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The Habitable Planet: A Systems Approach to Environmental Science 

Earth’s Changing Climate Interview with Lonnie Thompson

Interviewer: I’d like to begin by asking you about early life experiences that influenced you to go into science.

LONNIE: When I look back and I look where I am now, it’s kind of a miracle, because I grew up in a small town in Gassaway, West Virginia. I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Gassaway, West Virginia. It was pretty difficult in those early years. When I was in high school, I worked four different jobs, and that was just to pay lunch money and things like that in school. My father died when I was in high school, and then my sister passed away in an automobile accident just a couple of years later, and I think those early experiences, as bad as they are, they also kind of focus you. You realize at an early age that life is not a guarantee, and at any given time you – all that could disappear and so you should make good use of the time that you have.

But even in those early years, I spent a lot of time out in the mountains. I belonged to a Boy Scout troop, and we had a special person who would take us out in these remote areas, and we learned survival. I really liked the outdoors. I think all that kind of laid the groundwork for where I am now. I was always interested in science. I think I started in the sixth grade, and had there been a meteorology program in West Virginia, or in Ohio, I’d probably have become a meteorologist, because I was really interested in that. I had a weather station in the barn and I used to make weather forecasts. That’s how I’d get my lunch money for the next day. Back then you could get these daily weather charts of patterns across the US from NOAA. You could use those to see how things moved across the US, and you’d get an idea of what’s going to happen the next day. So, from a very early age, I was interested in science.

But then I went off to Marshall University, where I did my BS degree, and started out in physics. I knew I wanted to be in science, but I didn’t know which science. When I was a junior, I took a geology course, and the professor, who was the chair of the department, was from the University of Chicago. I really enjoyed the class, and then afterwards he asked me if I’d like to work with him. He had this little business where in the evening you’d meet some of the students and we’d put together minerals of West Virginia, along with the products you could make from those, and he sold them at state parks. But it was really the conversation while we were doing that, and talking about geology and the like, that got me interested – really interested in geology. So I switched to geology, and I was pretty convinced I was going to become a coal geologist, because having grown up in West Virginia, I could see – you know, one of the reasons of going to college was to get a job – I could see the application there. When I came to Ohio State University, I came here to study coal geology because there was a professor here who was actually part of the US Geological Survey and that was his specialty.

And so that was what I was going to do, but in my first quarter here I got a little note in my mail box that said how would you like to work for a research program in what was then the Institute of Polar Studies, looking at ice cores? I thought about that, and I had already kind of dismissed glaciers, because if you look at where they occur, they’re in very remote areas, and so how could they possibly have any importance to human beings and the like? But I would rather have a research associate position, because then you could concentrate on your master’s, and so I took this position. It took me about a year, a year and a half, to really start to realize what was archived in those ice cores, and the potential.
At that time, all the work was being done in the polar regions, in Greenland and Antarctica. Before I got my master’s degree I started thinking about maybe looking elsewhere, outside of the polar regions. We were very fortunate at the Institute of Polar Studies. There was this fellow, John Mercer, who had worked for the American Geographical Society in New York, and he had made two atlases, one of the glaciers of the northern hemisphere, and the other of the glaciers of the southern hemisphere. He had these boxes of aerial photographs, and it was in those aerial photographs that we found the photographs of the Quelccaya ice cap down in the Andes of Peru. We decided that we’d take these to Washington to Jay Zwally, the then program manager of Polar Programs, the Glaciology Section, and we showed him these photographs, and said, okay, what we need is to connect the climate records coming from Antarctica with those coming from Greenland and this would be a great place to do that. He listened, and then he said, “You know, Lonnie, I’m sorry. You know, I really cannot – I can’t fund that, because it’s not north of the Arctic Circle, and it’s not south of the Antarctic Circle.” So I left it there, and that season – ’73 -’74 – had gone to Antarctica, and while I was at Byrd Station, and toward the end of the season, I got a telex from Jay Zwally. He said he had funded all of his real science projects, and he had $7,000 left. What could we do on that tropical glacier for $7,000? I remember telexing back and saying that I think we can get there.

And that’s how we started in 1974 on this tropical glacier. I like to tell my new graduate students – this story because you never know, you know, what appears to be a very small thing might actually develop and grow. And in this case, you know, if someone had asked me in those early days if I’d be studying ice cores 30 years hence, I would have said no way! There’s no way. How would you ever get it funded? But here we are, and it’s been a great field, and, you know, timing is very important: the interest in climate, and climate change, and the glaciers are a fantastic recorder of that. So everything came together to make it work.

Interviewer: When you were working with John Mercer and you saw these glaciers, was there something that just sort of clicked in your brain to think, “I’ve got to go there?”

LONNIE: There were two things. One is that in the polar regions at the time there was a lot of competition. Everyone had proposals to drill here and drill there. No one was looking anywhere else. And so I’m thinking, “Well, you know, here’s the rest of the world, you know, why not?” And then, of course, if you start thinking about it, you realize that 50 percent of the surface of the planet is in the tropics, between 30 degrees north and 30 south. You realize that we’ve got 6.5 billion people on the planet; 70 percent of them live in the tropics. And then you also realize that a lot of the big weather phenomena that impact people – El Niño, monsoons – those are tropical phenomenon, and if you really wanted to look at the history of those, you need records from that part of the world. So, it kind of all came together at once, but you know, in those early days, there were big issues with technology, the ability to recover those records. I will never forget a review that Willi Dansgaard gave me. I’ve got to give him credit, he sent me a copy of what he sent to NSF when we proposed to drill the Quelccaya ice cap. It basically said the ice cap is too high for human beings, and the technology does not exist to drill it. That could have been the end of the tropical initiative.

