08 Apr 2019 Story Climate change

Mountain hero Will Gadd explores beneath the Greenland ice cap

Christian Pondella/Red Bull Content Pool

Will Gadd is a UN Environment Mountain Hero and the 2015 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. He’s the first person to ice climb up the Niagara Falls. The Canadian adventurer’s biggest and most dangerous challenge, however, has been on—and under—the Greenland ice cap, an expedition set up to collect data on moulins and meltwater, and contribute to our understanding of the impacts of climate change on the environment.

Will Gadd
Will Gadd on Greenland’s second biggest glacier. Careful evaluation of all the risks is essential in ice-climbing.
Photo credits: Christian Pondella / Red Bull Content Pool

Moulins are vertical shafts that carry surface water to the bedrock under the glacier. Enormous meltwater lakes, made from water pouring down from the surface, can be accessed through large gaps in the ice sheet that lead down into a seemingly bottomless pit. In the warmer part of the year, moulins can be incredibly dangerous to climb into with all the meltwater flowing through them. In winter, danger comes in the shape of huge chunks of ice crashing down from above.

The aim of Gadd’s mission was to reach the water table and dive in the glacier’s water table. Joining Gadd on the expedition was glacial hydrologist and diving instructor Professor Jason Gulley, who taught his fellow explorer the principles of cave diving. However, because of the risk of ending up being crushed by falling ice they eventually gave up on the dive. “The first goal is always to come back,” Gadd explains.

Despite missing out on the dive, the trip helped build our understanding of how moulins in the ice sheet can handle water and the potential impacts of the water flow on sea level rise. The Greenland ice sheet is the second biggest ice sheet in the world, and the most understudied.

Since 1979, Arctic sea ice is estimated to have declined by 40 per cent. Climate models predict that, at the current rate of carbon dioxide emissions, Arctic summers will be ice-free by the 2030s. Even if the world were to cut emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, winter temperatures in the Arctic would rise 3–5°C by 2050 and 5–9°C by 2080, devastating the region’s climate balance and unleashing sea level rises worldwide, says a new report by UN Environment, Global Linkages: A graphic look at the changing Arctic.

Will Gadd
Will Gadd prepares to descend into the glacier’s interior.
Photo credits: Christian Pondella / Red Bull Content Pool

The melting of the Greenland ice cap and Arctic glaciers contribute to one third of sea level rise worldwide.

Driven by curiosity

Of his Greenland mission, Will Gadd says: “It’s a project that pushed me farther than any other project I’ve ever done… I celebrate every moment I get to live fully. Hanging one-handed above a maelstrom on the Greenland ice cap is living. There are moments in life where you couldn’t possibly be living any more than you are in that moment. This is one of them for me.”

In his youth he’d go out with an older crew of cavers who nicknamed him “the probe” because of his prized ability to squeeze into the tiniest of spaces. “I’d squeeze into places no human had ever been all because it was wildly interesting and scratched the raw itch of curiosity,” he says.

“More than three decades after my first caving experiences, my worlds of ice-climbing and caving have collided. Yet again it was curiosity: what’s down those moulins?”

But Gadd is not just an adventurer. With Professor Martin Sharp from the University of Alberta they worked under the Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rockies and found new life forms growing inside the glacier.

“My group was the first to show that there is active microbial life in and under glaciers—back in the 1990s—and that microbes are involved in rock weathering and nutrient cycling in these systems, and that they therefore affect the chemistry of meltwater leaving the glacier,” says Sharp.

Will Gadd
Base camp on the Greenland ice-sheet. 
Photo credits: Christian Pondella / Red Bull Content Pool

“What our sampling [in 2016] showed is that microbes are relatively abundant throughout this englacial system—and that the microbes found inside the glacier are quite different from the ones that live in snow on the glacier’s surface,” he adds.

Carolina Adler, Director of the Mountain Research Initiative and President of the Environmental Commission of the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation, says that the changing conditions for snow, glaciers and permafrost, and their impacts under the influence of climate change, are some of the thematic areas being addressed in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

“This special report is due to be released in September in 2019. We expect to continue to draw on all the available evidence to understand the drivers and processes of change, as well as feedbacks and interconnections with climate change,” she says. The report will assess scientific literature relevant to climate change and the oceans and cryosphere. It will also have a dedicated chapter on high mountain areas.

For further information, please contact Matthias Jurek: [email protected] , or Musonda Mumba, [email protected] (Mountain Focal Point), or Jan Dusik, [email protected] (Principal Advisor for the Arctic)