The American paleoclimatologist and distinguished university professor at the School of Earth Sciences, Ohio State University, Lonnie G. Thompson spoke with the editor of The Huaraz Telegraph about his perspective on glacier retreat, his global recognition for his drilling and analysis of ice cores from mountain glaciers and ice caps in the tropical and subtropical regions and about the future of mankind as temperatures are rising all around the globe. The paleoclimatologist was in the Huaraz area for a couple of weeks to investigate the state of the ice on the highest mountain in Peru, and shocked our editor during the interview by predicting that the Pastoruri Glacier will probably be gone within ten years. Although Thompson said he had not investigated and studied the glacier recently, recent pictures tell the whole story. In 2001 the Lonnie predicted that the renowned snows of Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro would melt within the next 20 years. Additionally, he stated that global warming poses a huge and present threat to our civilization and mankind because as the sea levels rise in the near future caused by melting glaciers and global warming, where do all the displaced people migrate to?
The research scientist, who stayed at the San Sebastian Hotel in Huaraz, has received many awards during his career, such as the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, an honour often regarded as the environmental science equivalent to the Nobel Prize and the Vega Medal by the Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography. But maybe the biggest prize he won was an extension to his life, as in 2012 he underwent a successful heart transplant. We spoke for over an hour with this legend and expert on natural climate change who rightly believes that all ice around the globe forms the best archive of Earth’s climate. These records can be found at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Centre in Columbus, Ohio, USA. But before we get to that, we first asked the distinguished university professor how he actually got into ice drilling.
I grew up in a small town in West Virginia and in the US this state is a coal-mining state. So when I initially went to college I knew I wanted to do something in science and got a major in geology. And then I entered Ohio State for my graduate work to study coal geology, mainly because I wanted to get a job. During the first quarter at the university I saw an announcement of a research position at the (then called) Institute of Polar Studies to look at ice cores. Because of a course in geomorphology, I knew that the glacier only covers 10% of the planet and exist at places where people can´t really live; however, I didn’t really see how you could make a living of ´looking´ at glaciers. Anyway, I took the research position because it allowed you to get your degree faster, which means you can get a job quicker. It took me a year and a half before I started to think about what might be possible. When I was still a master student, I did a PhD comparing climate history from the first ever core drill through Antarctica, with the first drill at Camp Century in Greenland. The study was about comparing both Polar Regions. I thought it would be good to have some material from somewhere in between. There was a fella called John Mercer who had made atlases of the Earth’s glaciers. He had these boxes with aerial photographs, and in one of those boxes I found pictures of the Quelccaya ice cap in southern Peru. The two of us took those pictures to the programme manager at Polar Programs of the National Science Foundation to show him what we would like to do. When I finished my presentation he said, ‘You know what Lonnie, I’d like to fund that but I can’t.’ He could only fund research on the Antarctic Circle. Then in 1973, I went to Antarctica and received a telex in February from that same programme manager. It said: ‘I have funded all of my science research projects, and have U$ 7,000 left, what can you do with that on that tropical glacier?’ I telexed him back and said that I believe that we could get there. And that’s what we did in the summer of ´74. It turned out that there was such a great history on that ice cap that we were able to a record. But it was by far not easy.