I know I really respect Willi Dansgaard. I did then as a student, and certainly do today. But there were a lot of things that came together. There was a new program manager at what was then the Office of Climate Dynamics – Hassan Virji. He did his Ph.D. on monsoons in India and South America. And he looked at the reviews, and he said, you know, perhaps Willi Dansgaard is correct, but if we don’t try, how will we know? And so he funded us to go and do it, and we did.

Interviewer: Do you feel that it is a good idea to take the risk of going on an expedition that might fail?

LONNIE: Yes. And I have tried, as I’ve gotten older, when I’m asked to review, I try to keep an open mind that just because I don’t think it’s possible, doesn’t mean it’s not. I mean, it’s really pushing the envelope that’s where we make our greatest strides in science.

Frankly, in order to drill this ice cap, we had to build the first solar-powered drill, because all the generators at that time were far too heavy for a horse to carry up to the ice cap. We constructed it, and we tested it in a parking garage here in Columbus, Ohio, drilling through blocks of ice. Before I left, because I did respect Willi Dansgaard’s opinion, I actually took the MBA exam to try a new career, because I had mortgaged all the credibility that I could have to say this was possible, and until you do anything, you don’t know for sure how it’s going to work out. But the fact is we actually drilled not one, but two cores to bedrock, using that solar-powered drill. One of those sets of samples we sent to Willi Dansgaard’s lab for analysis. And it turned out to be a fantastic record. From that day on, Willi was one of our biggest supporters. So – yes, you need to be able to occasionally have the opportunity to take the risk, and see what’s possible.

Interviewer: Sometimes if you don’t know the dangers, the risks are easier, too.

LONNIE: Absolutely. I would say that sometimes we’ve written proposals to drill the top of the Himalayas, top of the Dasuopu; it’s 7,200 meters — 23,500 feet, and if you’d known all the things you were going to be up against when you wrote that proposal, you probably wouldn’t do it. But once you write it, and you’re kind of committed, then you want to make sure, if it’s at all possible, you’re going to deliver on it. And that turns out to be one of our most remarkable records; it’s a beautiful record of the monsoons. We didn’t have a long-term history of the monsoons, but we do now. So yes, a lot of times when you write a proposal, you cannot know all the variables that you’re going to be up against, but part of the excitement of science, and the challenge, of course, is overcoming those unknowns, and I like those challenges.

Interviewer: Well, one of the things that’s evident is that with all of the places you’ve gone and all of the drilling expeditions you’ve had, that there’s a certain leadership that you have to have and a certain teamwork that makes it happen. So before we go into the technical details, how do you pick a team, who do you need to bring, and who don’t you need to bring?

LONNIE: I’ve actually had a lot of discussions with Willi Dansgaard at meetings. We talked about what’s an ideal team? What’s an ideal size of a research group? We concluded it was seven or nine; no more, because what you want to do is keep maximum communication. You don’t want to have a bureaucracy, where you’re dealing more with personalities, or spending all your time on fund-raising, because you want to be able to concentrate on the science. We’ve tried to pick very good people, and I would say that is the key to our success: it’s a team of people that we have been able to pull together.

Then you have to look at what do you need to develop a successful program? And in this case, we needed state-of-the-art laboratories to make those measurements. We have built our different capabilities one at a time. You need a good drill. You have to have high quality cores in order to look at annual resolution, and look at rates of change in climate system; you need that type of material to work with. We put a lot of time in engineering development of the drills; light-weight, portable systems, multiple energy sources. Then you need a place to store those cores when you obtain them, and so we built the ice core storage facility that now contains 7,000 meters of core. We store at minus 30ºC, and it turns out now that’s the only archive of tropical ice cores on earth. As time has progressed, and we’ve lost a lot of these glaciers in the tropics, the value of that archive has increased. So to me, you need these four different things in order to be able to design, execute, and deliver high-quality climate records from glaciers.

Interviewer: Tell me a little bit about each of the people on your research team.

LONNIE: Based on the time they’ve spent with us, I’ll start with Mary Davis. She joined us in 1983, so she’s been here with us for 23 years, and does the dust analysis. She came with a master’s degree but while she has been here, she also continued her education, and now has a Ph.D, and just recently got her first project funded. The beauty of this, and probably the thing most important with the records we develop is the data set, itself. By having the same person who helped analyze the first Quelccaya core drilled back in 1983 also working on the one that we drilled 20 years later and brought back as frozen, you reduce a lot of the variability that comes from a lab analysis. You’ve got the same person, same technique, same instrumentation. So the quality of the database and our ability to inter-compare all the ice cores that we have collected over that period of time is why we try to find good people, and then we try to keep them.
Ping-Nan Lin developed the first isotope water lab in Taiwan. He did his Ph.D. at the University of Texas, and we hired him right out of the University of Texas. He’s now been with us 18 years, and he knows the mass spectrometers inside and out, and again, the quality and reproducibility of the database is ensured by having this constant in the lab part of it.
Victor Zagorodnov was with the Polar Ice Coring Office when he came from Russia, but I first ran across him back in 1974 when he was drilling through the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica as part of a Soviet Union team, and later when he wanted to come to the U.S., I helped him with letters. He was working in Alaska at the time, but working on drilling, and when that office moved out of Alaska, Victor wasn’t moved to the new place, and we picked him up. Our point was to have the engineer working right with the scientist so there’s a continued back and forth on the engineering and the quality of the samples, because I think that’s key. And they should be working together to make that happen.

