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New Guinea’s melting glaciers draw scientists

New Guinea has had glaciers for millennia sitting atop mountains three miles high, but those tongues of ice are melting. Researchers tracking climate patterns hope to get there before they're gone.
New Guinea Glaciers
This photo taken by Australian scientist Ian Allison on a January 1973 expedition shows a view of the North Wall Firn, one of the Mount Jaya glaciers in the Indonesian half of New Guinea. The rare tropical ice masses are shrinking. U.S. glaciologist Lonnie Thompson plans an expedition there to drill for ice cores and clues to climate change. Ian Allison / via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For 5,000 years, great tongues of ice have spread over the 3-mile-high slopes of Puncak Jaya, in the remotest reaches of this remote tropical island. Now those glaciers are melting, and Lonnie Thompson must get there before they're gone.

To the American glaciologist, the ancient ice is a vanishing "archive" of the story of El Niño, the equatorial phenomenon driving much of the world's climate.

More than that, the little-explored glaciers are a last unknown for a mountaineering scientist who for three decades has circled the planet pioneering the deep-drilling of ice cores, both to chronicle the history of climate and to bear witness to the death of tropical glaciers from global warming.

"No one knows how thick these remaining glaciers are," Thompson said of Puncak Jaya, or Mount Jaya. "We do know they are disappearing."

The unknowns on this wild, Texas-sized island extend even to the local climate.

"There are indications of warming," explained Kasis Inape, a senior government climatologist here. "But we can't really confidently say the temperature change has been this much or that much, because the actual data are lacking."

As a companion project to Thompson's expedition, an international research team including Inape plans a first-ever assessment of recent climate change on New Guinea, especially along the 1,200-mile mountainous spine of the southwestern Pacific island.

Thompson's quest on Puncak Jaya will be for something deeper in the past.

Factoring El Niño and manmade warming
"We may actually see an El Niño history there," he said by telephone from his office-laboratory at Ohio State University. And that history may foretell the future, he and others believe.

Knowing how past temperature changes affected El Niño, the atmospheric-oceanic disturbance that roils the tropics every few years, may help scientists predict how much worse and more frequent El Niño's droughts, tempests and floods may grow as the world warms in decades to come.

Such discoveries would be the latest in a Thompson career whose achievements were recognized by a National Medal of Science at a White House ceremony last July.

Aided by his wife and collaborator, climatologist Ellen Mosley-Thompson, Thompson's career began in the 1970s with climbs to the glacier-draped peaks of the Peruvian Andes, where his team perfected advanced drilling techniques. By 2001, he was making headlines with his discovery that the storied snows of Kilimanjaro, the east African mountain's glacial cap, might disappear by 2015.

On some 50 expeditions, often with U.S. National Science Foundation support, he and colleagues have braved high winds, frostbite and altitude sickness, survived in ice caves, crossed treacherous crevasses with makeshift bridges, and hauled heavy equipment to unlikely heights.

In 2006, at a 20,000-foot-high site in the Tibetan Himalayas, Thompson had to rely on animal power, dozens of yaks, to carry ice-core segments on their backs to the valley below.

An accumulation of four miles of ice cores, including one Himalayan sample reaching back 750,000 years, now lies in cold storage at the lab in Columbus, Ohio, where the ice is analyzed layer by layer through centuries past.

Flecks of dust, falling seasonally, enable glaciologists to count the years down the ice core's length. Isotopes of oxygen, in minute air bubbles trapped in the ice, vary with temperature and so tell researchers how ancient climate shifted. Other clues — chemicals, surrounding geology, trapped and frozen vegetation or insects — tell high-altitude investigators still more.

The 59-year-old Thompson's assault on Puncak Jaya, planned for May-June 2009, will take his crew into isolated, mist-shrouded highlands seldom visited even by tribes in the area, across Papua New Guinea's border in the Indonesian half of this island. In 2006, a biological expedition to its uncharted tropical forests reported finding new species of birds, frogs, even a tree kangaroo.

The last scientific expedition to the glaciers took place in 1973, when Australian glaciologist Ian Allison and colleagues trekked seven days through the wilderness past gushing rivers and groves of tree ferns, with gear borne by a train of near-naked tribesmen.

"In the fourth or fifth day you see in the distance the sheer limestone cliffs with the ice on top, and it's really quite a sight," Allison recalled by phone from Australia.

Thompson should have an easier time scaling those 10,000-foot cliffs.

The mining company Freeport-McMoRan, operating nearby, has agreed to airlift his dozen-member team to Puncak Jaya's heights by helicopter, along with six tons of equipment — electro-mechanical and thermal drill systems, radar to gauge ice thickness and map the underlying rock, winch and cable, boxes to preserve core segments, high-altitude camping gear and supplies.

Satellite images show melt
They'll find glaciers very different from those Allison saw.

Although ever-present cloud cover complicates satellite surveillance, meticulous research by Texas A&M University geographers has determined that the glaciers are shrinking rapidly.

"We're tracking their demise by satellite images," the university's Andrew Klein said from College Station, Texas. "If current retreat rates continue, they will disappear in a few decades. This is similar to what's happening to tropical glaciers around the world."

Puncak Jaya's Meren Glacier, one of five ice masses surveyed in the 1972-73 Australian expeditions, vanished completely sometime between 1994 and 2000, the Texas researchers report. In two years alone, between 2000 and 2002, the remaining glaciers lost more than 7 percent of their area.

The researchers estimate that since about 1850, as heat-trapping industrial emissions accumulated in the atmosphere, Puncak Jaya's ice has shrunk from covering 7 square miles to less than one square mile.

Michael Prentice, an Indiana University paleoclimatologist, or climate historian, believes temperature increases in the New Guinea uplands have far exceeded — "really out of sight" — the 1-degree Fahrenheit average rise recorded globally in the past century.

With Inape and Australian and Indonesian scientists, Prentice is organizing the project to collect and analyze existing climate data, and to deploy or upgrade automatic weather stations at sites including Puncak Jaya.

New Guinea lies on the fringe of the Western Pacific Warm Pool, a center of warm water that generates El Niño disturbances and influences climate from India's monsoons to the Amazon's droughts. Because of that, Prentice said, what the glacier ice tells Thompson about the region's past will help climatologists understand what lies ahead.

'Dipstick' for Earth's climate
He likens the Puncak Jaya glaciers to a "dipstick" rising high into the atmosphere.

"There is no other such record in the wider region, which really stretches from the eastern Pacific to the Himalayas," he said. "It's the only record of its kind in what is nearly half of the tropical zone."

New Guinea Glaciers
Lonnie Thompson, right and his wife and research partner Ellen Mosley-Thompson stand in the \"cold room,\" where ice cores are stored in the minus-30-degree freezer at Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University Friday, Dec. 21, 2007 in Columbus, Ohio.Kiichiro Sato / AP

Puncak Jaya's scientific challenge may be greater than the logistical one. Because of the melting, the veteran Allison observed, "it's not going to be an easy core to interpret."

Thompson recognizes that, but puts first things first.

"It's important to get an archive for the future because 20 years from now our technology will be so much more advanced, and our ability to read these records will be much improved," he said.

He recalled that New Guinea's surprising glaciers first attracted him as a student long ago, when he found them in a Southern Hemisphere ice atlas. Now, "it's clear from Andrew Klein's work that these glaciers are going to disappear."

Getting there soon is key, Thompson said. "Whatever history is still there, we'll try to get it."