He’s Been to the Mountaintop – and it’s Melting

Paleoclimatologist Lonnie Thompson, Byrd Polar Research Center, Ohio State University
Paleoclimatologist Lonnie Thompson, Byrd Polar Research Center, Ohio State University

Paleoclimatologist Lonnie Thompson has spent more time above 20,000 feet than anyone else. In the 1970’s, he was the first scientist to retrieve ice sample from a remote tropical ice cap and analyze them for ancient climate signals. Until then, scientists had only studied polar ice cores. But “polar glaciers only cover 10% of the earth, and they’re in regions where nobody lives,” he explains.* For over thirty years Thompson has climbed and drilled cores in tropical glaciers all over the world to unlock the secrets of the world’s climate history. And now he’s on a mission to preserve those secrets – before they melt away.

Paleoclimatology is the study of climate change in the past. Scientists use indirect evidence such as ice cores, (as well as tree rings, pollen, marine microfossils, corals, rocks, etc.) to reconstruct past states of the Earth’s climate. Modern ice core drilling and science began in 1956. The U.S. Army Snow, Ice, and Permafrost Research Establishment (SPIRE) successfully drilled and retrieved the first deep ice cores suitable for research from inland areas of Greenland and Antarctica. Air bubbles get trapped as the snow freezes, preserving a tiny sample of the atmosphere of the time. By analyzing the presence of oxygen and hydrogen in these bubbles, scientists can reconstruct the climate of that time.

Dr. Thompson and his wife, Ellen Mosley-Thompson – a scientist in her own right – run the ice core paleoclimatology research group at the Byrd Polar Research Center. They’ve collected over 7,000 m of ice from some of the most spectacular and imposing mountaintops in the world: the Andes, the Himalayas, even the snows of Mount Kilimanjaro. And their research confirms that these glaciers are melting. Mt. Kilimanjaro lost 80% of its surface area in the 20th century and could be completely gone by 2015.

Mt. Kilimanjaro. Top = February 17, 1993; bottom = February 21, 2000 (Credit: NASA)
Mt. Kilimanjaro. Top = February 17, 1993; bottom = February 21, 2000 (Credit: NASA)

Last month, Thompson was profiled on the PBS program NOVA.  You can download the video and learn more about Thompson’s work here.

More about Lonnie Thompson:

More about Paleoclimatology:

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