Why Is Will Gadd Trying To Climb Underneath The Greenland Ice Sheet?

words:: Ben Osborne photos:: Christian Pondella

When Will Gadd is looking for a good time, he tends to look in places you probably wouldn’t. From a young age, Gadd’s ethos has always been to push a bit further—he was even nicknamed “The Probe” as a nod to his willingness to squirm through a hole others couldn’t get to.

“At the time I thought it was a normal childhood—now I realize it was a bit weird.”, Will recalls.

As Will grew older, his thirst for knowledge grew, and his athletic ability seemed to perfectly compliment that spirit of exploration—and maybe even exceed it at times. Will set records, completed first ascents, and won titles in competitive paragliding, climbing, and kayaking. On top of all that, he has ice climbed Niagara Falls, paraglided over the Grand Canyon, and lists “surviving” under his career highlights on his web page. Why does he do these things?

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“I find the world to be a really interesting place to hang out. Especially the more edgy parts of it”.

For a man that’s exploration requires an unbelievable amount of skill and intricacies, his motivations are simple and relatable—he’s just another curious guy.

One of those “edgy” places that most recently came across Gadd’s proverbial desk is a glacial feature called moulins. Found in glaciers and ice sheets across the world, these long tubes drain water from the surface of the glacier to its base. The presence of this water is a driving force in how the ice sheet moves or slides across the bedrock or surface, dictating the overall movement of the glacier.

“A lot of people had concerns early on. What is the project going to look like? Are you going to be base jumping into moulins?”

While Will’s exploration into these glacial features began as just another notch in his belt of wild exploration, it quickly became something more when he heard about a scientist out of South Florida named Jason Gulley. To some, Will’s athletic pursuits may seem reckless and self-fulfilling. To him, they are a way to further examine the earth he has always been so interested in. “At their most basic form, science and exploration are the same thing”, Will explains. For example, while you may see his paragliding as a way to put up a viral Youtube video, Will is using flight to more thoroughly understand the earth from an entirely new angle.

More recently, he has felt a strong pull to do something more with his one of a kind athletic ability. “I’ve spent my whole life operating as if though the earth is my area—now, I’m more interested in understanding that arena. If I can in a legitimate and useful way make a difference in the world, that’s what I want to do”.

So, after Will had originally probed the moulins of the Athabasca Glacier thoroughly enough and heard he could be of help to in further exploring the moulins in the name of science, he leapt at the opportunity.

While Jason, a professor at the University Of South Florida, was familiar with Will through his fame in the climbing world, he was a bit sceptical that a project with Red Bull would yield the results he was looking for from a scientific standpoint.

Gulley and Gadd deep in the Greenland Ice Sheet.

“I wondered what it was going to be like—is it going to be some big adrenaline trip?” Jason recalls after Will initially reached out over email. “A lot of people had concerns early on. What is the project going to look like? Are you going to be base jumping into moulins?”

Then Jason started to dig deeper. Between Will’s Ted Talks, and his extensive work in risk management, Gulley began to see a different side of what he initially had reservations about. On top of that Red Bull, Will’s main sponsor, notorious for adrenaline-filled events and stunts, had the vision to send Will, not with the hopes of a viral video, or a death-defying stunt. Instead, their vision was simply to send Will along to support Jason’s research in any way he could. And for Jason, a professor who spends the bulk of his time in a lab in South Florida, “The Probe” was the perfect tool for his expedition.

“Once I saw the risk management side of Wills work, I was like wow, this guy spends a lot of time thinking about risk management. This is not what I was expecting from Red Bull”, Jason explained.

All of Jason’s work surrounds caves and going deep beneath the surface to understand a variety of different functions of caves, and the effects they have on what happens around them. Armed with a PhD in how glacial caves form, along with years of expeditions and research in glacial caves all over the world, Jason has now zeroed in the Greenland Ice Sheet. Taking up roughly 80% of the surface of Greenland and spanning over 2,000 kilometres in length, the ice sheet is one of the largest in the world. With warming temperatures driving more and more surface melt on ice sheets all over the world, these masses of ice have become a point of emphasis for scientists and climate activists alike.