The first time we tried to drill at the Quelccaya ice cap in southern Peru I was still young. We brought a drill and generator from the Antarctic area, we made a contract with the Peruvian Airforce to rent a Bell 212 twin-engine helicopter and we flew out from Lima to Sicuani near the ice cap. As there was no airport there, we had to bring in the fuel by train and we basically operated out the back of a hotel. In the end, the helicopter wouldn’t go anywhere near the ice cap because it was too dangerous. The generator and the drill were too heavy to be put on a horse so we had to think of alternatives. It was a two-day trail to get to the ice cap from the end of the last road. At that time, a lot of my colleagues were telling me that we needed to go back to the Polar Regions because that´s where the real science was. This is the moment we started thinking about solar power and tested some panels. We went back to the States to write a proposal to develop a solar power drill. When it went out for review, Willi Dansgaard from Denmark, one of the lead scientist pioneers, was the reviewer. He sent me a copy of what he sent to the National Science Foundation. In short, the Quelccaya ice cap is too high for human beings and the technology does not exist to drill it. There was a programme manager who said, while he may be right, we won’t know unless we try it. So, we built the first solar power ice core drill at Ohio State and tested it in a parking garage and it seemed to work. However, two weeks before leaving I passed the exams to get into the MBA programme because I figured that if I would fail a second time at the Quelccaya ice cap, I wouldn’t have a career in glaciology. A six-person team left for Peru to drill without any porters, so everything was carried by horses and the last bits were carried by the team to the summit. We were there for three months. We didn’t drill one, but two cores of bedrock using solar power. Back at that time we didn’t have the technology to keep the ice frozen, so we had to cut it with a handsaw into six thousand samples. We sent those samples to Dansgaard´s lab in Denmark and from that moment, Willi Dansgaard was our biggest supporter on why we should drill in the high mountains. Quelccaya, in the end, launched a whole drilling programme and at the moment we are drilling in 16 different countries, but it all started here in Peru.
In different interviews I have read, you state that death played a significant role during your career, could you explain that?
When I was still in high school my dad died, and we were a poor family anyway. The idea of going to college at the time was very remote. I got a scholarship and the three of us went to college; however, my sister died in an automobile accident during her first year. This kind of brought home the fact that you are not guaranteed any time on earth, so if you´re going to do something, do it! Maybe at an early age I had clear idea that I wanted to accomplish something, and just went on doing it. I take that thought with me up on the mountains. I had a heart transplant four years ago, and the doctor gave me less than 10% of surviving. I had a hospital infection and nothing would stop it. I had wires coming out of my chest and battery packs would make sure I could do some work and walk around during the day. And at night they plugged me into the wall again. This gave me a whole new idea of a ´reliable´ power source because when it stops you die. I spent four months in the hospital and during that time I had to learn to walk again. And that´s very scary because when you’re a child you learn to walk, but not when you´re past 65. So the idea of drilling ice cores looked very far away four years ago. However, one year later, I was in west central Tibet and set a world record for a heart transplant patient, working at 6,700 metres. The doctors couldn’t give me any reasons why there should be issues at high elevations. They couldn’t say no, and the heart was only 22 years old when they put it in. The person I got the heart from died because of a motorcycle accident. Any day can be your last day!
Could you try to explain to our readers, in simple terms, what information do you get from the ice drilling process?
On any glacier when it snows, the history is recorded. If you take a drill, you can go through the sequence and go back 20,000 years. We can go back to the last ice age. You can see what´s going on in the Amazon. Everything that´s brought with the wind gets finally caught (recorded) in the ice. So when we analyse the ice we can find many things, such as temperatures, through the isotopes, you can measure the layer fragmences and get the precipitation and how this has changed though time, you can look at the pollen and restructure the vegetation and how that has changed through time. You can also have a look at the bubbles in the ice, and the atmosphere in the past, for example the oxygen and pollution levels. Another thing is the trace elements such as arsenic, lead, mercury and anything that falls out of the sky. This is how we can analyse a history of volcanic eruptions in the past. These ´marks´ are perfectly recorded into the ice and you can take it back for hundreds of thousands of years. The oldest record we have goes back 800,000 years. This is part one. The second part is about the fact that glaciers are not only recorders but also responders to climate. Glaciers sum up the radiation, precipitation, temperature, cloud cover, water vapour and it either advances or retreats. And the photographs, since I have been working in Peru, tell the whole story. We have documented the retreats and the lakes that have been formed around these glaciers. When you go talking to a politician, pictures are very compelling because glaciers have no political agenda. There is no way you can argue that they are behaving in a certain way for some purpose. They´re like a physical recorder of what´s happening on the earth, and if you look at it globally, no matter where you are, this is very concerning. When glaciers melt they float eventually in the oceans. And it´s not that they haven’t melted in the past because they have. And when they have the water level was 120 metres higher, which changes the whole geography of our planet. Our biggest problem at the moment is that we have a population of 7.3 billion people, and when we settled the world, we built all our large cities on coastal areas. And now all that is at risk. I have been to your country and I have always wondered how it´s possible that the water level at one point is higher than at the other part of the road. But also in the Netherlands, when the pumps stop pumping, the Netherlands flood. People in the Netherlands are very concerned about the sea level rise. I know firsthand that the water authority has more power than the government in your country.
