GreenFjord, the life of Greenland's glaciers concerns everyone

The new project of the Swiss Polar Institute: studying the ice of the large Arctic island and understanding the effects of climate change

Glaciers: understanding climate change by studying what happens in Greenland
The GreenFjord project's weather balloon in flight over the town of Narsaq, in South Greenland (Photo: Lionel Favre/EPFL)

In Greenland the effects of the climate change are three times more evident than in the rest of the world: atmospheric warming, changes in vegetation and precipitation patterns, the increasingly rapid melting of glaciers have a profound impact not only on ecosystems, but also on the people's means of subsistence.

I fjords of the South of Greenland, in this sense, are particularly vulnerable ecological systems since they are located on the border between land, ocean, cryosphere, atmosphere and biosphere: the project GreenFjord, financed by Swiss Polar Institute, was created to investigate environmental and social interactions in the times of climate change.

A glacier in Greenland for the Swiss Konrad Steffen

The GreenFjord climate change project
GreenFjord project: studying the terrain in the Narsaq Valley, southern Greenland (Photo: ETH Zurich)

Greenland: “What happens here affects everyone”

"GreenFjord. Greenlandic Fjord Ecosystems in a Changing Climate: Socio-Cultural and Environmental Interactions” is one of the four-year flagship projects of the Swiss Polar Institute. Presented in 2022 by the Doctor Julia schmale, the GreenFjord project is divided into six research clusters (cryosphere, earth, ocean, atmosphere, biodiversity and man) which involve approximately 50 scientists in total in a dozen research centers in Switzerland and abroad.

"We need to understand the processes involved in environmental transformation so that we can better prepare for the consequences, i.e. adapt”, explains Schmale. There Greenland it is a very suitable place to study effects of climate change, since it is estimated that here they are three or four times higher than in the rest of the world.

Il thaw of the enormous water reserves contained in the retreating glaciers leads to a notable increase in water flows towardsMarine ecosystem. This affects the circulation of nutrients between marine species, which in turn has repercussions on the food chain, with cascading effects on biodiversity and on the subsistence of the local population. What is happening today in the South of Greenland it is a sort of photograph of the future: “What happens in this part of the world”, explains Schmale, “it concerns everyone".

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The Swiss project on the fjords of South Greenland
The measurement of methane in ocean water, in the research cluster dedicated to marine ecosystems (Photo: Jerome Chappellaz/EPFL)

Beyond the glaciers: a holistic approach to the project

La Greenland Southern Italy is one of the regions of the world most exposed to climate changes, and much remains to be discovered about how its diverse ecosystems will react to natural upheavals. The area is complex not only because of its physical and geographical characteristics, but also because local communities they survive thanks to fishing and reindeer herding, which makes them very profitable vulnerable to the potential effects of climate change.

To better understand the changes taking place in Green Earth ecosystems, scientists on the GreenFjord project use a holistic approach which involves measuring atmospheric changes, local carbon cycling, fjord dynamics, glacier retreat and overall biodiversity,

At the center of the project are two fjord systems: in one of the two the glaciers end in the water, while in the other the ice has retreated so much that it ends up on land. This latest fjord system, according to Schmale, is a possible vision from the future.

The study of the fjords has touched numerous areas: the variations of temperature and nutrients, the storage of greenhouse gases and methane in water, the biodiversity of the fjords.

To document the mass loss of melting glaciers, the team placed a fiber optic cable on the ocean floor so they could “listen” to the ice giant's movements. Glacier monitoring, however, also uses radar, seismographs and time-lapse cameras.

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The GreenGjord project also includes the study of biodiversity
The preservation of samples collected during in situ expeditions: they are intended for laboratory analyses, including DNA sequencing (Photo: Virginie Marques/ETH Zurich)

The studio and the fjords: ocean, glaciers, dust, people

The GreenFjord project is divided into six research clusters, which investigate the atmosphere, biodiversity, cryosphere, society, land and ocean. Researchers working in the different clusters collected samples of soil, water and sediments from the waterways fed by the glaciers, and they measured in detail the dust which is accumulating due to the melting of the ice.

"Dust can alter the cloud formation process and lead to changes in precipitation patterns“, explains Schmale. “As dust particles move from the ground into the atmosphere, they can act as seeds for the formation of ice crystals and thus affect clouds".

In addition to that, scientists have installed three weather stations with instruments for collecting air (and dust) particles, so that we can also measure how the dust rises into the air. The samples collected in the field will be subjected to DNA sequencing, which will serve to determine the biodiversity of plants, animals and microorganisms in order to have an overall picture of the region.

Between May and September 2023, around fifty scientists visited the area: the GreenFjord project hub was chosen Narsaq International Research Station (NIRS), a research station that is immersed in the daily life of Narsaq, a village of 1.300 inhabitants whose economy essentially revolves around agriculture and fishing.

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The Humanity cluster of the GreenFjord project
The GreenFjord project team during an interview with a fisherman from the village of Narsaq (Photo: Thora Herrmann/UNIL)

GreenFjord, the participation of the people of Narsaq

Schmale and the other project scientists from the Swiss Polar Institute did not go unnoticed by the curious residents of Narsaq, especially when the team used one of its key instruments to measure atmospheric composition: a red and white balloon proudly bearing the EPFL logo.

Il GreenFjord ball it flew over the village for eight weeks, with almost daily flights that turned into a spectacle for the villagers. “A young girl from the neighborhood started coming every morning to help us unwind the strings of the balloon and untie the knots so it could fly,” Schmale recalls.

Scientists have created a project page on Facebook where they regularly publish announcements relating to weather balloon "launches" and invite the population to intervene.

"People of all ages came to our inaugurations, from schoolchildren to pensioners“, says Schmale. “These events helped us gain their trust. I think they were proud that their village could host our studio".

"We also launched a competition to choose the name of the balloon“, recalls Schmale. The contest was won by nattoralik, which in Greenlandic means “great white sea eagle".

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The Swiss Polar Institute's project to understand climate change
The GreenFjord weather balloon flew over the village of Narsaq for eight weeks, with almost daily flights (Photo: Lionel Favre/EPFL)

Climate change seen by the population

The population of Narsaq was also actively involved in research: the cluster dedicated to human perception of climate change in the fjord region and its effects on the daily activities of the residents, he carried out interviews and commented walks on the changes in the landscape.

"The retreat of glaciers means that there probably won't be many icebergs left in the distant future, which will completely disrupt the identity of the local landscape”, says Schmale.

The next steps of the project first involve the analysis of the numerous data collected in situ, and then the team will return to Narsaq to illustrate the results of the research to the inhabitants of the town.

"Thanks to our interdisciplinary efforts, we will be able to better assess the impacts of rising temperatures, retreating glaciers and changing fjord dynamics on local livelihoods”, explains Schmale.

"This data will also give us important information on how similar fjord regions in the Arctic, for example Svalbard, might evolve, leading to better scenarios for how the Arctic might develop and could impact climate on a global scale".

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Dr. Julia Schmale, leader of the GreenFjord project, posing on the Adolf Jensen ship (Photo: EPFL)