Greenland re-visited

Greenland. A remote island, where nature remains wild and free, untamed by humankind. It has a special place in our hearts. It was here that the seed for our most iconic product was born. It was a simple jacket – the Greenland Jacket – that went on to inspire a whole generation of Swedes to experience nature. To explore deeper and travel further. And it is to Greenland we return, 50 years later, to see what’s changed and to admire what’s remained the same.

Hikers in Greenland

But why Greenland in the first place?

1960-70 was a tumultuous decade. Yes, there was ‘free love’ but there was also war, assassinations, civil rights and gay rights movements, anti-war demonstrations, growing societal unrest and increasing crime rates. It is also the decade when human beings first travelled to outer space.

Scientific knowledge was expanding phenomenally. Society was imagining a future filled with robots and flying cars and scientists were exploring further, to places they had never been before, from the seabed to challenging landscapes previously believed inaccessible. Greenland was one of them and in 1966 a group of Scandinavian scientists and mountaineers packed up supplies and camping gear and headed off into the country’s back and beyond. That camping gear was supplied by Fjällräven. It included tents and backpacks – at the time, the young Swedish outdoor brand wasn’t producing clothing.

On return, the expeditionists praised their Fjällräven gear but bemoaned their clothing. It was too heavy. It took too long to dry. It was uncomfortable. So that prompted Fjällräven founder, Åke Nordin, to create the Greenland Jacket, made from his new G-1000 material and impregnated with his Greenland Wax. The combination proved to be a fruitful one and the jacket was a huge success.

Being such a triumph has meant we haven’t changed anything in half a century, not wanting to interfere with this winning formula. Until now, that is. This season, we’re re-launching our Greenland collection. Greenland Updated has modernised fits and more sustainable materials combined with the timeless Greenland aesthetic.

View over Greenland

But we wanted to do more than just launch an updated collection. We wanted to return to Greenland, for an update on the situation there. And to do so we contacted two climate scientists, PhD student Gabriel (Gabe) Lewis and Masters student Karina Graeter, both of Dartmouth University in the US.

Greenland as the canary

Roughly 80% of Greenland – the world’s largest island – is covered by a permanent ice sheet. And this ice sheet is vast – roughly 1,710,000km2, almost four times the size of Sweden. It’s also a really important piece of the climate change puzzle. Its sheer sun-reflecting ability moderates global temperatures while its meltwater mitigates ocean circulation patterns. But it’s also climate change’s canary: the Arctic is warming roughly twice as fast as the rest of the planet. And it is for these reasons that Gabe and Karina were conducting research on this “big, flat, white” landmass.

“Most people don’t ever think of the Greenland ice sheet,” says Gabe. “But it’s so important globally for fresh water, sea level rise and glaciation.”

Four years into a five-year PhD, this is Gabe’s second stint on Greenland. His research looks at how the Greenland ice sheet, specifically the intermediate zone – which is rarely studied – is responding to climate change.

Gabriel & Karina collecting the ice core samples on Greenland.
Gabriel & Karina collecting the ice core samples.

The team collected ice cores that show changes in snowfall and snow melt over the course of the past half-century. The aim is to compare these data with what climate models are predicting and look for similarities and anomalies.

The biggest goal of this research is to see if the climate models we have today are accurate. If they can accurately predict what’s happening today, then we can have a lot more faith in their predictions for 100-200 years from now. But if the models don’t do a good job today, then it’s really hard to put any faith into a prediction 100 years into the future.

This research could have massive implications on how we, as a society, react and adapt to climate change. With the United States pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement – that limits warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels – and severely reducing its funding for scientific research, the world’s future is in jeopardy.

Village of colourful houses on Greenland

More than just rising sea levels
The effects of climate change are broad. Scientists now believe it will increase the incidence of severe storms, drought, wildfires and have knock-on effects – disproportionately affecting the poorest people in the world – such as increased famine and creating so-called climate refugees, fleeing places that are no longer hospitable.

I think climate change is the biggest question of our generation. If we don’t act now (like 10 years ago, ideally), I think we’re going to have some drastic changes, which will massively impact the entire world (says Gabe, passionately).

Gabriel Lewis

“As a middle-class white boy, it’d be nice to help out some of these other, poorer countries using whatever brainpower I was blessed with to answer some of these questions. It’s something I’ve always been interested in and it’s something where I can benefit a lot of people and help out, hopefully, by coming up with a fix and not just telling people what’s wrong. But this involves working with politicians and changing the behaviour of the US, China and Europe. I just hope to be able to do my little bit.”

Gabriel looking at the snow pack on Greenland.
Gabriel looking at the snow pack.

