Dive Beneath Greenland's Mysterious 'Terra Incognita'

The expansive gray-and-white landscape might look barren, but scientists say life lurks in the Arctic waters below.

Photograph by Jean Gaumy, Magnum Photos
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An iceberg in Greenland.
Photograph by Jean Gaumy, Magnum Photos

The landscape is bare in Arctic Greenland.

Everywhere you look is a shade of gray or blue. When the wind blows snow across an icy field, it's hard to distinguish land from the sky. Photographer Jean Gaumy describes it as “abstraction.” For French ecologist Frédéric Olivier, it's a “terra incognita,” or unexplored territory.

Over the past several years, the two have teamed up to explore the region along with ecologist Laurent Chauvaud.

Olivier and Chauvaud hope to document the region's little-understood wildlife while they still can. The Arctic region is feeling some of the most drastic effects of climate change. Last July, a Manhattan-sized piece of ice broke off from the Helheim Glacier in Greenland. They worry this increasing melting could impact their pristine field lab.

It's what lies below the surface of the ice that interests the two scientists. Some of the most biodiverse regions in the world thrive in cold, Arctic waters. They research the benthic zone, the ocean’s lower depths, bustling with mollusks, worms, crustaceans, arthropods, and sea stars. They sample the water to search for species completely unknown.

Just over 2,000 different species have been discovered in the Arctic, but Olivier estimates the number could be more than double.

In such icy waters, collecting data isn’t easy.

The process is laborious and dangerous. Polar bears occasionally roam the region and weather conditions are unpredictable. The payoffs are not immediate; often there are none. Olivier, Chauvaud, and the other members of their research team don dry suits to dive in the freezing waters below the ice. Once they collect their samples, they take them back to the lab for scrutiny. A year or two can pass before they know if they’ve found any new species.

“Every sample is a real fight against the harsh conditions and the time we have to do it,” says Olivier.

Despite the frigid landscape and barren expansive of land, Olivier says the life deep under the ice is some of the most diverse he's seen, more than any other Arctic region. By studying bivalves, a type of mollusk, the duo thinks they can better understand deep-dwelling Arctic organisms and how they might already be affected by climate change.

It’s not just the mysterious benthic zone that Olivier and Chauvaud have been studying in Greenland. The region also presents an opportunity to study noise, or the lack of it.

Marine animals, and mammals in particular, are sensitive to loud sounds. Whales, for instance, communicate with long calls over great distances, but underwater noise from large vessels or activities like underwater drilling can disrupt how they communicate and where they move.

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At their station in Daneborg, scientists must remove snow several times a day to access the facility.

Unlike other Arctic regions that are experiencing increased traffic from tour boats and container ships, northeast Greenland is still relatively isolated. During their expeditions, Olivier and Chauvaud took recordings of what the untouched region sounded like underwater. They hope to one day use it as a comparison to other regions' background noise.

All told, the work can be grueling to sample what is for now a pristine Arctic region. For 70-year-old Gaumy, it’s worth pushing his limits to document their research.

“The movements and the pace of work are often difficult to match with the time and travel requirements of the team,” Gaumy says. “This is my challenge.”

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From the air, it's possible to see how expansive and bare the region is, masking the abundance of life beneath.