Our geochemist – Tracy Mashiotta — she’s our youngest, and she’s been with us now for five years. She runs the ion chromatograph, and does a great job, and has increased the number of things that we can measure in the chemistry side of the cores.

And of course, Ellen, my wife. We’ve been working together for years. She does the same kind of work; she focuses mainly on Antarctica and Greenland, and I do the high mountain work and remote areas in the polar regions. So, we’ve worked it out, and when we raised our daughter, we had a division of labor, so that when she’d go off to Antarctica, I’d do the PTA and the social part, and vice versa, and our daughter’s grown up very nicely, so it worked. It worked. You never know. It’s kind of like an experiment, but it worked.

We have other people in other countries who are also part of our team – Vladimir Mikhalenko has worked with us on 15 expeditions. I first met him on an expedition to the Soviet Union before it fell. We went down to the Tianshan mountain range, the first American scientific group to go into that area, and when you go out in the field in these remote areas, you observe the whole team, and he stood out as a remarkable guy. And so we’ve made him part of our team. He’s been with us now, as I say, for 15 expeditions, and we call him, tell him where we’re going, and what part of the world we’re going to be in, and he meets up with us.

In creating this team, we also have a group of mountaineers that we’ve worked with down in Peru. I met these guys when they were just young guys when we were starting our Quelccaya program. We’ve worked with them on the logistics – remarkable people – and we work in South America, but then we take them also to the Himalayas, which, if you’re a mountaineer, you know, this is the Holy Grail, and so I think it’s worked out to be a win-win for all the people involved in our program.

We have people who sometimes visit us at these remote sites, and the thing that they always remark on is how quiet our drill site is because everybody knows their job; they know better what they’re doing than I know, and so there’s no need to yell out orders. We’re all working to get the job done, and I know everybody’s doing the best they can. They tend to be very pleasant drill camps, even though we’re in very harsh environments, and I think this comes from years of working together, and we understand the positives and the negatives that we all have. And it works.

To me it’s that team of people that makes it happen. In most research groups in today’s world, people are hired on 100 percent soft money – grant money. I refuse to do that. I tell the university if I’m going to hire someone, they’re going to put up 50 percent. Why? Because I believe if you make a commitment to people, they can make a commitment to you. And they deserve a commitment. And so I would say that the success of our operation proves that it’s a pretty good philosophy for operating a group.Part of it is you need to enjoy what you do, and I enjoy the challenge of putting together an expedition to one of these remote parts of the world, and making it happen.

And of course, we have remarkable colleagues who are parts of institutes in the countries where we work. In China Yao Tangdong, who’s the director of the Tibetan Plateau Research, was a student in our lab in the 1980s, and he’s worked his way up through the system in China. Actually I’m a co-director of this Institute – of academics – and the Chinese actually wanted me to move there. I thought about it because of the investment they’re making in science. I mean, if you think about what you could do, and there’s so much to be done in Tibet and that part of the world, but I think we came up with a very good compromise. Because of that, we also can get permits to get into areas that other people would have a hard time. It’s from building a trust. From 1984 when I first went to China, I’ve always said that what I want is to be invited back, you know? I want it to be a win-win, that everybody benefits from this activity. I think that has worked very well. I’ve also been extremely impressed by people in every country that I’ve worked with, people who step up to help us do things, and they’re not doing it for money. Sometimes all they want is a letter stating that they helped in making a program happen. Whether you’re working in South America, or over in Africa, there are a lot of really good people in the world, and we’ve been very fortunate to meet a lot of them on these expeditions.

Interviewer: Let’s talk about the ice. Why ice cores? Why is it a good record?

LONNIE: The first key to getting a good ice core record is in the site selection. The reason we drill at such high elevations is that we’re trying to get to the coldest place in those ice fields, and if you go up to where the temperature is below freezing, no melting occurs and you have the best archive of the parameters that we want to measure. Those parameters include things like isotopes, both hydrogen and oxygen, that make up the water in the snow and ice. Those are a proxy for temperature in these cores, and they can be used for the seasonality, measuring winter to summer, but also for looking at cold and warm, as you go back through time. We also look at dust, particularly for dating in the tropics, because you have a very distinct wet and dry season. In the dry season you get a dust layer, and often on these very high, cold glaciers, you can actually see that annual dust layer while you’re drilling, such that you can count back to 82 B.C. The other things that are recorded, of course, are pollen. You don’t see too much from the polar cores because vegetation doesn’t grow very close to the ice fields. But in the tropics, there’s a history of pollen, and again, for our pollen analysis in the core, we work with Kam-biu Liu down at Louisiana State. He was a post-doc here 22 years ago. We have continued to develop these records, and of course they’re very time-intensive, counting pollen, and coming up with these records.

They record things like anthropogenic changes. You can see when lead was put into gasoline. You can see when legislation was passed to remove it. Anything that’s in the air gets recorded. If you’re at the top of the Himalayas, you can see the development of industry in India through the nitrates and the sulfates that make up the chemistry in the cores. There’s a record with the ice cores. The thing that really makes them unique is that they record the history of the earth’s atmosphere. In the bubbles there is an archive of our atmosphere, and by extracting those gases, we can measure CO2 and methane, and nitrous oxide, CFCs, and you can see how the earth’s atmosphere has changed through time. We now have a record going back 650,000 years from the polar cores in Antarctica of these gases and that gives us a perspective of what’s natural and what’s not.