Is ice melting more now than it used to do a couple of thousand years ago?
Yes it is, and it´s melting at an alarming rate actually. The glaciers are disappearing and the records are disappearing. At the Quelccaya ice cap we have found truckloads of plants that have been under the ice, which is very unusual to start with. The first ones we found in 2002 and they were 5,200 years old. The plants we collected last year were 6,600 years old. And just for the record, the plants we have collected a few weeks ago, we expect those to be even older. So what does this tell us? These are wetland plants, as soon as they are exposed they start to decay. They tell us that this glacier has not been smaller in 6,600 years. Just to give you an idea of how unusual they are, we had a ceremony a couple of years ago at the national history museum in Lima. These plants were put into collection. When they pulled out the drawer to put them safely behind glass, these plants were placed right beside the plants that were collected by Charles Darwin in 1856. You don’t find old plants! And these plants are perfectly preserved as their flowers still have cell structures, which mean they were captured very rapidly.
Who is funding all this valuable research?
Our main funder is the National Science Foundation in the US, but this depends a little bit on where we work. If we work in China, the Chinese Government pays half.
One second, you’re saying that one of the biggest polluters in the world is also paying your research?
Oh yes. Absolutely. I would say that China is one of the biggest countries in the world that is investing the most in science at the moment. They are building labs you cannot imagine. I went there the first time since relations between the US and China were normalised and they had no researchers at all. And now, they have labs better than mine, they have hundreds of people working on science in a big way. So they are very concerned about water resources. And they should be, so should the world. If you, for example, take the Indus River (3,180 km and also called the Sindhū River or Abāsīn), it starts in China, which is a nuclear power country, flows through Pakistan; another nuclear power and flows through India, another nuclear power. Those countries don’t go along very well nowadays and all depend very much on their water. This becomes geopolitically a very critical place. Glaciers in the Himalayas are disappearing just like they are here in the Andes. So this water resource is diminishing and will cause trouble. The nice thing about being a scientist is that you can cross boundaries much easier than in most other disciplines. So that´s one of our missions: to train young people and to get people talking about this very important subject.
On a scale of one to ten, how worried is the country Peru about climate change?
Probably not as much as it should be. I have marvelled at the rate at which ice can disappear. When I started in glaciology in the US, we had two universities that had professors in glaciology and it was very difficult for a young person to get a place. The warming has been so rapid in the last fifty years that the University of Michigan hired five glaciologists at once because there is a huge concern about what is going to happen to the sea level. The potential cost of the rise of the world´s oceans, like, for example, in a country like Bangladesh is terrifying. Where do all those millions of people go? If you would just look at the people fleeing from Syria, just to get an idea of what the scale could be, that’s not many people. But the places that are going to be flooded when the sea level rises are tremendous. Everything that the human race has developed is based on climate. And like I said, it´s not just temperature, if you are in the insurance business there are a number of companies in Europe that insure insurance companies around the world. And if you look at their records since 1980, cost related losses because of storms and extreme weather events is sky rocketing. Ecosystems around the world are at risk as carbonate shells dissolve because the acidity of the world’s oceans is increasing. And this is where the very bases of life exist. It is all connected. So I think that we´re much closer to the edge than we realise, and the glaciers are telling the same story. In Peru, just as in other parts of the world like in the US, it´s changing. But we people, we are ´here and now´ people. We are not good at future planning and often when you talk about climate change you talk about your children´s children. But now with these extreme events, I think that this is a growing problem around the world. When I go to Lima later next month, I will meet the newly elected president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski to put the topic high on the agenda. I expect initially a conversation, and I have heard that he is very concerned about water resources for Peru. Peru´s economy depends on water. I have spoken to the president of the US, I have spoken to the president of China and now I am going to speak to the president of Peru. But in general there is a growing awareness, and part of it is about education. And at the end of the day it´s not about what we hope for or what we wish, but it´s simply a matter of chemistry and physics. As long as we continue to increase the amount of greenhouse gases the temperatures will continue to rise and there will come a point where you can’t deny it. I am optimistic that we can and will do something about this problem.
