Tiny catalysts: why small things matter in Greenland

Research tells us changes in Arctic microorganisms could impact ecosystems globally. So can small changes in human behavior.
Photograph by National Geographic


Icebergs float on ocean currents near Disko Island off the coast of western Greenland. These bergs calved from the Jakobshavn Glacier, which is believed to have disgorged the iceberg that sank Titanic. The world’s largest island, Greenland is the subject of a great deal of scientific research, much of it related to climate. Like the rest of the Arctic, Greenland is warming faster than anywhere else on the planet. The Greenland ice sheet—second only in size to the Antarctic ice sheet—is currently the biggest single contributor to sea level rise globally. When it comes to climate, it’s a very big canary in the coal mine.

Photograph by Sebastian Feehan


Microbiologist Martin Nielsen stands at the bow of the Porsild, a research vessel belonging to Arctic Station, a research outpost of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, that has operated on Disko Island for more than 100 years. Every summer researchers from around the world head to the island to conduct field research. Nielsen is serving 12 months here as the station’s scientific leader. As well as supporting fellow researchers, Nielsen’s work focuses on the impacts of the changing climate on marine microorganisms, which he collects from a specific site a few kilometers offshore.

Photograph by Sebastian Feehan


Geographer and soil scientist Birgitte Danielsen logs subsurface gas concentrations at a field site about an hour from Arctic Station. Like Nielsen—who also happens to be her partner—Danielsen focuses on the smaller forms of life—microbial communities in the soil that respire CO2 and methane. The data will feed into her PhD on subsurface gas dynamics, but over a longer time period, it will indicate how these communities are reacting to a warming climate and extreme winter warming events. The concern is that there may be a feedback loop in which warmer temperatures increase microbial activity in the soil, causing it to release more CO2 into the atmosphere.

Photograph by Sebastian Feehan


Martin Nielsen and Eli Martensen, an Inuit fisherman and regular Porsild crew member, bring in a net to study phytoplankton from a specific depth in the water column. Phytoplankton and zooplankton are among the tiniest living things, but they are also the most abundant—and a crucial food source for myriad fish and cetacean species. Like their terrestrial counterparts, they, too, are affected by changes in climate, with certain species flourishing, while others perish or move elsewhere. That has repercussions for all endemic marine life—and the local communities that rely on these species as a source of food and income.

Photograph by Sebastian Feehan


Nielsen and Danielsen’s interim home facing Disko Bay: during the summer months, icebergs float past their windows with an almost imperceptible slowness, and day never quite turns to night. Humpback whales head into the nutrient-rich waters of the bay to feed on capelin and krill. In winter, the ocean turns to ice. With such natural wonders literally on their doorstep, the couple are acutely aware of how their household habits impact the environment. In 2018, the European Union’s carbon footprint was equivalent to seven tonnes of CO2 per person. Emissions worldwide are contributing to massive changes across the Arctic’s varied ecosystems, the long-term consequences of which are still unknown.

Photograph by Sebastian Feehan


Room with a view: Martin Nielsen examines a copepod through a microscope in one of the labs at Arctic Station as icebergs float in the bay right outside the window. In a single day, endemic whale species like humpbacks and right whales can consume around a thousand kilograms of these microorganisms and the tiny fish they feed on. Changes in population range and density due to warming temperatures could impact the migratory patterns of fish and whales. Disturbances at the lowest trophic level ripple across the whole ecosystem—which is why it’s so important to pay attention to the small things.

Photograph by Sebastian Feehan


Nielsen and Danielsen relax in their temporary home at Arctic Station on Disko Island, western Greenland. When they are not conducting fieldwork or working in the labs next door, their domestic routines are quite familiar. “Time is really the thing here…you have much more time,” says Nielsen. Whether in the winter—when short days and harsh weather often preclude heading out into the field—or in the summer, when hours dissolve into one long day, it means a lot of time at home. And, according to Danielsen, this brings a heightened awareness of just how much energy a typical modern household consumes. “Moving here, we realized that our daily habits actually affected climate,” she says.

Photograph by Sebastian Feehan


There are some simple ways to reduce energy waste in the home. In an effort to make more sustainable laundry products, Ariel carried out a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to track the carbon footprint of its detergents. The LCA revealed that on average, 60 percent of Co2 emissions associated with laundry in the Europe result from heating the water in our washing machines—more than packaging or ingredients. This means that we can all make a tangible difference simply by dialing down the temperature on our washing machines.

Photograph by Sebastian Feehan


A gull flies above recently calved icebergs in the Ilulissat Icefjord, western Greenland. At around 2 a.m. in August, dawn is just over an hour away. Icebergs are a natural feature of the summer melt—but long-range data shows that the Greenland ice sheet is losing around 500 gigatons of ice each year. The sea ice is no longer stable, extreme winter warming events are increasingly common, and if the rapid melt of the ice sheet is not arrested, it could lead to flooding on a catastrophic scale by the end of the century according to a recent study.

Photograph by Sebastian Feehan


The future of the Arctic and its iconic species is still uncertain. If the worst outcomes are to be avoided however, humans will need to drastically curb their CO2 emissions—and fast. The decisions that we make in our day-to-day lives matter. Just like marine and terrestrial microorganisms can trigger impacts across entire ecosystems and beyond, our actions amplified by billions can have an impact on the planet. Using less energy at home is just one of the ways that we can make a difference—and this can be achieved with something as simple as the click of a dial on a washing machine.

Photograph by Marcin Dobas/National Geographic