There is a history of things like micro-organisms; you know, if you want to look at life in extreme environments, then look at what’s living in the ice at 23,500 feet, a high radiation, low oxygen environment, and so we have been working on developing protocols of how you would extract that. these would be the same protocols you would use if you ever drilled the northern ice field of Mars. If I was looking for life on Mars, I’d be looking in the ice because it’s a very good recorder of what has happened in the past on any planet.

Some of the surprises, of course, are things like insects. You wouldn’t expect at 23,000 feet to find insects in the ice, but you do. In the tropics they get caught up in the thunderstorms; they get carried up to very high elevation. They come out in the snow and then they’re perfectly preserved. We find them 25,000-years-old. You can identify the insect, and you can then carbon date it – C14 date it. In the polar regions, people have been trying for years to extract C14 to independently date the cores. It’s very difficult to do. In fact, it hasn’t been done yet. But in the tropics, we have time series based on Carbon-14 dating, using insects and organics, plant remains, and things like that that get trapped in the ice.

The beauty of the ice is that it records so many different things about climate and environment, but it also records the forcings of climate, such as volcanic history, the sulfate in the tefra that come from the eruptions. We can look at the cosmogenic nuclides, like Beryllium-10, Chlorine-36 that are produced in the stratosphere due to modulation of the output of Sun, and therefore we can get a history of solar variations, which is very important in the natural forcings of the climate on the planet. We have a couple of post-docs now looking at organics, fire history. We know very little about the history of fires in the Amazon rain forest, but we do know that all these ice cores, the moisture comes from the tropical Atlantic, across the Amazon, and that record should be preserved. What is the natural burn history in the Amazon? Or in India, which would be recorded in the glaciers on the top of the Himalayas? I think there are a lot of different things that you could use this archive to address. You could look at pesticides coming out of China, coming through the dust, and being deposited in southeast Alaska. How has that changed? And how about fertilizer coming back through the atmosphere? How is that impacting things like growth of trees, which we also use to get a climate history. I think the beauty of the ice is that it records anything that’s in the atmosphere at the time that snow falls, and our limitation is just interpreting how that recorder is working for these various parameters.

Interviewer: Going on to the climate, what is the biggest question that scientists still haven’t answered about the climate?

LONNIE: I think that there are actually two things, I consider them extremely important. If you take any climate course, they’ll talk about the synchroneity of climate as you go from ice ages to warm periods, and they will argue that this is forced by eccentricity, 100,000-year cycle, but our records from the tropics suggest, indeed, this is not the case. In fact, if you read the old literature, back when they were first looking at the forcings – Milankovitch, you go back to look at Crowell’s work, back in 1896 or 1876 – he argued that glaciation on this planet should actually be asynchronous between the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere. Initially our records – our big records – came from the ice from Greenland and Antarctica, which are at the poles. And they show similar things. But when we started drilling in the tropics, the first core that we drilled had ice that was deposited during the last ice age – you know, 20,000 years ago, that came from Huascarán in the Andes of Peru, and there was a lot of excitement about it, because here you had isotopes, and you had chemistry, and you had dust deposited during the last ice age in the tropics – we were surprised ourself to find such old ice in the tropics.

But the question it raised from that early time was, okay, why is it only 19,000-years-old? You got through the early Holocene warm period; the ice is there now. And here you are in the last ice age and there’s no ice. So we’ve drilled these cores from different latitudes – from Huascarán we went south to Sajama. That record begins 25,000 years ago, and the same question is raised: Why is it only 25,000? I mean, these glaciers are frozen to the bed. It’s minus 9.6 degrees C. at the base of Sajama. Everything we know about the physics of ice is that if it’s below freezing, time cannot be removed. The only way you can remove it is to melt it. And yet it’s only 25,000-years-old. And if you go north – Kilimanjaro is 3 degrees south of the equator, 11,700 years at the base. That ice field formed during the current warm period. But the one that was the icing on the cake was the top of the Himalayas, because when we went to drill this site, we expected to find very old ice, because this is the highest, coldest place we had ever drilled outside of the polar regions, and the record starts 8,000 years ago. The thing that makes it so compelling is that we tried every measurement possible to show that there was glacial-stage ice at the base of this ice field. We did methane measurements — 178 methane measurements — all Holocene values.

Then we said, well, maybe there’s something unusual about this site, the flow of the ice, something different. So we went into the interior of Tibet to a place called Puruograngri – very remote, and there’s no roads in there. But there’s a beautiful ice cap. We drilled that and we drilled that in 2000, and it turned out that it’s layered like a cake, because every spring there’s sand dunes that actually lap up against the side of this ice cap, and that sand moves in the spring. Every spring you’ve got a dust layer, so when you drilled the cores you could see every layer, and that core dates back 6,400 years. It even had plant remains in it blown off of plants growing on the Tibetan plateau. We carbon dated those, and they are 6,000 years in age. So this ice cap formed in the latter part of the Holocene. But if you look at this distribution with latitude of the timing and the onset of the ice, what you realize is what you’re really seeing there is precession. It’s the 21,000-year cycle that impacts mainly the tropics, mainly water availability, and when you think about glaciers, there are two things they need: Temperature – but these mountains are so high and cold, even in today’s world, temperature is not an issue – but what they really need is water. And the water follows the inter-tropical convergent zone that follows precession. So as this moves north and south, these glaciers grow and shrink, depending on where they’re located. When we went back and looked at André Berger’s curves, where the timing of maximum radiation and the onset of growth, these are in sync.

