Two people wearing orange helmets in Greenland caves looking at rocks.

photos by Robbie Shone

Gina Moseley returned home after a one-of-a-kind adventure. Her journey was sparked by a mission: to reconstruct the climate change history of Greenland. To do so, she, along with her team, planned to go deep into a remote system of Greenland cave. Their goal? To retrieve samples from ice cores. Through these, she hoped to study the past and understand the present — and future — of our climate.

As the lead scientist and caver with the Northeast Greenland Caves Project, Moseley brought together a diverse group of scientists to construct this record of climate change. The project required extensive planning, exact execution, and complete focus from scientists and cavers alike.

The logistical difficulties of a project based in a remote region like this were obvious from the beginning. However, Moseley felt confident in her team’s abilities.

And so it began.

“We landed on an airstrip at the western end of the lake, inflated a boat, crossed the lake, and set up base camp on the eastern shore,” Moseley said.

But then came the hurdles.

Group of four people standing with gear besides a plane for their trip to Greenland caves.

Aerial shot of snow and ice in Greenland.

Man and woman wearing black jackets with hoods up and life jackets.

Group of 4 people pulling a boat out of the water.

First up: hiking the team’s gear and scientific equipment to camp.

“Sorting out how best to do the hike was like the chicken-fox-seed brain teaser puzzle,” Moseley said. “We had too much equipment to do the hike in one go. We needed to split it up and do shuttle runs. It worked out well in the end, with each of us covering about 20 kilometres per day.”

But this was just a teaser for the hiking to come. Camp sat roughly three days from the location of the caves. With loads of heavy equipment needing transportation, and the constant nuisance of mosquitoes, their challenges morphed from logistical to physical. The biggest of these, Moseley said, was making the three-day trek to the caves with 26-kilogram bags, and then returning the three days to camp again. Though the terrain underfoot was not difficult, the weather was warmer than expected. That meant mosquitoes out in full force.

She showed the marks to prove it.

“Despite wearing long-sleeved clothing and 100% DEET, after just two days of walking I had 223 bites on my left arm alone.”

A person hiking through a field with a backpacking backpack.

A person with a backpack hiking through an area of rocks.

People hiking up a rock field.

There experienced plenty of encounters with other creatures. That even included a run-in before they even stepped onto the landing strip the first day.

“We were told it would be unlikely we’d see any polar bears, but there was a dead one lying at the end of the airstrip when we landed,” Moseley said.

The team also encountered musk ox (which frequently followed them), arctic stoat, sandpipers, and the howls of wolves.

But despite the heat, mosquitos, wildlife, and the grueling demands of carrying food, caving equipment and an enormous stash of research supplies, the team pressed on. At the mouth of the cave, they faced their next hurdle. The risk now stemmed from actually entering and exploring the caverns and tunnels.

The skeleton of an animal on a shore near water.

3 people leaning against a shelter.

3 people inside one of the Greenland caves.

“The trickiest part was gaining access to some of the caves,” Moseley said. “Whilst the caving was not difficult, we were always aware that we were in a very remote place

[and had] to be careful not to lose our footing. If something had gone wrong, the rescue would have been very slow, adding a dimension to the expedition that I haven’t experienced before — that feeling of being really, really remote.”

The team didn’t meet a single person between their plane drop-off and pickup. However, they did come across an old Kodak film box and a note underneath a rock in the caves. The date on the note — 1961 — indicated that it was a remnant from the original explorers who discovered the caves. More than 50 years after those adventurers, Moseley said finding and reading their note “was really the highlight of my time [in Greenland].”

Though under-resourced and unable to properly conduct sampling — resorting to tactics such as placing rock samples in their already-heavy packs after space opened up from eating the food they packed in — they obtained more samples in the caves than expected. Given how promising the initial results looked when they analyzed samples and data, Moseley looks to return.

A note and a box.

A person making notes in a notebook next to samples.

A woman showing a sample of rock.

She hopes to continue to build upon the foundation her team started, creating a long-term climate record for the region.

“[The samples we gathered] provide a new, high-resolution climate record for Greenland that is beyond the current limit of the Greenland ice cores,” Moseley said. “[They] provide us with completely new knowledge about past climate change in the Arctic, and will hopefully help us with making predictions for a future — warmer — world.”

Go deeper into the importance of building this record and find out how a love of caving led to scientific exploration by reading more in our first interview with Gina Moseley. If you’re interested in following the findings and activities of her team, join the Northeast Greenland Caves Project on Facebook.