I’m really charged with the energy I gained during the expedition. And even when there will be things going not well I will close my eyes and travel back to these peaceful lands.
I hope to visit Arctic again soon.
I hope to do some research longer.
I hope to experience it more and more.
I hope for the next INTERACT TA project 🙂
I am really thankful to INTERACT TA team for giving the opportunity of conducting this fieldwork 🙂 Farewell Arctic Adventure 2017 and waiting for new… maybe in 2018?
Below you can find a short video – a synthesis of our fieldwork 🙂
Dr.’s Emily Stevenson (University of Cambridge) and Mel Murphy (University of Oxford) are both early career researchers in Earth Sciences, and this summer they will be undertaking hydrological sampling of the Zackenberg River and surrounding tributaries for their INTERACT project ‘CarbFlux’. Em and Mel are both accomplished isotope geochemists and specialise in the precise and accurate measurements of elemental and isotopic compositions of Arctic river waters (and sediments).
Chemical weathering of continental rocks is a fundamental process in the carbon cycle and controlling climate stability. In a rapidly warming Arctic, it is critical to constrain the role of weathering processes in controlling global biogeochemical cycles and to quantify the contribution to global chemical weathering fluxes and CO2 drawdown. Together, they will utilise a multi-proxy approach to investigate links between the chemical compositions of the riverine dissolved load and suspended sediments with silicate, carbonate and sulfate weathering processes.
This project will utilise measurements of stable lithium and strontium isotopes, stable isotopes of sulfate and major elemental abundances of river water and sediments to: (i) better understand how rocks are dissolved and the effect glacial ice and permafrost have on accelerating (or decelerating) these processes; (ii) link such processes to the fluxes of CO2 through large Arctic river systems, and ultimately (iii) compare rates of CO2 uptake and release in this region.
After a frustratingly snowy start to my time in Tarfala, the snow eventually turned to slush, and within days the glacier’s bare ice finally started to reveal itself. On July 11th, 11 days after arriving at Tarfala, and after a bout of gale force winds, I dashed up the hills on the other side of the valley to my glacial site to get an overview of the melt situation. Filled with excitement over what must surely be bare ice, I raced back down the hill, grabbed my sampling kit, and managed to take my first supraglacial samples from Storeglaciären!! A long day, but well worth it!!
From this point on, the next two and a half weeks became a non-stop carousel of hiking up the glacier to collect samples in the morning, then returning to the lab to process and analyze them in the afternoon and often into the evening. The glacier didn’t disappoint with its abundance of ice algae; so I was extremely happy with that. Despite it being a fairly exhausting schedule to be doing without assistance, I’m confident that I’ve got a great collection of samples in storage ready to take home now.
Winter seemed to keep clinging on in the Tarfala valley. The winds were fierce at times and clouds and rain became no stranger to me. Thankfully, in the final week and a half of July, the sun shone and pushed summer along, and before I knew it I was skipping down the valley towards Nikkaluokta; the portal back to the real world, ready for my first return journey home. I’m now in the UK for a couple of weeks, but I’ll be back at the end of August to take more samples, conduct more experiments and finish up this INTERACT funded field work.
We are entering the last few days of our first trip to Finse. We have been really lucky with the weather and have managed to collect benthic cobbles from 14 rivers, for incubation in our respiration experiment.
On returning to Finse in September, we will re-run this process, to detect any seasonal variation within benthic respiration rates along our glacial gradient. We will also be on the look out for our cotton strip assays, deployed to measure cellulose decomposition. They will be left within the rivers until we return and fingers crossed, can find them again. Our hope is that the rivers will not have washed them away in flood or left them exposed during periods of low flow (quite picky). We need a viable sample to have been submerged throughout to represent in-stream decomposition.
We are working near the adjacent Cree (Whapmagoostui; “place of the beluga” in Cree) and Inuit (Kuujjuarapik; “little great river” in Inuktitut) villages. The relief consists of low rolling hills built of Prekambrain rocks, depressions and coastal dunes. Vegetation pattern is connected with landscape. The W-K region is located in the transition zone between the forest and tundra. Vegetation types include grass-dominated cover along the coast, lichen-heath cover on rocky outcrops, and lichen-spruce woodlands. In this beautiful scenery we are happy to collect samples from trees and shrubs. Thanks to excellent logistic support of the W-K Research Station, managed by Maxime Saunier, our field work is fast and efficient. We can reach the sampling sites by ATV and boat. During the last few days we have already collected about 200 cores of spruce, 50 samples of dwarf shrubs, mainly willow and birch. The weather is against us (see image J) but we don’t stop our work!
Over the past few days at Finse Alpine Research Station, our University of Leeds Team have been collecting benthic cobbles and water from our 12 river sites, which span a gradient of glacial influence from 0-85%. Our aim (aside from weight training), is to determine how benthic respiration rates alter along this continuum.
Following incubation, we began tin foil origami, carefully wrapping up each rock. A regression of foil weight was used to estimate active surface area.
Then, it was back to those trusty toothbrushes, as a sub-sample of each rock was scrubbed and the biofilm collected and frozen. This will enable biofilm biomass estimates, following calculation of ash free dry mass, back in the lab at Leeds.
Our next few days will be spent collecting further samples for incubation and attempting to be equally experimental with our remaining tins of chopped tomatoes.