Looking at the past to predict the future

Gina Moseley is unearthing secrets about our climate in some of the world’s most remote caves.

Written by       Photographed by © Rolex/Stefan Walter and © Rolex/Robbie Shone

An Albert Einstein quote featured on the expedition website of Gina Moseley sums up her approach to academia: “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”

Moseley, a paleoclimatologist, assistant professor of geology at the University of Innsbruck in Austria and Rolex Award for Enterprise Laureate, likes to look deep into caves to better understand the past, and the future. 

Gina Moseley (foreground) and explorer Leonie Leitgeb
make their way through a giant ice cave, Dachstein
Rieseneishöhle in Austria.

And this love of the underground can be traced back to her youth, she says.  

“As a child I was always outdoorsy. I enjoyed being in the garden, digging holes, playing in the mud and climbing trees.”

At the age of 12, she ventured into her first cave on a family holiday in Somerset and the family returned year on year. Later, Moseley did a degree in physical geography at Birmingham University because she thought she was more likely to end up working outdoors than if she studied chemistry.

“I hated university,” laughs Moseley, who is now a university lecturer. “But there were some great teachers along the way and one of them, Ian Fairchild, talked about paleoclimatology, or studying climate change in the past.”

Moseley’s dissertation took her back into the caves, and into research.

By analysing calcite and ice deposits found in caves,
Gina Moseley can reconstruct past climates, greatly assisting research into climate change.

“I liked being able to find a question, think about how to answer it and go and do it. It really gripped me.” 

She heard about some caves in the north of Greenland where speleothems —stalactites, stalagmites or flowstone created from deposits of calcium carbonate—had been found. This indicated that it had previously been warm enough for water to flow through the caves, unlike today where the ground is permanently frozen and Greenland is considered a polar desert. 

As her students look on, Gina Moseley plans her route
to caves in a cliff in Wulff Land, Greenland. She will be
the first explorer to enter the caves.

She and a small team first visited the Greenland caves in 2015, returned in 2018 and completed another major scientific expedition this year. 

“Seeing a part of the planet that no-one had ever experienced was super cool and exciting but as I learned the value of climate records we can get from caves, the scientific interest developed over time.” 

Greenland’s ice core records go back 128,000 years, but the caves revealed samples going back 15 million years. While models are showing us where things are heading, being able to look at what was happening in the past when it was much warmer gives us an idea of what we might be in for—and what we might need to do to adapt. 

Gina Moseley studies rock samples at Hoher
Krippenstein, a mountain in Austria.

A phenomenon called ‘Arctic amplification’ means the polar regions are warming at a much faster rate than the rest of the planet and this has global implications. 

“Greenland is five degrees warmer than it was 50 years ago and that has knock-on effects in terms of sea ice, ocean circulation, and the melting of the ice cap… As soon as the sea ice is gone, we could be in big trouble in terms of the heating of the Arctic and things could change really quickly. Speleothems are only forming when the sea ice is gone, so there’s a lot of heat and moisture. That’s critical.”

Moseley has also found pollen in some of the samples, which could suggest there was boreal forest in North Greenland. While this has yet to be peer-reviewed and there is a cautiousness about the claim in the scientific community, “that’s quite shocking”. 

“No one can comprehend that there might have been a forest there 400,000 years ago, but if there was, that is huge news and that changes our thinking of what is possible.”

Gina Moseley drawing a map of a cave at Hoher
Krippenstein, a mountain in Austria.

While Moseley says she is driven by a personal desire to explore and find out what the caves can tell us, she also wants her research to have a wider impact. 

“Changing our understanding and improving our predictions is the ultimate wish. I think there’s a discord between what scientists know and what’s happening in policy. The two don’t seem to be working at the same rate, but scientists just have to keep plodding on and getting the information out to each other and to the public and then hopefully it gets picked up.”

Some of the scenarios climate researchers are sharing are “very scary”, but Moseley believes the combination of climate anxiety and a deep understanding of the issues, especially among the youth, will eventually help to close that gap between science and policy. 

“We really need to act within the next decade. And not just reducing emissions, but also taking CO2 out of the atmosphere.”

Gina Moseley cutting through a slice of sediment from
her expeditions in a laboratory at the University of
Innsbruck, where she is a professor specializing in the
study of caves.

Moseley was awarded the Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2021, adding her name to a long list of global pioneers whose scientific research and environmental advocacy are helping to preserve the natural world. The awards, which are part of the Perpetual Planet initiative, provide funding and other support that allows the laureates to continue their work and Moseley says it gave her the motivation and resources to aim a bit higher for this year’s expedition to Greenland. 

From aerial photos, she was able to identify hundreds of caves in the area. 

“And we only explored six of them. We thought ‘we can pop over there’, but we totally underestimated the scale… there’s a lifetime of work there.”

Explorer and scientist Gina Moseley measures a wall
of ice inside Dachstein Rieseneishöhle, a giant ice
cave in Austria.

She says academics often tend to gain attention when they release a new paper but the media quickly moves on to the next thing. The Rolex award, however, has helped keep her research in the public eye. 

“There’s such a strong team there [at Rolex] committed to getting the messages out about all these laureates and their projects and highlighting all these issues and solutions. I look at some of the laureates from decades ago and they’re still getting asked about their work.”

The advice she received from her tutor at university remains something of a guiding principle.

“‘Do what you enjoy because it will show in the final product.’ I think I’ve lived the rest of my life in that way and if an opportunity comes up and I think it’s interesting, I take it.”