To me it says that the climate system on the planet is not as simple as we have thought it to be. And we need to understand it better, and we can only understand it with high-resolution, well-dated records, be they from ice cores or other recorders that we have on the planet.

Interviewer: Milankovitch cycles are interesting, because we can use them to date when glaciers should have started to grow or shrink. Do they apply to the tropics?

LONNIE: Up until recently, on the summit of Kilimanjaro, the temperature was below freezing, and if you look at where it’s located – 3 degrees south – had it been located 20 degrees north, glaciation would have ended 6,000 years ago, when the water moved out of the Sahara Desert to the south. We generally think of climate in terms of temperature, but if you’re in the tropics, it’s all about water, and that makes life possible in those areas. If you go down through the Andes in today’s world, Sajama has a glacier on the top, but if you go south of there, there are mountains that are higher than Sajama that have no glaciers. They have no glaciers because there’s no water. But if precession – when precession brings the water into that area, then the glaciers will grow. I think the reason it’s never shown up in marine cores — in the isotopes of marine cores — is while they’re growing them in one hemisphere, they’re shrinking in the other. The net balance of input from these glaciers, in as far as the global water supply in the oceans, is balanced back and forth. So one of the big surprises is the ages of when this ice actually started to grow. We think we understand, at least in the big picture, what the drivers are, but then you have to realize these are on plateaus and mountain ranges, and there’s a lot of variability, depending on how close you are to the edge of the plateau and how much moisture is coming in; those type of things. But I think the big picture is probably correct.

Interviewer: So, many people depend on monsoons for their livelihood. Does that have an impact on your work?

LONNIE: We think that a lot of what we do in the tropics – understanding the natural variability of things like El Niños or monsoons — is extremely important in understanding what the potential impacts of variability in that system might be on this growing population in those sectors. One of the records from the Dasuopu ice cores from the top of the Himalayas records these huge monsoon failures, one of which was between 1791 and 1796. This shows up as an isotopic enrichment; an increase in dust solubles like chlorides, nitrates, sulfates. We also know that it’s in a time when there is a historical documentation of what was going on in India, and in India in 1792, in the north central part of India, 600,000 people starved to death because of crop failures in that part of the world. We also know that that same event impacted South America. It impacted San Francisco. It was a huge El Niño event, and the question is how often do those occur? The higher-resolution records that we have – these annual records – you have to have that in order to see short-term variations in a climate system, and the ice is one of those recorders.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years talking with historians and climatologists, and one of whom was Bill Quinn, who’s since passed away, but I first met him down in South America, and he was looking at the historical documentations of El Niños as recorded in newspapers, and documents, and reconstructing a history of that. But he also worked on the Nile River, and the Nile River has a long history of water levels, and we know those water levels are impacted by monsoons and El Niños. If you go back over 2,000 years ago, the records show that the oscillations in the El Niño were more like seven-year cycles, and the thing that makes the 1791 event interesting is it’s like one of those seven-year cycles that seemed to be more dominant 2,000 years ago. And so you know the history of the magnitude and the variability in that system and you need to have these high-resolution records to say that.

He even argued that Joseph – you know, who led the Israelis out of Egypt – that he had built one of the first “Nileometers” – that he was actually monitoring the Nile River discharge, and it may have been more from that monitoring, seeing the seven good years and the seven bad years of the fluctuation in the river that led him to make his prediction that, you know, came to pass. There are different modes in these systems, but how would we know if we don’t have these high-resolution records going back through time?

I think understanding the magnitude of that variability in the natural world is key to understanding what the future may bring as we are changing the climate system on the earth. I think that these records can play a very important role, and as far as our research goes, I’ve moved more into looking at a system that’s changing, and in many parts of the world, a loss of water supply as these glaciers disappear. I unfortunately don’t see any meaningful action being taken to reduce some of the impact humans are having on the planet, and so I think what we will have in many parts of the world will be that people are going to have to adapt. We need to find ways that we can come up with — engineering, dams, whatever — to replace the natural role that glaciers have played in providing water in times of dry seasons and during times of drought to these areas.

Interviewer: Let’s talk a bit about Kilimanjaro. What led you to change your research focus to look at future water supplies in the face of the diminishing ice cap there?

LONNIE: We first went to Kilimanjaro in 1999, but I first went to Africa in 1978, and I went to Mount Kenya, and took some shallow cores from a glacier there – 15-meter cores – which showed that after a couple of years, we were losing the record there because of melting. But off in a distance, I could see Kilimanjaro. At the time, the border was closed between Kenya and Tanzania. My feeling at that time was that the problem on Mount Kenya was that it was too low. And Kilimanjaro was 1,000 meters higher, so it would be colder. So if there was a place in Africa to get a record, it would be Kilimanjaro. It was not until 1999 that I made my way back to Africa and to Kilimanjaro. In 2000, we had a program to drill the ice cores from the remaining ice fields up there, and we also had aerial photographs flown, so that we could make a map of the ice on the mountain in 2000. It’s when we started comparing the results of that map with all the other maps that had been made from the mountain, going back to 1912, that you could really see the loss of ice that has occurred there. In 1912 there was 12.1 square kilometers of ice on the mountain; by 2000 there was less than 2.6 square kilometers. That’s over 80 percent of the area of ice on the mountain having disappeared, but what was even more telling was that if you’d line up the amount of ice with each map made in between, you got almost a straight line of decreasing ice. If you connect the dots, and you take it into the future, some time before 2020, all the ice fields on Kilimanjaro will be gone. And of course we will lose the record that’s archived in that ice.