Hailing from California – a state that’s now rebuking the national government’s stand on climate change – Gabe has always been the outdoorsy type. He spent his youth hiking with his dad, surfing and climbing. But in terms of academic interests, he was first and foremost a mathematician.

“I originally studied math. But in my first undergrad semester I took a geology course. We never met in the classroom. We were always outside, looking at rivers or rocks or going on hikes. This was so cool, especially as an 18-year-old boy – you just go outside and hit rocks with a hammer and go swimming in rivers to see how it’s flowing. So I dropped the math and double-majored in physics and earth sciences, trying to bridge the gap between the calculus and the computer models that the physicists are really good at, and the earth scientists, who do more observational science without any equations. I wanted to use calculus everyday to explain the natural world.”

Karina on the other hand, started exploring the great outdoors a lot later. It was the Ohio native’s older sister, who dragged her out on backpacking trips, that changed Karina’s view of nature. But the real twist in her story came on an exchange semester in New Zealand. She became fascinated with glaciers and after completing her undergrad in volcanology she took a Masters position at Dartmouth that allowed her to focus on climate change. And that’s how she ended up on Greenland, where her research was less expansive than Gabe’s, but no less important and insightful.

Karina digging in the snow.

“My research has focused on how changes in summertime climate are affecting the Greenland ice sheet,” Karina explains. “Surface meltwater is increasing on Greenland because temperatures in the summer are warmer. And the main part of that is due to human climate change. But some of it is the result of natural climate variability. And one really great thing we’ve been able to do, since the records we took are so long, is to look at these trends in a climate context, such as with changes in atmospheric pressure, and see how these are attributing to the surface melt. It’s the first time we’ve been able to look at the actual physical results of melt on the ice sheet and how it relates to climate. And this is really exciting because we know that temperatures in the future are going to get warmer, but they might not continue to increase at the same rate. So we might see changes in how the melt is happening. It’s really great for making future predictions about surface melt in Greenland, which impacts the whole world.”

And what’s so fascinating about Karina’s work is that it’s plain to see. No computer models or statistics that can be misinterpreted.

Karina’s research is really cool. You can see these results with your naked eye,” says Gabe. “She found there are a lot more days above freezing in a lot of these areas. Up until 1990 it pretty much never got above freezing. Since then it gets above freezing frequently enough that around 3-5cm of snow melts every year, which creates these thick ice layers. This is unprecedented over the previous 50-500 years.

Karina cuts the ice cores.
Karina cuts the ice cores.

So what does all this mean? Are we all doomed?

Of course the climate has changed before. But the speed of this warming is unheard of. And most scientists agree that its increase is caused by human actions. Recent headlines range from doomsday sounding: “Is it too late to save the world?” (The Guardian, 4 November 2017), to action promoting: “Fight climate change by suing polluters, says scientist” (National Geographic, November 2017).

The US government’s decision to remove itself from the Paris Climate Accord has placed extra pressure on the scientific community. This is a slap in the face of the very people that can help the world adapt.

“When I first went into grad school my plan was to come out and get a job working for the EPA or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, doing research for them, but now they’re not hiring. So my plans have changed quite a bit,” says Karina. “Research isn’t easy and you really want to try and make a difference, but it’s hard to stay motivated and positive when you feel like you’re being attacked. We’re coming at it from a place of integrity, wanting to do the best science we can and it doesn’t help when people say that we’re not good at what we’re doing. But I’m still young, so I’m still motivated despite societal pressures. I just wish there were more opportunities. I think lots of people are passionate about this field and making a difference.”

Action from the ground up

It’s not all doom and gloom. NGOs, individual cities, groups of poorer nations and even wealthy states, like California, are taking action and fighting for what they believe in.

“There is dwindling hope. But we have to remain realistic in our optimism,” says Gabe. “There is still something we can do, but we need to do it now. I think it will boil down to a grassroots movement, even if national politics don’t agree. It’s inspiring to see people in positions of power stand up for what they believe in.”

Karina is now working at the University of Maine’s Sustainability Office, looking at how society can take research and use it to better our communities and economies. And she believes communication is the key to success for mitigating climate change.

Communicating the research is the real challenge. If people understand the science, they’ll have more motivation to make the changes that need to be made.

It’s about feeling connected. Feeling important. Feeling that we as individuals have a role to play. And for that we need to see the bigger picture.

“Being outdoors in nature is a great way to step away from the science, from looking at a computer all day or being in the lab,” says Gabe. “You get back to looking at the bigger picture and the questions that you’re ultimately trying to answer. It’s really easy to get lost in the weeds of one particular line of a computer programme. I can step back from all that and say ‘this is what we’re trying to figure out. This is how we want to do it’.”

For Gabe and Karina, nature is both their place to escape the science, but also a reminder of why they’re pursuing it and why it’s so important.

Images: Klaus Thymann


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