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2021 Rolex Awards Laureate

Explore and study the world’s northern-most caves for new insights into climate change in the Arctic

British climate researcher Gina Moseley will cross one of the world’s last frontiers in exploration when she abseils into the planet’s most northerly unexplored Arctic caves seeking clues to the planet’s climatic past. Her world-first expedition seeks to expose the risk to humanity from polar regions now heating twice as fast as elsewhere – and threatening to drown coastal cities worldwide.

A veteran polar explorer and caver, Gina Moseley heard of the virgin caves by chance, from a colleague. They had been sighted far off, high in a remote cliff face, during a US military expedition to Wulff Land in the far north of Greenland during the 1960s – and never explored due to the expense and difficulty of such an expedition.

A trailblazing scientist who is always seeking her next challenge, Moseley decided the time was ripe to expose the caves’ hidden geological record – and so gain insight into the warming and cooling periods of the deep past and their effects on both the Arctic and global environments. From this she hopes to draw fresh conclusions about the likely impacts of today’s polar melting.

Caves are like time machines. Calcite forms layers, like tree rings. We can analyse each layer to get information about the past climate.

Gina Moseley

The leader of three previous Greenland expeditions, she believes these caves harbour a precious geological secret – calcite deposits called ‘speleothems’ reaching back possibly half a million years, that record the cryptic imprint of climates past. Current Arctic climate science depends on ice cores which are, at most, 128,000 years old. The remote caves of far north Wulff Land may conceal a record four or five times as long, from which scientists may read clues to the planet during warmer epochs.

“Caves are like time machines,” Moseley says. “Calcite forms layers, like tree rings. We can analyse each layer to get information about the past climate so, when we go into the caves, we are looking for stalagmites, stalactites and flowstones which are made from calcite.”

Greenland deeply influences humanity’s fate. Its ice is melting at record rates. In 2019, it added 12 billion tonnes of water to the oceans in a single day. This is driving sea-level rise of more than a millimetre a month. The frozen land also influences rainfall patterns, ice formation, ocean currents and weather systems affecting heavily-populated regions worldwide.

Moseley’s expedition will test the limits of human endurance. Her six-person team will hike long and hard across ice and rock on foot, carrying all their supplies, scale a towering cliff then abseil into the mouth of each cavern to gather samples.

“It is wonderful to be supported by Rolex. I have actually had this whole programme to go to the most northerly caves in the world on my mind for many years – and getting there is virtually impossible. The Rolex Awards are, pretty much, the only programme out there that could or would support such an expedition.”

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