Indonesia's last glacier will melt within years
A helicopter prepares for landing on a glacier on Puncak Jaya mountains of
eastern Indonesia. (AP)
By ROBIN MCDOWELL | AP
Published: Jul 1, 2010 23:03 Updated: Jul 1, 2010 23:03
JAKARTA: Lonnie Thompson spent years preparing for his expedition to the
remote, mist-shrouded mountains of eastern Indonesia, hoping to chronicle the
effect of global warming on the last remaining glacier in the Pacific. He's
worried he got there too late.
Even as he pitched his tent on top of Puncak Jaya, the ice was melting beneath
The 4,884-meter-high glacier was pounded by rain every afternoon during the
team's 13-day trip, something the American scientist has never encountered in
three decades of drilling ice cores. He lay awake at night listening to the
water gushing beneath him.
By the time they were ready to head home, ice around their sheltered campsite
had melted a staggering 30cm. "These glaciers are dying," said Thompson, one of
the world's most accomplished glaciologists. "Before I was thinking they had a
few decades, but now I'd say we're looking at years."
Thompson has led 57 such expeditions in 16 countries around the planet, from
China to Peru. But for him, the Papuan glaciers, because they lie along the
fringe of the world's warmest ocean and could provide clues about regional
weather patterns, were an unexplored "missing link." It is this region that
generates El Nino disturbances and influences climate from India's monsoons to
the Amazon's droughts.
As such, it is one of the only "archives" about the story of the equatorial
phenomenon, said Michael Prentice of the Indiana Geological Survey, who has
long been interested in the area. It also could point to what lies ahead for
billions of people in Asia.
The ice that covered much of Papua thousands of years ago is today just 2 sq km
wide and 32 meters deep.
Glaciers worldwide are in retreat, with major losses already seen across much
of Alaska, the Alps, the Andes and numerous other ranges. What makes Puncak
Jaya different, aside from its location in the Pacific, is just how little is
known about it.
Research permits to work in Papua are difficult to obtain, in part because
Indonesia's government is hugely sensitive to the region's long-simmering
insurgency. Foreign journalists are barred and humanitarian groups are
restricted. It is also one of the most isolated corners of the sprawling
The US mining company Freeport-McMoRan, operating nearby, helped airlift the
team to Puncak Jaya's heights by helicopter, along with four tons of equipment
- from electromechanical and thermal drill systems, to radars needed to map the
There was a winch and cables, high-altitude camping gear and boxes to preserve
ice samples, which will eventually join 70,000 meters of tropical cores being
kept in cold storage in Columbus, Ohio.
There, glaciologists will help analyze the ice layer by layer through centuries
past. Flecks of dust, falling seasonally, enable them to count down the years,
much like tree rings. Isotopes of oxygen, in minute air bubbles trapped in the
ice, vary with temperature helping researchers understand how ancient weather
"I just hope we weren't too late," said Thompson, 62, adding that in addition
to melting from the top, water likely seeped in to the base of the glacier,
leaving them with limited records from a section of time.
Among other things, the team expects to find volcanic ash from past eruptions -
the 1883 blast of Krakatau and Tambora in 1815 should help serve as timelines -
soot from wildfires, pollen, plant debris and maybe even frozen animals.
Satellite images and aerial photos have long shown the glacier in rapid
retreat. The mountain has lost about 80 percent of its ice since 1936 -
two-thirds of that since the last scientific expedition in the early 1970s.
Thompson says he thinks temperatures are rising twice as fast in high altitudes
as at the earth's surface, which, if true, could have broad implications on
people who depend on glaciers for water during the dry season, such as in the
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