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Lonnie Thompson: Saving Indonesia’s ice climate record is race against time

In summer 2010, Thompson traveled to Indonesia to collect ice near the country’s highest peak, Puncak Jaya. He said that Puncak Jaya’s ice is melting – fast.

Lonnie Thompson: In many ways, we saw our expedition as a salvage mission, to get in and get these records while they still existed.

Lonnie Thompson is a glaciologist at Ohio State University. In the summer of 2010, Thompson traveled to the Pacific island nation of Indonesia to collect ice near the country’s highest peak, Puncak Jaya. He said that Puncak Jaya’s ice is melting – fast.

Lonnie Thompson: This is the first glacier we have ever drilled where it rained every day on the ice. We had one case where we had a tent that sat there for two weeks. After two weeks, when we took the tent down, we had lost 30 centimeters of ice from the surface down. If you do the calculations, you’re talking about potentially losing these ice fields in five years.

Thompson said it’s important to get samples of this ice while it’s still around. He said that ice cores – cylinders of ice drilled from Puncak Jaya – can give scientists 400 to 500 years worth of information about climate – everything from temperature to precipitation to volcanic eruptions. That’s because the different layers of ice have formed over time through build-up of snow. Thompson described this ice as a ‘missing link.’

Lonnie Thompson: We know very little about climate history in that part of the world. It’s a very important history to reconstruct if we can.

Thompson added he’s at the very early stages of analyzing Puncak Jaya’s ice at the Byrd Polar Research Center in Ohio. He said he’s measuring a substance called tritium – that’s residue from atomic bombs – and also organic material from the bottom of these ice cores. These will help him pinpoint just how much climactic history is encoded in Puncak Jaya’s ice, and what that history is.

Lonnie Thompson: You have to know what the history has been of any of these phenomena to know that what you’re seeing in today’s world is unusual.

Puncak Jaya’s ice is located on the island of New Guinea, in Papua, Indonesia. It’s the the only glacial ice in the Pacific Islands, he told us. Puncak Jaya sits at an elevation of 4,884 meters (16,024 ft), and is known to mountain climbers as one of the Seven Summits. It’s the highest point between the Andes and the Himalayas.

Lonnie Thompson: But you have to remember this is near a tropical rainforest where it rains everyday. In fact, at the base of the mountain at which this glacier sets, they get 14 meters of rainfall each year.

So, he said, retreating glaciers wont affect the water supplies of local residents. (This is happening on all other tropical glaciers, like ones in Peru that will impact millions of people). But melting glaciers like Puncak Jaya – as with melting glaciers all over the world – do contribute to sea rise, Thompson explained. And that concerns the residents of Indonesia.

Lonnie Thompson: They live on an island nation of over 17,000 islands. And most of the people live on islands live right at sea level. And, of course, the loss of glaciers around the world are contributing to sea level rise. And in fact there are projection for Indonesia that by 2030, they may lose up to 2,000 of these islands. And of course the question is: where do these people go?

He said there another impact that’s less obvious, but not less important.

Lonnie Thompson: There are probably four different tribes that live in this area that claim these ice fields. And in their religion, the ice is a skull of their god, and their mountains are the arms and legs of their god, and they feel that they are part of nature. And if something happens to any of these [glaciers], they lose part of their soul. The people can see that these glaciers are retreating. And the questions in their mind is what’s driving this retreat.

Beth Lebwohl

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