After I graduated I wanted a job that allowed me to travel and discover the world – just like my grandfather. After absolving a “work and travel” program in New Zealand where I could enjoy the beautiful landscape, I decided to study geoscience. This is the reason why I travelled all around the world during the last twelve years. I discovered my interest in the Arctic and the significant climatic change in the Polar Regions during my time at the university in Svalbard, Norway. Currently, I’m writing my doctoral thesis on coastal erosion along the Yukon coast in northwestern Canada, which is right at the border to Alaska.
“In Arctic Canada the soil contains so much ice it melts almost like a scoop of ice-cream in summer”
In the summer of 2012 and 2013 I had the opportunity to fly with my colleagues to an island – 10km wide, no permanent inhabitants – called Herschel Island to do some field studies. Our base was on Herschel Island but my field work took place within a radius of 80km, so I had to walk a lot over bumpy tundra. We also travelled by boat and even by helicopter.
My dissertation will focus mainly on a special phenomenon of thawing, called “retrogressive thaw slump,” which describes coastal erosion areas that are up to 500 meters wide and u-shaped. They occur when permafrost ground containing ice and sediment thaws.
“Scientists estimate that permafrost contains twice as much carbon as the atmosphere”
Permafrost is any kind of soil that is frozen for two consecutive years or more. In Germany there are very few square kilometers of permafrost; it exists way up on the mountain Zugspitze. Retrogressive thaw slumps occur at steep coastlines where waves move away the sediment thus exposing the ice contained in the ground. Due to the higher air temperature and the solar radiation, the exposed ice melts, again causing more and more soil to erode into the ocean.
The same process is happening on the German island Rügen in the Baltic Sea where waves are eroding the sediment. In Canada, however, the soil contains much more ice and so it melts almost like a scoop of ice-cream in summer. Along the Yukon coast there are numerous “slumps“ and they may erode up to 9 meters of land per year, which means if there was a house 90 meters from the coast, it could fall into the sea within less than ten years. This is exactly what will happen to a lot of Inuit, the aboriginal inhabitants of this region, and their houses.
Prof. Dr. Hugues and I both study the causes and size of slumps and the effects they have when these big quantities of sediment are exposed and begin to thaw. Most of the sediment falls into the oceans; the major part of it consists of organic material from animals (in Russia mammoths) and plants which was frozen in the soil and stored as organic carbon in the permafrost. Our research work is also focused on finding out when and how much organic carbon is released by thawing. When we have concrete data other scientists may then investigate how much organic carbon is actually transformed by bacteria in the tundra and by micro-organisms in the ocean and then released into the atmosphere.
“Journeys to such isolated areas show me the beauty of our planet, but also the vulnerability of nature”
We still don’t know how much carbon enters the atmosphere by thawing permafrost. However, scientists estimate that permafrost contains twice as much carbon as the atmosphere in current conditions. This shows that only minimal changes in the atmospheric carbon content result in a substantial impact on global warming and climatic changes.
When we are out in the field, we use GPS points and satellite data to document the annual retrogression of land. Especially GPS gives us precise data of any changes. In addition, we set up weather stations indicating the local weather. We also have stations measuring how much sediment and ice thaws and drains off into the sea. Furthermore, we take samples of the permafrost and the already thawed muddy soil that actually looks and feels like liquid Nutella, however doesn’t taste like it (it rather stinks). On the basis of the samples we then determine age, source, and distinctive chemical parameters such as its carbon content.
Field work in pristine islands such as Svalbard and Herschel Island give me my motivation for the scientific work I do. Journeys to such isolated areas show me the beauty of our planet, but also the vulnerability of nature. When I go to these places, I recognize how small I am and how eerie severe weather, heavy seas or even bears can be. Journeys to such isolated areas show me the beauty of our planet, but also the vulnerability of nature and of peoples such as the Inuit in the face of global human impact.