I was suspended from a thin nylon rope some 250 feet from the bottom of an icy well. Looking up, I noticed the spray – blinding snow whipped in frenzy by howling winds – sanding the entrance, about 20 feet above me. I was happy to be out of time, suspended in almost silence.
As my eyes adjusted to the lower light, I found myself staring into a chasm far larger than anything I thought I could find beneath the surface of the Greenland Ice Cap.
All I could think of was, “It shouldn’t be here.”
It was 2018, and I was on an expedition with Will Gadd, a Canadian adventure athlete, to explore windmills, or giant vertical caves, in the Greenland ice cap. Will was already at the bottom of the well. From my point of view, it looked like an insect with a headlamp.
At first glance, Will and I were a strange couple on an expedition. Will is one of the best professional ice climbers in the world. It is sponsored by Red Bull. He won the X Games, ESPN’s extreme sports competition, and spent time with Jimmy Chin, a professional mountaineer and filmmaker.
For my part, I am a professor of geology at the University of South Florida. I teach groundwater physics to undergraduates. I hung out with … scientists. We do not share exactly the same social circles.
I ended up in Greenland with Will because he wanted to make an expedition film that brought attention to climate change. Will is in his fifties. Over the course of his long career, he has seen climate change erase ice rises and shrink glaciers. He presented the film to Red Bull. They liked it. This is how the Beneath the Ice expedition was born.
Will tied me up because I wrote my doctorate. dissertation on ice caves and had been studying them for over 15 years. I was supposed to be the scientific expert, but I certainly didn’t want to look into that inexplicably large hole.
I began my accidental journey as an ice cave expert in 2004 as an undergraduate geology student at Eastern Kentucky University. A mutual friend invited me on a climbing trip with Dr Doug Benn, a glaciologist from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. While I skipped class to explore and map caves near campus, Doug was studying how global warming was melting the glaciers of Mount Everest into networks of lakes. Some of these lakes have drained catastrophically through caves in the ice, sometimes with devastating consequences for the villages, dams and hydroelectric facilities below. Glaciologists did not understand how these caves formed and therefore did not understand what controlled the drainage of the lake.
Between climbs, and later around beers, Doug and I became convinced that we could understand how the Everest region’s ice caves formed – if only we could explore and map them. Although I have never seen a glacier and Doug only briefly visited a few caves, we thought that combining Doug’s experience of glaciology and mountaineering with my experience in exploring and mapping caves could help us understand how to explore some of the tallest caves in the world. , and probably even survive the expedition.
On our first expedition in November 2005, we spent approximately seven weeks exploring and mapping ice caves at elevations above 16,400 feet in the Everest region, including caves located a short hike from camp. base of Mount Everest. Breathless in the thin air, we survived landslides, ice falls and cave floor collapse. And we slowly learned the secrets of the ice caves.
We found that ice caves in the Everest region formed along bands of porous debris in the ice. Water from the lakes on the glacier’s surface would flow through the bands of debris and melt the ice around them to form a cave. The caves could then expand rapidly as the rate of melting increased, allowing entire lakes to flow through them.
Having unraveled my first scientific mystery, I became addicted. I graduated from undergrad in 2006 and started working with Doug and a growing list of adventurous collaborators to explore and map dozens of other ice caves in Alaska, Nepal and Svalbard, Norway, first as a graduate student, then as a postdoctoral fellow and finally as a professor. Along the way, I learned to photograph the frozen darkness so that I could share our findings with scientists who lacked the technical skills to venture into ice caves.
The discoveries we made while crawling under the world’s glaciers over the next decade have helped us document the role that ice caves play in mediating the response of glaciers to climate change. In Nepal, where thick blankets of debris on the surface of glaciers should isolate glaciers from melting, we found that ice caves were melting ice beneath the debris. The caves turned the glaciers of Everest into Swiss cheese and rotted them from the inside.
In other parts of the world, notably Alaska and Svalbard, ice caves have followed fractures in the ice and channeled rivers of meltwater into ice beds. The surge in summer meltwater lubricates the contact between the ice and the underlying rocks and causes glaciers to slide faster than they would if the meltwater were not present.
While I had explored ice caves around the world before working with Will, there was one place I hadn’t been able to explore: the inside of the Greenland Ice Cap.
The Greenland ice sheet covers over 650,000 square miles, roughly the size of Alaska. If it melted completely, it could raise sea level by 23 feet.
Each summer, rising temperatures transform the frozen surface of the edge of the Greenland ice cap into a network of rivers and lakes. All rivers and many lakes disappear into mills and continue to flow towards the ocean along the interface of the ice cap and the bedrock below. As the flow of meltwater through this interface increases, the friction between the ice and the bed is reduced and the ice sheet accelerates, sending ice into the ocean faster than in winter.
Some glaciologists are concerned that as global warming triggers increased melting and new caves form in areas of the ice sheet that had not previously melted, increased lubrication could cause the ice sheet to spill. ice in the ocean and sea level rise faster than expected.
With funding from the National Science Foundation, I was able to establish remote camps to study how the flow of water in the caves affected the movement of the ice sheet during the summer. But I really wanted to come back in the fall, when the cold temperatures cut off the supply of meltwater to the mills and made them safe to explore. So when Will Gadd emailed me and asked if I wanted to “do something cool” in Greenland’s ice caves, I was good to go. I wanted to see if the ideas I had developed about ice caves from other glaciers were working in Greenland.
Having worked in so many different ice caves, I thought I understood them. But as I swayed in the middle of this huge frozen well in the Greenland ice cap, puzzled at its size, I realized that the ice caves still had surprises in store for me and there were still more mysteries to be solved. .
Jason Gulley is an associate professor of geology at the University of South Florida and an environmental, science and expedition photographer based in Tampa, Florida. You can follow his work on Instagram.
His fieldwork in Greenland was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation. His fieldwork in Nepal was supported by grants from the National Geographic Society.