With greater surface melt due to warming temperatures, pooling water begins to drain more rapidly through moulins, thus transporting more water to the base of the ice sheet. At the base of these ice sheets, what happens is not yet fully understood—which is what Jason hopes to take a stab at. Why is it important? The way that the water and these caves interact with the surface underneath dictate the movement of the ice sheet, which will, in turn, have a huge effect on forecasting sea level rise, eventually affecting coastal cities and communities all over the world, among other things.

The scale of the chambers was much larger and more complex than both explorers thought—which may have left more questions than answers.

With his knowledge of glacial caves, combined with Will’s unmatched technical ability to navigate ice and extreme environments, the two make up a dream team to explore these caves and answer questions that could be crucial to the future of our planet. But before they could do anything, they would need someone to pay for their costly expedition.

For Jason, getting his work funded to get “into the plumbing of the Greenland Ice Sheet” as Jason says had always been a hurdle—many science funding agencies were sceptical of the payoff of projects versus the physical risk. Getting into these glacial caves was the best way to begin Gulley’s research, but the process of getting there can require a mix of long expeditions, technical ice climbs, and maybe even sub-glacial scuba diving. While traditional science typically funds trips to previously explored areas with easier access to get in-depth data, the trip Jason and Will aimed for was more exploratory in nature, which gave traditional funding agencies hesitation. Since nobody had ever been in these caves, there was plenty to learn from just looking at them.

“That’s what science was as recently as 150 years ago”, says Gulley. “Get onto a ship, go somewhere, and describe what was new. We’re still really in that phase and we have absolutely no idea what’s under the ice sheet, and it’s difficult to do anything sophisticated until we know what’s there.”

Without the exploration, Jason knew they could never begin to get into the more technical side of crunching numbers to answer the driving questions behind his research—but still, no traditional funding deemed it worthwhile. That’s when Red Bull stepped up to the plate.

With the help of Red Bull, Will and Jason were off and running and finally had their trip to Greenland funded. With Will’s technical skills and Jason’s knowledge of glacial caves, the two began to prepare. With the hopes getting into the water-filled caves beneath the ice cap, Will honed in his scuba diving skills—but those never came in handy. As the two stood above a moulin hundreds of miles away from civilization on the Greenland ice sheet, they began to realize they might not make it as far as they had hoped.

The two rappelled in to find huge chambers inside the Moulin, shaped by rapidly melting ice and eventually ran into some unexpected features beneath them, barricading further travel into the ice sheet. With huge temperature gradients and ice unlike anything Will had ever seen, the environment became too volatile to conduct any research in. Because of the immense amount of pressure the ice was under and extreme temperatures, the ice was far more brittle than Will had expected, leading him to make the decision that it was no longer safe to continue on.

While they did not achieve their goal of diving deep into the glacial caves, the trip was far from a waste.

“Nobody expected we would find these big chambers in the moulins. The size of the chambers turned out to be really important in understanding how the water pressure at the base of the ice sheet evolves over a season.”

While the crew was forced to turn back, to be able to begin to understand how the water pressure is acting at the base of the glacier will be a huge variable in understanding the movement and subsequent melting of the ice sheet, eventually contributing to sea level rise.

Gadd, acting as the guide on the trip, leading the way.

Along with a slew of scientific observations Jason and Will came away with something more—a new appreciation for the synergy between scientists and adventurers. Their work together opens up a slew of questions as to how much athletes like Will Gadd, familiar with harsh environments and a unique ability to thrive in them, can help science in a positive manner.

“I think there’s a lot of people with technical, outdoor backgrounds who could help answer these questions if they could just get connected with scientists”, says Jason.

Because of the nature of their work, it is difficult for scientists to get the technical skills required to get to some places where these outdoor athletes are constantly exploring. Additionally, the nature of their jobs doesn’t put them in the same social circles and allow them to communicate. Might Jason, Will, and Red Bull have opened up an entirely new connection between the outdoor world and scientists? We have seen a certain level of cooperation with non-profit’s like Protect Our Winters, but could this be an entirely new side of the connection between science and those who love the outdoors?

Both the scientific achievements of this trip, as well as the cooperation between Red Bull, Jason, and Will are encouraging for the world today. While we face a series of hurdles to mitigate our effect as a human species on the environment, projects like these are certainly a step in the right direction. – ML