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High-altitude Ice Reveals a Climate on the Rocks

By Doug Struck, The Daily Climate

The story was tucked on the bottom of page A4 in last week's New York Times. Most readers probably passed on it. Another piece about how fast the ice is melting. So what's new.

And few would have reacted to the name of the scientist behind the study, which found the world's largest tropical glacier is retreating at a geologic sprint. 

Lonnie Thompson, left, and University of Texas botanist Blanca Leon in the Peruvian Andes in 2005.
Credit: Lonnie Thompson/Ohio State University.

Among climate scientists, though, Lonnie G. Thomson’s exploits are the stuff of legend. He is, colleagues say with just a hint of envy, a swashbuckler in the careful and cautious world of science.

Thompson himself would be embarrassed by such talk.  A patient, lanky man with a lingering West Virginia drawl, he would insist there is nothing heroic or daring about his work — insist, uncharacteristically, in the face of evidence. 

Four Years in 'Thin Air'

Thompson had a hunch nearly 40 years ago that the ice buried within the world's remote mountain glaciers, which hold 70 percent of our planet's fresh water, could help unlock the history of our ice ages and the climates that shaped them.

To get that story, he calculates he has spent four years in "thin air" on oxygen-starved, brutally cold and remorseless mountaintops, more time than any mountain climber has spent on peaks or any astronaut has spent in space. He has returned with commuter regularity to those inhospitable places, hauling portable drilling rigs to probe the heart of ice caps and withdraw long thin cylinders of icy samples.

He has tried everything from mules to yaks to hot-air balloons to conquer the glacier challenges. But in the end, he has had to gut it out: climbing by foot, hauling supplies and equipment, living on soup from a camp stove, fighting altitude sickness, and crawling into a tent each night so cold it robs sleep even from the exhausted.

Thompson Ice-230Lonnie5-400T

It would have been a grueling test for a healthy man. He wasn't. In 2006, I accompanied his team to a mountaintop glacier in Peru. As I labored, panting, up the rocky hillside, Thompson climbed briskly past me. He coughed regularly — warning signals for a man diagnosed with asthma and suffering, as he learned later, from a failing heart. He shrugged it off, and plowed back into thin air.

He did this year after year. For many researchers, one such expedition would satisfy their curiosity with scientific grist for years. But Thompson kept going up mountains, documenting the changes and drilling deeper in 58 expeditions. He retrieved ice laid down 1,500 years ago on his first drilling expedition in Peru in 1983, and has drilled in China, South America, Tibet, the Russia Arctic, the Alps, New Guinea, Alaska, and on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania — a total of 16 countries. He has now obtained ice hundreds of thousands of years old that can be analyzed to give up ancient snapshots of temperature, carbon and even life.

Filling the Holes of History

He often worked atop glaciers at the same time that his spouse, renowned scientist Ellen Mosley-Thompson, did the same work in Antarctica. They would retreat between expeditions to their home in Columbus, Ohio, where both taught at Ohio State and where they built a super freezer to hold their ice cores for analysis.

Separately, together, and with a small-but-growing band of other researchers, the Thompsons have filled the holes in a history of the climate. They have given lie to the arguments of those who insist the climate is in a benign and routine oscillation. They have shown how extraordinary is the warming that man is now forcing on the earth's fragile cocoon. 

Thompson understands these findings are not just the stuff of academic debate. The world's great glaciers — atop the Andes, the Himalayas, the Rockies — are fast disappearing. In a frozen tent 17,000 feet high at the edge of the Quelccaya Glacier in Peru, Thompson posed to me a few simple questions that pierced to the heart of the dangers of climate change. 

"What do you think all the farmers who rely on the melt-water from this glacier are going to do when it runs out?" he asked, as we huddled over the steam from our cups of propane-stove coffee. "Do you think they are going to just sit there and starve?"

New Lease on Life

Eighteen months ago, Thompson, then 63, found he could not breathe on a mountaintop in the Italian Alps. His heart was failing. The doctors put a pump in his chest and he lived, connected to batteries. A year ago, he underwent a heart transplant from an organ donor almost one-third his age. On the operating table, his blood oxygen level dropped to levels that should have brought liver and kidney failure. The surgeon was amazed he survived.

"My organs must have thought I was just on a mountaintop somewhere. That's the only thing the cardiologist could think of to explain why I was alive," Thompson says.

In a well-deserved profile by Justin Gillis in the New York Times last year, Thompson allowed that he would turn his attention to publishing more of the findings of his treks, a promise showing fruit in last week's research announcement.

But he won't be kept down. There's a glacier at 20,000 feet in Tibet that has never been drilled for its secrets. Thompson has his eye on being the first.

"The rest of my body is used to that altitude," Thompson mused. "The only thing I don't know about is my heart. It's only 23 years old." 

The Daily Climate is a nonprofit news service covering climate change, and a Climate Central content partner.