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The Ice Man

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.

Lonnie Thompson has spent a collective 840 days above 18,000 feet (5,486 meters)—that's more time at altitude than any Sherpa or mountaineer on the planet. In 27 years he's explored ice fields and glaciers on five continents, reaching destinations as high as 23,500 feet (7,163 meters) on the Dasuopu ice field in the Chinese Himalaya as part of a quest to unlock the Earth's climactic past and look into the future. For the August issue of Adventure, writer Lolly Merrell joined Thompson for a drill on Alaska's Bona-Churchill glacier to retrieve a 1,500-foot (457-meter) ice core, the longest to date (read excerpt >>).

Photo: Mount Sajama, Bolivia
On Mount Sajama, Bolivia.

Thompson began analyzing ice cores for the information they held about the Earth's historic weather patterns in his lab at Ohio State University, where he's a professor of geological sciences. Figuring that the highest, coldest ice contains the most accurate records, he pioneered new technologies to drill at altitudes such as Peru's treacherously high Quelccaya ice cap. In 2000, Thompson took ice samples from the easiest of the Seven Summits, Mount Kilimanjaro, a peak that has lost 80 percent of its ice cover in the past 100 years. Next summer, he and his crew will take their six tons of equipment to begin research in southwestern Himalaya.

For Thompson, high science has attracted a lot of attention. His projects highlighting radical climate changes have been referenced by Al Gore, the New York Times, and the BBC. Three years ago, Time magazine ranked him as one of "America's Best" in science and medicine.

Here we ask Thompson about his ice-obsessed life and find out what's at stake with the planet's shrinking glaciers.

In the Roland Emmerich film The Day After Tomorrow, abrupt global warming causes mega-tornadoes, hail the size of baseballs, and tsunamis that wipe out entire cities. To what extent is this an exaggeration?
I've seen the movie twice. As far as showing all the climate changes happening at once, it's definitely over the top. But at least it forces the American public to think about climate.

In the real world, where we have detailed climate records—particularly those coming from the ice cores—we know that the climate system is capable of very abrupt changes and that we should be extremely sensitive to the fact that the present system can change dramatically, even if not all at once like in the movie.

You've predicted that the Kilimanjaro ice peak could be gone within 15 years. What's at stake if the glaciers disappear?
Tourism to Kilimanjaro is the number one foreign currency earner for Tanzania. Some 20,000 tourists travel to the mountain each year and half of them make it to the summit, at least partially to see the tropical glaciers that have been immortalized by [visual] artists and in Hemmingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro. How many people will still travel to the mountain if the glaciers are gone? I don't think anyone really knows the answer to that—but we may find out sooner than we thought.

I actually believe the glaciers could be gone before 2020, mainly because in the past the ice lost most of its mass from sublimation—the process of changing from a solid to a gas. Sublimation actually requires about seven and a half times as much energy as melting the ice requires. Yet we have photos from the summit of Kilimanjaro taken last summer that indicate that the ice is melting on Furtwängler Glacier at the summit of Kilimanjaro due to increasing temperatures and solar radiation-induced melting. Even with all the tourists who visit the mountain, no one has documented this before. (Click here to see exclusive photos of Kilimanjaro's Furtwängler Glacier bursting >>)

Disputes are common in the academic community, and global warming has been a hot topic. Do you deal with a lot of resistance?
Global warming is not as controversial as some people would like you to think. The people who actually study global warming agree that the climate is changing, partially due to human activity on the planet. When you consider the evidence, global warming is not something you necessarily have to go out and try to sell, even to critics.

What we do as scientists is look at what is and what has been. If you get the science right, the system plays out and it's just a matter of time before everyone will realize that we do have to do something about this if we want to maintain the type of civilization we live in.

Since global warming is a reality, why aren't people doing more about it?
Whether or not people do something about global warming is more of a human nature issue than a political issue. If you look at human behavior, we tend to deal better with crises than to proactively change before the situation escalates to an emergency. But if there's no choice, humans are capable of huge changes.