So it became very clear that that ice is going to disappear, and that raises the issue of what’s the role of those glaciers in water supply for the people who live at the base of the mountain? It becomes even more important when you think about the future, because the current population in Tanzania is 37 million. By 2050, it’s projected to be 68 million. They’re having a hard time getting water now. What’s the future going to hold? One of the key questions is trying to answer how much of the water currently being consumed from the wells and the springs and the groundwater has made its way from the glaciers on the summit of the mountain versus from the rain forests at the lower parts of the mountain.

This year when we went back, part of our mission was to collect water samples from the wells and the springs for Ytterbium dating, and Carbon-14 dating chemistry isotopes, so that we can partition, hopefully, just how much of that water is old water, coming from a time when there was much more ice on the mountain, and how much of it is more recent water. The answer to that question will determine what needs to be done in insuring a water supply in that area in the future. There’s still the question of how and who would pay for it, but to me these are basic questions for planning for the future. And what’s happening on Kilimanjaro, of course, is happening throughout the Andes in South America, throughout the Himalayas, the source of some of the major rivers that supply water to huge amounts of populations. I believe that answering that question is important for Kilimanjaro, but it’s also important for these other areas of the world.

Interviewer: There still is discussion among scientists about whether or not there’s evidence for warming. And I’d like to have your take on that.

LONNIE: I think there are so many lines of evidence for warming from our global temperature records. You can cherry pick and find parts of the world which will not support that, but when you look at the balance of records out there, and look at them in an objective way, the earth is getting warmer. We have the temperature measurements. We now have the corrected satellite data, which shows that warming is taking place, but the thing that I find most telling is the ice itself. The glaciers figured this out long before we figured it out through our satellite observations. To me, the tropical glaciers are kind of our canaries in the coal mine. Having grown up in West Virginia hearing these stories in early childhood — you know, the fact that the canary died doesn’t have a real big impact on the miner, except to tell him to get out of the mine — and likewise, the loss of these tropical glaciers isn’t going to have a big impact on global sea level because there’s not that much ice in the tropics, but I think the fact that they’re all disappearing is very telling because the tropics are known for their temperature uniformity, especially in the mid-troposphere; the coriolis effect is non-existent in the tropics, so temperatures are disseminated very quickly. If you have an El Niño event, you get this warm water off the coast of South America. Within three months, four months after that water is at the surface, that temperature rises up into the mid-troposphere, and it’s uniformly distributed throughout the tropics.

The fact that every tropical glacier is retreating, and where we have time-lapse photography we can demonstrate that the rate of ice loss is accelerating, I think is our warning that the system is changing. And, you know, glaciers, they don’t have a political agenda; they just kind of sum out what’s going on out there, and they respond to it. They are giving us a very strong signal in the tropics, and of course, as time has evolved, we’re getting the same message from from glaciers at all latitudes, that the planet is warming. Some of the skeptics will look at a mountain like Kilimanjaro, and they say how do you know that it’s not land use changes? How do you know it’s not changes in moisture supply – droughts and the like? The answer to that is that it’s not just Kilimanjaro, it’s Mount Kenya, it’s the Ruwenzoris, it’s all the glaciers in the Andes of South America and throughout the Himalayas that are giving the same message.

So the confidence comes from this large scale of evidence that all points in the same direction. And so, when we look at not just the glaciers but we look at animal migration; we look at sea ice cover in the Arctic; we look at times of freezing of rivers, and our temperature records, our measurements of temperatures into the ground, and they’re all giving the same story, you know, we should be listening to these changes. To me, to any reasonable person who looks at the evidence out there, the earth is getting warmer, and we are losing these archives. There are people who say, well, you only say that because you want to increase your funding for what you do. And I say, no, I don’t need that. All I have to do is to show that the glaciers are disappearing, and we’re losing an archive. I don’t have to go the next step to say that humans are playing a role in that. They are disappearing; you could argue it was natural. But the fact is the archives are disappearing, and we should be retrieving them because they are our history of the past that’s being lost.

I think it would be irresponsible not to take the next step that we know from looking at all the evidence that we have out there. This includes the gas measurements from the air bubbles in the ice itself. Having that record that goes back 650,000 years, and knowing that CO2 in the natural world varies between 180-190 parts per million by volume during the cold periods when we have lots of ice on the earth, to 280-290 parts per million by volume when these glaciers retreat during the warm periods, and we’re now at 380 parts per million by volume; there is no analog in 650,000 years. The CO2 is rising at 2 parts per million by volume each year, how can we not be concerned about that, especially in that we can look at the other forcings. We can look at the volcanic history; we can look at the Sun, and in the last 20 years when we’ve set all these record temperatures, solar output has been going down, and we’ve even had some big volcanoes, which lead to cooling, like Pinatubo, and yet we’re setting record temperatures. And so it’s in looking at this huge system, and having the opportunity to work in 15 different countries and observe the glaciers — many times on an annual basis — to see how rapidly that change is taking place, that I think you have to be concerned about what you see.

Interviewer: Can you discuss a bit about the role China will play in the future of our climate?

