Returning to Greenland

June 1, 2022

Isunnguata Sermia

After a 3 season hiatus, I’ll be heading back to Greenland next month.
My last planned trip to the Arctic, which was to have been in Svalbard, was cancelled in March of 2020, collateral damage of the Covid shutdown.
That left me with some significant flight credits that were only going to be good to the end of this year, as well as some remaining funds that needed to be used.

I reached out a few months ago to scientists I have worked with in the past, to see if anyone had any planned activities, and could I tag along? A former colleague in the Dark Snow Project from 2013 and 2014 responded.

Marek Stibal, now of Charles University in Prague, has been working to sample methane releases from melting glaciers, was stoked to have me come along, and I’ve managed to secure the (fingers crossed) flights and accommodations to make things work.

The article here is from 2020, so may not be exactly descriptive of what will be happening this summer – but we will be looking for methane releases from an outlet glacier, Isunnguata Sermia, which is short chopper ride north of Kangerlussuag, a place well known to scientists.

Iforum-Charles University Online magazine:

“I have actually never done anything else,” is how Marek Stibal, who has been studying biological processes in glacial ecosystems for almost 20 years, sums up his career as a scientist. Stibal, from the Faculty of Science at Charles University is the co-author of a study published in Nature that brought evidence of the release of methane from the melting Greenland Ice Sheet during the summer period.

Further research of biological processes under the ice sheet have been made possible by an ERC CZ Consolidator Grant worth CZK 58 million.

As the scientist admits, this will be the greatest challenge he has ever faced. At the same time, there are plenty of reasons to be excited: the boost in funding means he will be able to hire the best possible colleagues for his team. The project will start on 1 July 2020.

Kilometre-deep boreholes

The project will be split into several phases: during the first, six sections of the western margin of the Greenland Ice Sheet will be mapped for methane release. To be able to answer fundamental questions regarding the release of greenhouse gases, he and colleagues will need to obtain samples of undisturbed subglacial sediments. That means taking samples not only from easily accessible areas at the margin of the ice sheet which have been used for research so far, but from places where sediments are not affected, for example, by the presence of oxygen.

“It is this sampling that is potentially going to be the most interesting part of the research,” says Stibal, adding “we will have to get through a layer of ice that in some places is up to a kilometre thick. Due to the demands of the drilling process, this is where we face the greatest risks and have to take the greatest care, but we will at least give it a try”. If the scientists succeed in getting the samples needed, the field phase will be followed by laboratory work with incubation experiments, and computer modelling.

The presence of methane under the Greenland Ice Sheet has been confirmed: its release was discovered in 2015 by a team of scientists from eight institutions including Charles University. The concentrations of dissolved methane in samples of meltwater from a 600 km2 ice sheet catchment were determined and its origin analysed. The measured amount of six tonnes per melting season corresponds to the methane production of a hundred cows. The new project should provide deeper insight into how much greenhouse gas could potentially be released from the entire ice sheet.

“We want to find out whether the rapid melting of the ice sheet may contribute to an increase in methane concentration in the atmosphere and so constitute a positive climate warming feedback”. This is where the microbiologist sees one of the benefits of the research, to which he adds immediately “We’re realists. We already know that there are much more significant anthropogenic methane sources. The amount of methane coming from Greenland’s subglacial ecosystem will probably be negligible globally, but still, it should not be ignored.”

The team led by Marek Stibal will also be interested in how and when methane appeared under the approximately million-year-old glacier, whether it has been produced continuously or whether it is old gas released due to accelerating melting. “I am mostly interested in the microbial processes occurring under the glacier,” he says.

Stibal’s work with Dark Snow was ground breaking in identifying algae growth on the surface of the ice sheet as a darkening mechanism, part of the feedbacks that are speeding the melt of Greenland’s crtical ice. I interviewed Marek for the video below, in addition to the “Black and Bloom” team from the UK, which was pursuing the same line of research.

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One Response to “Returning to Greenland”

  1. neilrieck Says:

    Speaking of Greenland. I just read the interesting article (from Gwyne Dyer; author of “Climate Wars”) on a scheme to slow the ice melt in Greenland.

    https://www.thestar.com/ths/opinion/contributors/2022/06/03/a-cool-idea-to-stop-sea-level-rise.html


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