Vatnajökul glaciar lake
A research team is going on the University of Gothenburg research vessel Skagerak to Europe's largest glacier, Vatnajökull, to measure carbon and nitrogen levels in the meltwater. The photo is from last year's expedition, which the team now will continue.
Photo: Wilma Ljungberg

Expedition to study how melting glacier affects the ocean


There is still very little knowledge about how the sea is affected by meltwater from glaciers. Therefore, researchers and students from the University of Gothenburg are now travelling to Europe's largest glacier Vatnajökull with the University of Gothenburg's research vessel Skagerak to measure carbon and nitrogen levels in the water off the coast of Iceland.
“We are travelling to a climate change hotspot, to a place where the earth is bleeding the fastest,” says Isaac Santos, Professor of Marine Chemistry.

Iceland is home to Europe's largest glacier, Vatnajökull, which is one of the fastest melting glaciers in the world. Due to increased air temperatures, glaciers usually melt from above. But glaciers that flow into the sea­­­—like Vatnajökull—also melt from below, as the salty seawater is warmer than the glacier.  ­­

A melting glacier changes the chemistry of the ocean. The meltwater adds nitrogen, which fertilises the ocean. The glacier also releases carbon and contributes to ocean acidification. All this affects the climate and the ocean's various sensitive systems, but scientists don't know how much. The Arctic is the most rapidly changing place on Earth due to the impact of climate change, and ocean acidification is expected to increase dramatically in the future.

Two research teams on site

“The results of the expedition will help us to understand climate change feedbacks. We want to find out how much and what the seawater chemistry change looks like. For example, is it linear or exponential? It has great significance for how we should act,” says Isaac Santos, professor of marine chemistry, Department of Marine Sciences, University of Gothenburg.

drone image of research vessel Skagerak
A research team will be on board the University of Gothenburg's research vessel Skagerak. The researchers expect to take 60 000 litres of water samples on board.
Photo: Majk Zanqrelle

The expedition will have two research teams on site. One on board the research vessel Skagerak off the coast of Iceland, where the researchers will have over 100 measuring stations to find out how fast and how far out into sea the glacier's water and carbon are transported.

“We will also have researchers on land to survey the glacier meltwater. Melting glaciers wake up dormant carbon that can return to the atmosphere,” says Isaac Santos.

Unexplored glacial lakes important for chemical puzzle

A certain part of Vatnajökull's meltwater is first collected in small glacial lakes and then continues out into the sea via thousands of small streams. The significance of this "stop on the road" for the meltwater is still largely unexplored, as it is common to just measure where the glacier has direct contact with the sea. Last year, Isaac Santos’s team were at the site to carry out measurements, and this year’s expedition builds on the team’s work in 2022.

“The meltwater’s chemical composition changes in the glacier lake and creeks before reaching the ocean. If you don't take them into account, you can miss important pieces of the chemical puzzle, which can lead to both overestimation and underestimation of the glacier's impact on the sea," says Wilma Ljungberg, Master's student in marine chemistry, Department of Marine Sciences, University of Gothenburg.

Wilma Ljungberg at shore by the lake.
Master's student Wilma Ljungberg measures carbon dioxide flow between water and atmosphere with a floating chamber in the Vatnajökul glacial lake. The photo is from last year's expedition, which the research team now will continue to build on.
Photo: Linnea Henriksson

R/V Skagerak makes research possible

This year's expedition to Iceland is focused on creeks and shallow coastal waters off Iceland’s glaciers.
“We expect to take 60,000 litres of water samples on board to measure directly on site, but also take about hundreds of small vials home to Gothenburg for further studies in the laboratory," says Isaac Santos.
The trip to Iceland is the first major expedition in Arctic waters for the University of Gothenburg's research vessel Skagerak, and the first time the vessel leaves Scandinavian waters. Once Isaac Santos' research team has finished its investigations, the Skagerak will change crew and researchers to continue towards Greenland.

Vatnajökul lagoon outlet
Glacial lake with outlet to the sea. Vatnajökull in the background. Here in the sea off the coast of Iceland, the research vessel Skagerak will have over 100 measuring stations.
Photo: Wilma Ljungberg

“This type of research is only possible with the R/V Skagerak. It creates unique research opportunities that are impossible in most universities. Indeed, I relocated from Australia to Gothenburg precisely because of this amazing research vessel,” says Isaac Santos.

Text: Annika Wall

This year's expedition

The R/V Skagerak is scheduled to depart from Gothenburg to Iceland on Monday 19 June and the Isaac Santos expedition is scheduled to last until 3 July.

On 4 July, Anna Wåhlin, Professor of Oceanography, is expected to take over the R/V Skagerak to travel to the glaciers of Southwest Greenland with the underwater robot Ran.

Follow R/V Skagerak on Marine Traffic.