LONNIE: In my class on sustainability, in order to get some kind of a handle on this, my students’ final project is to come up with a sustainability plan for China, because in my personal opinion, having worked in China for 25 years, as China goes, so go the rest of us. It’s not talking about India, which has a huge developing economy also, but to me China is at a tipping point. There was an article in The Wall Street Journal indicating that China has been reneging on a lot of their natural gas contracts, pulling out of multi-billion-dollar deals, because natural gas has got so expensive. But in an 18-month period that ended at the end of July of 2005, they had commissioned the building of 168 mainly coal-burning power plants. If you do the math, you know, that’s more than two a week, and these things aren’t online yet, but once they’re online, they’re going to be emitting for 30 to 50 years. 80 percent of the electricity in China comes from coal – from coal-burning power plants; in most countries it’s more like 40 or 50 percent, but because they have lots of it, it’s a cheap source of energy. Everything I know about human nature says they’re going to use it. The thing that they haven’t invested heavily in yet is all the refineries, the pipelines, the distribution network for petroleum, and if they chose to do a technological leap, they could become a leader in the new marketplace of the future. And they’re more likely to do it because they don’t have all that vested interest that we have already in our system.

I see it with the telephones in China. You know, cell phones were invented in the 1980s. They were marketed in the early 1990s, and in China, everyone has a cell phone. They totally bypassed the hardwiring, all the resources that would be necessary for that. So, I think there’s some evidence it can happen, but I also believe they’re at this critical threshold because of their growing economy. The average household income is now up to somewhere between $4,000 and $5,000 a year, and it’s at that income that people start thinking about buying cars. Unfortunately, in China, as the rest of the world, mainly because of our marketing, cars are a symbol of success and well-being. I’m not sure how it’s going to play out, but I do believe that they’re going to play an ever-increasing role in our climate system, because of the emissions that are going to be coming from that part of the world.

When I first went to China, it was right after relations were normalized between the US and China. I’d actually met with Chi-an Fong down in Australia three years before it was normalized, and we talked about ice caps in Tibet that had been seen in the distance, and the possibility of drilling them—and he was very keen on it. But up until the relations were normalized, there was no way to get in there. When I first went to Beijing, there were 2,000,000 people. They were mainly on bicycles, maybe even horses and carts downtown. I was over there in September 2005. The population is now 12,000,000. They have six ring roads around the city. People are driving Mercedes and Volkswagens and Toyotas and the bicycles are disappearing. You look around the skyline of any city in China and you see that the national bird is the construction crane. All these apartments are being built. They’re going to have refrigerators and hot water tanks and dishwashers and all requiring air conditioning, requiring electricity. And where is that electricity going to come from? A large part of it is going to come from coal, because that’s the energy source they control. So when you see the rate at which that change is taking place, it raises serious, serious issues of the resource base of the world, the global resource base. Can it happen? If every family in China had a car, China would have to have 80,000,000 barrels of oil a day. The world only produces 79, and it looks like it’s topping out; it’s likely never to produce more. And so if you look at this, and you look down the road, you can see the international tensions as these countries bid for the remaining supplies of fossil fuels. We have to go to these alternative energy sources. The question is just when are we going to do that? Having been to several energy conferences, it’s very clear that you have to make the investment, and then it’s usually 20 years before these things become commercially available. We should be further down that path than we are today. I think it’s an interesting time that we live in, and it’s going to be very interesting to see how these things play out.

Interviewer: What do you see 25 years from now in terms of tropical glaciers?

LONNIE: I think 25 years from now we will have lost a lot of the world’s crown jewels in these glaciers. They’ll just be gone. They’ll be in the textbooks; they’ll be in our freezer out here, but a lot of the tropical glaciers will be gone. The thing we don’t know is how rapidly they will disappear. I’m amazed at how much ice can disappear in a year. When you go back and you’ve got a wall that’s 30-meters high, and it’s retreated 300 meters; when you think about the energy that’s required for that to happen… You get into this positive feedback loop: as they get smaller, you’ve got more land surface exposed, more absorption of radiation in that immediate environment, which leads to more melting and so as they get smaller, they become more vulnerable. And so I think it will be quite a different world in 25 years.

Water resources will be a big issue. It’s already an issue in the Andes down in the Rio Santa Valley. There’s a hydroelectric power plant there that produces 100 percent during the wet season, and it drops to 20 percent during the dry season because the only water is coming from the glaciers. Every year those glaciers become smaller, and they become less of a water supply. What you have is a greater variability in the production of electricity, and of course their reaction to this is to build more fuel-burning power plants to make up for the loss of power on the grid. That leads to other positive feedbacks in the system. So I think it’s going to be quite a different world throughout the tropics. Having just come from Tanzania, they’re in the middle of a four-year drought. It’s even worse in Kenya and Uganda and those places to the north, but while we were there, the government was distributing food out to these rural areas. They were also rationing electricity, which is, of course, hydroelectric-produced. You realize how vulnerable we all are to rain, the availability of water, the availability of the right temperature environment for the crops that we grow, and my concern is the system may actually be capable of changing much faster than our models predict. Our models usually show gradual changes, but everything we know about the natural system says that it works on thresholds, and there have been abrupt changes in the past due to natural forcings. I see no reason why there can’t be abrupt changes due to human forcings as we go in the future.

Interviewer: Have you seen any signs of past abrupt climate changes in your ice cores?