Do you think that eventually all the ice around the world will disappear?
Certainly on the mountain glaciers. In May this year, if you looked at the CO2 levels in Mauna Loa Observatory, where they have been measured since 1958 by Charles David Keeling, they were at 3.15 parts per million by volume. Last month, they were 406 parts per million by volume. The rate is accelerating even though we have intergovernmental panels on climate change etc. When you look at the geology, the last time that CO2 was at the same level as it is today was three million years ago. If you look at the temperature at the time it was 2 to 2.5 degrees warmer and the sea level was 22 metres higher. At 22 metres you lose whole states like Florida and many coastal cities. It´s going slowly, but it´s getting warmer, and the mountain glaciers will go first because they are smaller. The glacier at Mount Kilimanjaro, we drilled at six sites and two of those sites no longer exist, they´re gone. When a glacier melts, its history is gone too. We just drilled over in New Guinea, and at the Puncak Jaya glaciers we have noticed that it´s losing over one metre of ice per year. Because of influences of El Niño between November 2015 and May 2016, it lost 4.2 metres in less than six months. I now believe that this glacier will completely disappear within three years. Seventy percent of the world´s tropical glaciers are in Peru. So if you ask people, who is going to be hurt first because of the loss of glaciers, it´s the people here in Peru because over half of the population lives along the coast, depending on rivers that originate from the Andes. The question is what do these people do when there is no more water?
What are you in Huaraz for at the moment?
We came to investigate the impact of the El Niño 2015 on the precipitation of the glaciers. We were at the Quelccaya ice cap in southern Peru just a couple of weeks ago and we drilled two ten-metre cores. We also measured extreme drought and high temperatures, which are terrible conditions for a glacier. I am in Huaraz because the day after tomorrow we are going up the Huascarán to look at how El Niño is recorded here. I understand that the Cordillera Blanca has been warm and dry so I expect similar reductions. I have this feeling that El Niño plays a very important role in whether a glacier exists or not.
How important is teamwork on your expeditions?
We have a global team that works around the world and even on this small expedition on Huascarán we have two Russians and an Australian. Generally, I have colleagues that I have met on expeditions that I really like and we work really well together. When we go into an area like western China we even have more different nationalities aboard. Sometimes up to 60 people work on expeditions; think about the logistics, the permits, etc. But if you have a good team you can do everything.
You have received many awards and prizes, which was the most important one?
I would say it was the very first one, and it had no money involved. It was the Vega Medal by the Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography, and it is special because the people that won the award were very famous polar explorers. The first award was given in 1899. We have won other ones, like the prestigious Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, an honour often regarded as the environmental science equivalent to the Nobel Prize. I am referring to the team because alone I could do nothing.
In 2001, you predicted that the famed snows of Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro would melt within the next 20 years, are there any predictions you can do on the Pastoruri Glacier?
It will disappear. These glaciers are remnants of the past and at Mount Kilimanjaro we´re losing half a metre every year. I mean they´re just relics of another climate. It takes a while to warm them up but when they do, they will go. The worst thing for a glacier is water. And one of the things that is happening in New Guinea, for example, is that as the world gets warmer the difference between snowfall and rain gets bigger. When we were drilling, the rain would start around ten in the morning and it would stop around midnight, and sometimes at around one o´clock it would turn into snow, but just for a couple of hours. But when there is more rain than snow, there is more heat transferred from the atmosphere to the glacier. The worst thing that can happen to a glacier is to get wet. On Pastoruri, I have to admit that I haven’t studied it specifically, but I have seen the photographs. The glacier is not very thick, so maybe in ten years? They can go pretty quick. I repeat that I haven’t worked specifically on Pastroruri, so I don’t have any numbers to look at, but it would not surprise me.
When you finally retire, are there youngsters interested and capable of succeeding you? Is youth interesting in your work?
