Earlier this month, I was invited to give a talk and screen some video for 60 seasoned long distance sailors (CCA). The topic? My top three learnings from ArcticEarth’s first year:
1. The vessel ArcticEarth works well amidst ice (and melting ice)
2. A surprise for me- Greenland is geothermal!
3. Equitable & ethical engagement with Inuit communities & knowledge is foundational.
The first question in the Q & A, however, took us in a slightly different direction, “can you summarize what scientists are learning in the Arctic?” I replied that I’d follow up on that. Here’s my best shot, below.
Broadly speaking, there are a LOT of studies in the Arctic. Over 125 international projects are on the most recent list of the Arctic Council: underwater noise, marine biodiversity monitoring, rural energy, black carbon, community health assessment -to name a few. The number and range of work is understandable, given the inter-connectivity of this highly dynamic region with the rest of the planet. In 2022, ArcticEarth provided logistical and communications support for a very small portion of Arctic studies, on two of our four Greenland expeditions. Field reports -but no findings- can be found in our ArcticEarth JOURNAL from those two expeditions (001, 004).
I’ve written a few times about the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, ably led by Director Paul Mayewski. We are planning a six-year water project with them and their Greenlander colleagues. A couple of weeks ago, Paul sent me some findings from this past summer’s work; sampling both from ArcticEarth and from shore station sites.
First, a little background to give context to the question being explored.
Paul worked on the Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS) for many years, including the historic GISP-2 ice core drilling between 1989-1995, when he provided oversight and leadership for 25 US institutions. The Climate Change Institute has a robust global cryosphere program (water in solid form) -a world leader- and has recently collected the highest ice and water samples on earth in the Himalayas and the Andes. Paul served as the Principal Investigator for the National Geographic and ROLEX Perpetual Planet Mt Everest Expedition, 2018-2021, with a team that included his UMaine colleague Mario Potocki, who is also working with ArcticEarth.
Paul and Mario note that the Greenland ice sheet (GIS) is “the largest ice repository in the Northern Hemisphere for the accumulation of atmospherically transported natural and human source emissions. As the GIS melts the biochemistry trapped within it is released onto and into the surrounding land, freshwater systems, and ocean.”
Southwest Greenland has more melt days than anywhere else in Greenland (left).
Paul and Mario’s question:
what’s in the meltwater?
In this first year, they collected samples from a total of 216 sites, and used special instruments in their lab to identify and measure water isotopes, soluble ions, major/trace/rare elements, nutrients, and microplastics. 15 samples were also tested for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – well known and insidious for organic farmers here in Maine – as PFAS.
A noteworthy finding from the meltwater – the amount of Lead (Pb) is generally higher than typical coastal waters. In their words:
Concentrations of Lead (Pb) “range from 23-1930ng/L (nanograms per liter) with 3 samples exhibiting significantly higher values (3570-17,400ng/L). The 2022 study indicates that Greenland marine Pb concentrations are generally higher than typical coastal waters and that at least 2 samples exceed the 10,000ng/L WHO (2022) drinking water health standards and the ANZEEC (2000) marine standards. Close examination of the three highest Pb concentration sampling sites demonstrates the following. The Skovfjorden stream site (Figure 5) has the highest Pb concentration in the 2022 study =17,400ng/L and the second highest As value = 920ng/L. It is a delta with water sourced from a remnant small glacier and snowpatches.”
Past and Future Warming
What the ice has locked up -humanity’s emissions since the dawn of the industrial age- are increasingly released as the climate warms and the ice melts. Some changes in water quality are already evident. Change may intensify and broaden in response to future warming. This can have critical impact for life in the Arctic -and beyond.
Inuit Nunaat AND Arctic Cryosphere
“Since childhood, I was brought up with the instructive idea that EVERYTHING around us is ALIVE (a pebble, a blade of grass, water…). And I remember this and am grateful to my fellow countrymen who support this attitude to everything that surrounds us, feeds us, and lets us live. I know and I am sure that our Protocols will be alive and will help us to continue to live in harmony with nature, in peace with everyone.”
-Liubov Taian, Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC)
The Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) represents about 185,000 Inuit in four countries, Alaska (USA), Arctic Canada, Chukotka (Russia) and Greenland. Liubov Taian (seated center in this photo, courtesy ICC Alaska) is a signatory to the 2022 Circumpolar Inuit Protocols.
Long before their position paper at last month’s COP 27, the Inuit have felt that “the global community must recognize that our environment, especially our ocean and ice, plays a critical role in global temperature regulation, biodiversity and overall health and wellbeing of the world. The Arctic environment must be protected through partnership with Inuit.”
The vision of the Climate Change Institute team is that the water monitoring program will cover much of the west coast of Greenland and will catalyze a new expanded research community -in exactly this manner of partnership- a convergence of Inuit local knowledge and global cryosphere technology and science. In addition to the minimal carbon methodology of sampling via the wind-powered vessel ArcticEarth, samples will also be collected by trained resident Greenlanders within and outside their settlements, by foot and local transit. Several sites will be chosen for continuous monitoring over a 4-year period.
Findings will be available for Greenlander decision-makers, and also support a broader understanding of water quality throughout the Arctic and glacier-fed water towers of the world.