High-Climbing Ice Expert Gets to Core of Climate Change

July 27, 2004

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 Thompson has explored ice fields and glaciers on five continents. He has ascended as high as 23,500 feet (7,163 meters) on the Dasuopu ice field in the Chinese Himalaya in his quest to unlock the Earth's climactic past and look into the future.

Thompson began analyzing ice cores—cylindrical samples—for the information they hold 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, Thompson pioneered new technologies to drill at altitudes such as Peru's treacherously high Quelccaya Ice Cap.

In 2000 Thompson took ice samples from Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro, a peak that has lost 80 percent of its ice cover in the past hundred years. Next summer the glaciologist 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.

In a recent interview with National Geographic Adventure magazine, Thompson talks about his ice-obsessed life and what's at stake with the planet's shrinking glaciers.

In the film The Day After Tomorrow, abrupt global warming causes megatornadoes, baseball-size hail, and tsunamis that destroy 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 … 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 in Tanzania could be gone within 15 years. What's at stake if its 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.

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