A Swiss in Greenland’s extreme habitats | Polarjournal
Greenland includes ice, snow and rock. Nunataqs are mountain peaks that stick out of the ice. The Alps probably also looked similar during the last ice age. Photo: Christian Rixen, SLF

An expedition around northern Greenland led SLF botanist Christian Rixen to the world’s northernmost plants and to mountain peaks rising out of a sea of ice. He tells how the researchers accidentally discovered the world’s northernmost island and about an unexpected encounter with a polar bear.

Greenland is big, very big. The north-south extension is the same as from Oslo to Sicily. Yet fewer than 60,000 people live on Greenland. The longest road is about 51 km long, and no two settlements are connected by one road. Last but not least, Northeast Greenland is home to the largest and least visited national park in the world. The plan to circumnavigate the northern half of Greenland by helicopter and a small aircraft, a Twin Otter, in a 12-man Swiss-Danish expedition, the “Leister Expedition Around North Greenland 2021”, was correspondingly ambitious.

The northernmost flowering plant in the world, the purple (our mountain) saxifrage. It is also the record holder in the Alps. It blooms at an altitude of about 4500 m. Photo: Christian Rixen, SLF

One of the aims of the expedition was to study extreme habitats, e.g. plants and soil organisms in the far north or on mountain peaks rising from the Greenland ice, so-called nunataqs. Exploring these limits of life is also important for understanding change, especially in times of climate change. So we were curious to see which would be the northernmost plant on our planet. Interestingly, it was a saxifrage, and the same species that holds the altitude record in the Alps, namely on the summit of the Dom at about 4,500 m altitude.

View to the south from Cape Morris Jesup in North Greenland. In the north there is only ice, a few islets (where the saxifrage is also found) and after about 700 km the north pole. Photo: Christian Rixen, SLF

Although the region is so remote, it has been visited by botanists in the past, which allows interesting conclusions to be drawn about changes in plants. As early as 1934, the Danish botanist Gelting mapped plants up to altitudes above 1200 m above sea level. From the 1950s onwards, the Swiss botanist Fritz Hans Schwarzenbach studied the altitudinal distribution of plants at various locations in north-eastern Greenland. He also repeated Gelting’s research in 2001 and found that many plant species are now found at higher altitudes on the mountain – comparable to our research results in the Swiss Alps.

While I was examining the plants of the northernmost cape of Greenland, some expedition members set off in a helicopter to find an islet even further north, but which had not been sighted for several decades. Where the island should have been, they found: only ice floes. However, on further search, the islet was found about 800 m to the north. Only after the expedition it turned out that there was no doubt: The former northernmost island had been wiped out by storms and ice, but a new island had been created further north. The new island now needs a name. The proposal is “Qeqertaq Avannarleq”. This is Greenlandic and means “island in the north”.

The camp in Citronenfjord, only 772 km away from the North Pole. Despite the location, researchers felt the weather extremes in Greenland. Photo: Christian Rixen, SLF

Despite our proximity to the North Pole, we were able to experience the effects of climate change first hand. Some found the sleeping bag too warm during the night. Later we learned that at midnight 19.8°C was measured, almost a tropical night! For comparison: The night temperatures in Davos have never been above about 14°C. During this warm phase, Greenland recorded one of the largest melting events since measurements began. Furthermore, shortly afterwards it rained on the highest point of the Greenland Ice Sheet (at 3’216 m) for the first time since the beginning of the observations!

The polar bear didn’t seem overly hungry, but still had to be chased away from camp. Photo: Christian Rixen, SLF

One of the preparations for the expedition included shooting training in case of an encounter with a polar bear. So you go to Greenland with mixed feelings – on the one hand you would like to see a polar bear, but on the other hand you don’t want to get too close! On an island called Ella, it was thought that the chances of encountering a polar bear were very slim. Promptly, returning from a hike, I spotted a cuddly polar bear between us and our camp. The bear did not seem nervous or hungry, but was slowly moving towards our camp, where our colleagues were busy with field work. Thanks to the radio, however, everyone was quickly informed and the bear was chased away with several shots. Actually a pity, because in the beginning we could observe the bear peacefully in its territory. But even better that it was an encounter without any bloodshed.

Dr. Christian Rixen is Senior Scientist at the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF in Davos. He is mainly concerned with the alpine environment, natural hazards and ecosystems in extreme habitats.

More about the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF can be found at at https://www.slf.ch/

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