Here in Ohio we have the Cuyahoga River that everyone knew was polluted, but it wasn't until it caught on fire that people realized, "Hey, this is a crisis, and we probably ought to do something about it." Now the river's been cleaned-up so that even walleye, pike, and game fish can live in it. It wasn't that we couldn't take care of the problem sooner, it was that we didn't have to do it sooner.

With global warming, we're not quite to the point where the general population's lifestyle is about to be altered.

You told Adventure writer Lolly Merrell that you can't imagine climbing just for fun. You do it for work, but do you ever have fun on a climb?
There's certainly a lot of joy that comes from just being out in the natural world. But I don't understand the drive of some people—like mountain climbers who look for the most difficult way to get up to the top. I'm looking for the easiest, safest way to get up to where we need to drill. I have asthma, which sometimes makes breathing the thin air more difficult. I would not do the climb just for the excitement, the thrill, and the danger associated with it, even though I do understand the sense of accomplishment once you're standing on top of one of these great mountain ranges.

Once you've drilled and transported the ice cores, do you store them somewhere?
Over the past 20 years we have built a 2,100-square-foot (195-square-meter) storage facility at Ohio State. We have two storage rooms at between -30°C and -35°C, and about 7,000 meters (22,966 feet) of core are stored there. Each room has an alarm system built into it, so if the temperatures go outside of the five degree range, an alarm goes off. We have people at the OSU Environmental Control Center who monitor all the environmentally sensitive facilities on campus 24 hours a day.

Why is storing the ice so important?
The thing that's very clear to us—and we didn't realize this in the beginning—is that we need to keep an archive of ice like that of Kilimanjaro. We do it for other groups to sample and for the future, because it's clear that in as few as 15 years you will not be able to go out into the real world to recover that record. We know that our science and technology will increase, but we need samples to study.

Glaciers serve as the canaries in the coal mine. I grew up in West Virginia, where coal mining was an important part of the state's economy. Coal miners would take canaries down in a cage. If the canary died, they would get out of the mine because it meant methane gas was building up in the system. These tropical glaciers are an early warning system for the climate of the Earth. We need to record the past, then preserve that record for the future, so we can understand what's happening.

Is it true that a team member was temporarily blinded on a high-altitude expedition?
We had a fellow, Dave Chadwell, who was a surveyor on five expeditions. On his sixth, when we went up to a high elevation in the Andes in Peru, I noticed he was straggling behind. When I went down to check on him, I found out that about every two minutes and 15 seconds he'd lose his eyesight. All he saw was white. We took him back to the base camp, pressurized him. After about an hour and a half, he was fine in the pressurized system. But when we took him out on the mountain, the cycle came back. He got checked out by a doctor in the U.S., but he couldn't find any problems.

The following year he asked again to go on the expedition to the ice fields of the Cordillera Blanca in Peru. The same thing happened, so we sent him back home. He went on to get his Ph.D. and now studies at sea level out at Scripps. But he really loved the expeditions.

We check with our high-altitude medical doctor Peter Hackett before we go out on expeditions, but the fact is that medical cases are done on a statistical basis. There aren't that many people who go to high elevations, and very few who actually spend a significant amount of time there. We go up and actually live there, whereas mountaineers come back down. We're kind of pushing the envelope of understanding how humans respond to high elevation.

What is one of the most important lessons you've learned?
After having worked in some 15 countries around the world, we understand that we live in a world that is interconnected. We all need to make an effort to understand the cultures of the world, because what one group does affects the others. We all can work together to accomplish a mission under very difficult circumstances, and this is something we really need to do in the 21st century.

To read the full story about Lonnie Thompson's expedition on Alaska's Bona-Churchill glacier, pick up the August issue of Adventure. Get an online preview >>

Portrait courtesy of Andrew Hetherington/Redux
Photograph courtesy of George Steinmetz


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News from National Geographic
Worldwatch Institute researcher says the ice age in The Day After Tomorrow is impossible. Check out why.

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August 2004

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