It´s hard work, it is. I think it´s a good question actually. I have thought about this a lot, especially after my heart transplant. How does it go on, or should it go on? It would be very sad if the founder of tropical glaciology would also see the end of tropical glaciology. That would be very sad. I went to the Quelccaya ice cap for the first time in 1974, and just saw it recently two weeks ago, but I have never ever seen it in such a bad shape. I often think of it as visiting a friend who has terminal cancer. You go and visit the patient in the hospital, but you can do nothing about the outcome. It makes me sad that the time will come that young people will not be able to go to a mountain range and see the glaciers. Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro is the number one foreign currency earner for the Tanzanian Government. People go there to see the glacier on the equator. How many people will still go there if there are no more glaciers on the equator? I am not sure. Ice is one of the balancing systems for climate on the earth. It absorbs energy when it gets warmer and a lot of energy has gone into melting of the ice. As they get smaller they get less efficient so more energy stays in the atmosphere. The Cordillera Mountain Range is a beautiful mountain range but it will look like the Cordillera Negra when the glaciers are gone. To me, the future generations are being deprived of the beauties that exist on this planet. Anyone who has stepped on a glacier remembers that moment, it leaves a big impression. For many indigenous people at the sites where we drill, this is where the gods are. When we drilled in Bolivia we had to go through a ceremony to ask permission. When we were drilling in New Guinea we were attacked by the local indigenous people. There are four tribes that live at the foot of the mountain who are at war with each other. They tried to get to us where we were drilling, but luckily for us they didn’t have crampons and they couldn’t make it. But they knew that we were storing the ice cores in a freezer, and the mining company got word that they were going to break into the freezer so we used helicopters to bring the ice to the coast. When they did break in there was nothing there. The head of the mine ask me to talk to these people, to explain what we were doing and why we were doing it. And I did. The discussion, with a translator, showed that in their religion, the legs of their gods are the mountains, and the head of their god was the glacier. So according to their interpretation, we were drilling into the skull of their god to steal the memories. And that is exactly what we were doing, trying to capture memories. And I explained to them that we do that all around the world, and that we were working with indigenous people. I showed them pictures of indigenous people helping carrying the cores. And I told them that the day would come, not in the far future, when the only part of their god would be found at Ohio State in a freezer. When I said this a big argument broke out between the elders and the young people of the tribe. The elders said that the glacier has always been there and always will be. The young people said to the elders if they had seen what has happened to these glaciers. Whether you´re in Tibet, the Andes or New Guinea, the glaciers are the places where the gods are. So I always think for the world that glaciers are the early warning signal. They all speak the same language. It´s sad in a way, but I feel very fortunate to have worked in a time and to have been able to have collected these records before they were altered by the melting. And in many cases they are already lost. It doesn’t matter whether it will get colder again in the future, once a glacier has melted, the information is gone. And for many glaciers it´s already too late. It might take 25 to 30 years before we see the full effects of what we already have done with greenhouse gases. In 20 years most of the glaciers in the Alps will be gone. It´s happening and all we have to do is watch them.
If all people around the world lived near a glacier, our future would be different. If I am to give a lecture in Alaska there is standing room only because the people in Alaska have seen the glacier all their life and know the retreat is real. But in my home state, Ohio, we have no glaciers and if temperatures rise one or two degrees; no problem. People can´t see it, and a glacier allows you to see it. In a hundred years from now maybe the names of the glaciers will not be remembered, but the date collected will.
It´s really fascinating what you have just shared with us, but it´s so sad, it scares me actually.
Well people should be scared. This is a human-caused problem. There are things that we could not do anything about, such as a meteor hitting the earth, or a huge volcanic eruption; we would just have to survive that. We can do nothing about it. But because we caused this problem, we can’t solve this problem. To me this is the most optimistic about this issue. It´s not that it can be solved, it´s that we do not have the political will yet to solve it. Human beings in general resist change. Mainly because they are making money, but I don’t think it´s anything new, it´s global and it will affect everyone and everywhere. Our biggest challenge is can we work together on this planet in our own best interests? You have to admit that we haven’t done a very good job in the past, but maybe for the very first time in history it could bring all human beings together for a common cause. The future relies on the young people because they can change the world.