Expedition to Greenland aboard a sailing ship transformed into a scientific platform

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Scientists aboard the sailing vessel Forel will study the impact of climate chan
Scientists aboard the sailing vessel Forel will study the impact of climate change in southern Greenland. @ Copyright Julia Schmale, EPFL

As part of the GreenFjord project, prof. Samuel Jaccard from the University of Lausanne and five other scientists board the sailing vessel Forel to carry out a sampling and analysis campaign in SW Greenland.

The Arctic, and Greenland in particular, is warming much faster than the rest of the globe, notably due to the accelerated melting of glaciers and sea ice. This warming is rapidly transforming the environment and the living conditions of indigenous populations.

Funded by the Swiss Polar Institute, the GreenFjord project studies the impact of climate change in southern Greenland (see box). It conducts field campaigns over several years, in order to better understand the seasonal and interannual variability of climate dynamics. This year, a special effort is being made to better understand the interactions between glaciers and the ocean in a system of fjords located in the Narsaq region.

For the first time, part of the research campaign will be implemented on a sailing boat, the Forel, transformed into a research platform capable of navigating polar environments. Professor at the University of Lausanne’s Faculty of Geosciences and Environment, Samuel Jaccard is taking part in this expedition with five other scientists.

Le Forel enables in situ observation of oceanic and atmospheric characteristics using a variety of sensors, as well as the collection of marine and atmospheric samples, while greatly reducing the ecological footprint of the research project. One of Forel’s special features is that it comprises a number of laboratories, including a clean room with ultra-filtered ambient air, enabling water samples and genetic material to be handled without contamination of any kind.

As part of this expedition, Samuel Jaccard will be carrying out analyses to determine the concentration and origin of various dissolved metals, including iron (Fe), which play an essential role in biological productivity, as they are necessary for the survival of phytoplankton.

As a reminder, the ocean captures around 1/4 of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted into the atmosphere as a result of fossil fuel use. Without it, the Earth would heat up even more. At the origin of this capture are, among others, microscopic algae living on the surface and called phytoplankton, which practice photosynthesis: they absorb atmospheric CO2, and use sunlight to transform it into organic matter (chlorophyll). When the phytoplankton die, some of this matter is exported to the ocean floor, sequestering carbon in the waters and sediments of the fjords for centuries and millennia.

Oceanographers refer to this process as a biological pump, because it transfers (pumps) carbon from the ocean surface to the ocean depths, thereby reducing atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

Preliminary results suggest, however, that the functioning of this biological pump is altered by the melting of Greenland’s glaciers. Indeed, once the glaciers have retreated beyond the coastline, the supply of Fe and nutrients by meltwater diminishes, limiting biological productivity with negative consequences not only for the carbon cycle, but also for the fishing resources on which local populations depend for their livelihood.

the University of Lausanne will be aboard the Forel for almost a week. The Lausanne-based scientists will then continue their work aboard another research vessel: the Sanna.

The GreenFjord project

The GreenFjord project is a multidisciplinary research project funded by the Swiss Polar Institute. It brings together researchers in the natural sciences, engineering and the humanities from the Universities of Lausanne and Zurich, as well as EPFL and ETHZ. GreenFjord aims to better understand the impacts of climate change on the ecosystems and people of SW Greenland.

More information on the Forel sailboat: https://www.forel-heritage.org/fr/