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  • Writer's pictureBecca Dzombak

Faroese fieldwork 2019!

I just got back from a week in the Faroe Islands, a group of 18 small and sparsely-populated islands in the North Atlantic between Iceland and Scotland. At high latitude (62 degrees north!) and in the middle of the ocean, we got cool and foggy weather most of the time - which was usually a nice respite from the heat and humidity of the Midwest, but almost beat us one morning when, as we were driving north out of Tórshavn, we couldn't even make out the outcrops on the side of the road.

Three sheep stand in a foggy field.

Thankfully, the fog was our biggest problem and sampling went quite smoothly! Our goals were to sample both modern and fossil soils to study high-latitude responses to climate change, with fossil soils from 55 million years ago serving as an analogue for climate change today. Back then, during a period termed the "Eocene climatic optimum," we think the globe was warm all over, including at the poles, where palm trees and crocodiles have been found. Using geochemical analysis of the fossil soils, we can estimate what the temperatures were that high north to have supported such a tropical community! The Faroes work is particularly exciting because it will be one of the highest-latitude temperature datasets for that period of time, which will really help us solidify our picture of spatial trends in ancient global warming. Although we had some direction thanks to an old field trip guide, we mostly drove around peering at piles of basalt flows looking for little stripes of red that can indicate subaerial exposure. We got lucky - although many of the beds we examined were somewhat featureless, we also found some outcrops with fossil plants, trace fossils (like filled-in burrows), and ripples. Sure signs that they were formed at Earth's surface!

A red rock with dark-red speckles and criss-crossed traces.

To complement this 'ancient' aspect, we were also sampling modern soils. There's not much information out there on Faroese soils today, so we wanted to get a better feel for what they look like (chemically) so we can compare them to their fossil counterparts. Because they're both forming on basalts (lava flows), they should be somewhat similar in terms of formation style. The big difference, then, is temperature: the average range of temperatures in the Faroes is about four to 11 degrees C. (Chilly, but not yet freezing. Certainly no crocs or palms up there today!)

There's some variability in the soils in the Faroes; some soils are agricultural (i.e., farms!), some are nice grassy meadows, and some are peat bogs, the latter of which are especially important for carbon storage. (Fossil peat bogs are basically the coal that we use for energy.) Driving all over the islands gave us a pretty good feel for the kinds of soil that are around, and we sampled cores of each type so we can characterize their chemical compositions.

All in all, it was a pretty successful - and just plain pretty - trip. We came back with a heavy bag of rocks (plus rocks tucked away in most of our other bags) and I'm waiting for our soils to arrive. Then the fun begins!

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