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The Vanishing World of Lonnie Thompson
A secret history of the world's climate, including global warming, is buried deep inside glaciers atop the world's tallest peaks. But as temperatures rise, those records are melting. One paleoclimatologist (and self-taught mountaineer) is racing to preserve a crucial piece of our past—in his freezer. By Lolly Merrell

Photo: Lonnie Thompson
FROZEN ASSETS: Lonnie Thompson in his lab's "clean room," May 2004. His collection includes four miles [6.4 kilometers] of rare ice cores.

It was six o'clock on a clear, subzero June morning—a "bluebird" day, as Alaskans say—and our plane began a tight spiral down to the icy saddle between Mount Bona and its volcanic neighbor, Mount Churchill, deep in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Looking for a crevasse-free clearing on the 14,500-foot-high (4,420-meter-high) col, our pilot banked into the hard wind and skimmed over the broken semicircle of rocks that marked the lip of Churchill's crater. As the plane dipped its wing, the details of glaciologist Lonnie Thompson's base camp came into view: two white domes and what looked like half-buried tangerines fallen from the cosmos—the bright, compact mountaineering tents where the team slept. Across an expanse of unbroken snow, two snowmobiles cut a line to meet the plane, hauling sleds stacked high with cardboard boxes.

"You sure you want to do this?" the pilot yelled over the whining turboprop as the plane skied to a cottony stop. I waved affirmative, kicked open the door, crawled out of the airplane into the shocking wind, and shook numb hands with Thompson, who was coughing uncontrollably in the spindrift. He wore glacier boots pulled up to his knees buccaneer style and a rag-wool hat with a threadbare pompon that wagged erratically in the gale like the tail on an excited bulldog.

Thompson's appearance may be unprepossessing, but his curriculum vitae reads like that of an overzealous Victorian explorer. He's logged more time at very high altitude than any Sherpa or mountaineer—more than 840 days above 18,000 feet (5,486 meters)—but he doesn't consider himself a climber. He doesn't even like to hike. For the past 27 years, this 56-year-old professor from Ohio State University has been ascending strategically targeted glaciers across the planet, drilling ice cores in pursuit of the world's climatic history. (Dennis Quaid's character performs similar research in the recent film The Day After Tomorrow.) As a result, Thompson's cold-storage catacombs at OSU have become a sort of atmospheric almanac, preserving thousands of feet of pristine glacial ice, rich with ash from prehistoric volcanic eruptions, soot from the Soviet Union's industrial and nuclear nascency, even pollen from Genghis Khan-era Mongolian farms.

Through all this globe-trotting in thin air, Thompson has broken geographic and theoretical barriers in the field of paleoclimatology, becoming the first person to drill an ice core above 13,000 feet (3,962 meters). In the process, he's written the playbook for high-altitude glaciology. But in the past decade, what began as an esoteric project to reconstruct the history of the world's climate has evolved into something much bigger, and more urgent. Early on, Thompson made a startling discovery—that his ice contained not just clues about ancient weather patterns but also rare scientific evidence strongly suggesting human-induced climate change. It is this second finding, and the empirical data that Thompson has compiled, that has thrust him into the continued debate about the causes and consequences of global warming and made Thompson something of an eco-celebrity. Al Gore has been known to drag him onstage during environmental lectures, the New York Times calls him to comment on rising temperatures in Africa, and he has collected an armload of major scientific prizes, many from green-friendly European governments.

The paradox is that if Thompson is right and his ice-core data really do prove that the planet is warming, then he'd better hurry. All over the globe glaciers are melting, fast. For now, he has zeroed in on Alaska, where the average temperature has risen more than 4°F (about 16°C) in the past 30 years—three times the global average. Already this warming has played out in dramatic made-for-TV ways: The melting permafrost is buckling highways, swollen rivers have overflowed their banks, and polar bears are wandering inland from thinning ice shelves. Thompson predicts that within 50 years even Alaska's glaciers will have melted enough that their millennia-old secrets will disappear forever.

Moments after I tumbled out of the plane onto the Bona-Churchill glacier, Thompson's team directed me to help load its cargo bay with the meter-long, insulated cardboard boxes from the sleds, which collectively held a couple hundred yards (about 183 meters) of ice core they had drilled from the col. Geologists have long guessed Mount Churchill to be the source of the White River Ash, the volcanic debris from two blasts that occurred sometime within the last 2,000 years. These eruptions spewed ash over more than 130,000 square miles (336,698 square kilometers) of Alaska and Canada, an area six times the size of that blanketed by Mount St. Helens in 1980. If Thompson found a thick layer of the linty material in the ice cores, the Churchill hypothesis would at last be proved.

To find out what else is hiding in Alaska's glaciers, pick up the August issue of Adventure.

Q&A: The issue of global warming is hotter than ever, so we asked glaciologist Lonnie Thompson to separate fact from fiction and explain why a library of ice is his legacy to future generations. Read Q&A >>

Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, August 2004

Wild Roads Special: The Best of the Backcountry
Stomping Grounds: The clash of man and elephant in northeast India
The Vanishing World of Lonnie Thompson: How glacial ice cores are unlocking the mysteries of global warming
Pelton's World: Dealing with a medical emergency overseas

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August 2004

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