LONNIE: Yes. We see events in the past, huge droughts. There’s one centered on 4,200 years ago that shows up – it’s the only dust layer in our Kilimanjaro ice cores. It shows up in South America in Huascarán. It’s the biggest dust event in 17,000 years; and the same time, if you look at the archeologists/anthropologists’ records from different parts of the world, you have the collapse of the Acadian culture at this time; in Egypt you had the collapse of the Old Kingdom, where they built the Pyramids and the like, and before the Middle Kingdom came into play. There are actually writings there on the pharaohs’ tombs — and those are very telling because it tells you something about human nature — because most of these writings, which were in hieroglyphics tell of the conquering, what this emperor was able to do, or the pharaoh except 4192 years ago, it talks about people migrating north and south looking for food, and sand dunes migrating across the Nile River. Then there were other writings of this time that were preserved that tell the same story. Then you get confidence in the recording. If you go to India, the Indus Valley, there were over 100 cities abandoned in this period of time. To me it’s telling because here’s an event that is recorded in many different cultures, and it was at a time before globalization, so that these cultures were pretty much self-sufficient and independent, and yet they all responded to this event. In today’s world, where we do have globalization, if something happens on the other side of the world, it impacts us and vice versa. I think we’re more vulnerable than they were 4,200 years ago.

There are other things that these glaciers record, like plants that are coming out at the margin of this retreating Quelccaya ice cap down in the Andes. These are wetland plants, and no woody tissue, perfectly preserved. They’re able to do DNA on these plants; I mean, they’re that well-preserved. Last year we had a couple of botanists with us to confirm that they were in growth position and haven’t been moved by the glaciers. They were captured, and they were captured 5,200 years ago, and it’s not like one plant. We now have 28 plants collected in different valleys and different sites, and all date from this period of time. The thing that is amazing – we found that the first plant by serendipity – I just happened to take a walk around the new lake that it formed, and there was an ice wall retreating, and at the base there’s this plant. It’s 2 meters across. It was very clear that if you knew what you were looking at, you could identify this plant, and so we collected it and dated it.

Since then, we’ve been looking at events around the world that occurred at this time: Oetzi, the Ice Man, came out in 1991. He’s 5,200 years old, and he’s in the northern hemisphere at the top of the Austrian Alps. They know a lot about this guy. He was shot in the back with arrows. He escaped his captors. He sat down behind a boulder at the top of the Austrian Alps and he bled to death. But what we also know is that shortly after he died, there had to be a huge snow event that was deep enough to bury him so that he was never exposed again until 1991, because had he been exposed, he would have been eaten, or he would have decayed. The lowest isotopic event in our Kilimanjaro record Is 5,200 years ago. You got to southern Israel and there’s this record there that the biggest isotope, and the only isotope event in the last 13,000 years, is 5,200 years ago, and it’s uranium-thorium dated. Trees from Ireland and England, where they have an annual record going back to 5,000 B.C., the narrowest rings would be 5,194 years ago in those trees. Here in North America, down in Florida, there’s a little salt spring that Emeliani published in Science back in 1979. Now the spring’s fresh water comes right to the surface, but back in the early Holocene, it was dry in Florida, and there was a ledge, and on this ledge people lived and animals came to drink. 5,200 years ago the water rose across this ledge, preserving the artifacts from these people. The artifacts have been carbon-dated, and they’re 5,200 years in age. Out in the South Cascades, Mark Meier, who’s a glaciologist, collected samples from rooted trees that were just exposed recently as the glaciers retreated, and they date 5,000 years before present. So this would suggest a very large-scale, abrupt event occurring at this time in the past, due to natural events that had huge scale impacts. We need to understand what caused that, because 5,200 years ago, there may have been 250,000,000 people living on the planet. We’ve now got 6.5 billion, most of then living in the latitudes where this abrupt event is recorded.

I think the natural system has had abrupt changes in the past, which just tells us that this system is capable of changing over a very short period of time, and we have been very fortunate that our civilization has developed over a time when we haven’t had large-scale changes in climate. But now, as we enter the 21st century, and we’re changing the composition of the global atmosphere; we’re changing the surface of the plant through our clearing, and we’re changing water resources. The human impact is so large in so many different ways, we couldn’t help but change the climate of the planet. I think we need to be concerned about thresholds. These more recent observations of the very rapid changes taking place in glaciers, the loss of that ice, I wouldn’t be surprised that we don’t look back 25 years from now, and see this as the beginning of an abrupt change taking place.

You wonder how it will be recorded? How would we see it? And then when we come back to the human side of it, you have to ask the question what’s the wake-up call that’s going to get the attention of politicians, companies, that could really make a difference here? It wasn’t the heat wave in Europe in 2003 that killed over 3,500 people. Maybe i because it was spread out over two months, it didn’t get the headlines. It certainly hasn’t been the hurricane seasons of the last two years. You always get into these arguments about it’s a natural cycle. This is where these archives, these annually-layered archives are so important for that perspective, so that you can come back and say, well, we know it’s unusual in the case of these plants coming out in the Andes. We know that ice cap hasn’t been smaller than today for over 5,000 years, otherwise these plants would have decayed.

We can put numbers on this, but the question is, once you put the numbers on it, does it make any difference? Do you change anything? It’s not clear to me that you do. Having worked all these years in China — and my daughter speaks and writes Chinese — I think it’s very interesting to look at some of the characters in China and look at the word “crisis.” In China, crisis is a small word, but there’s two characters for this word. It’s kind of telling, because this language is over 5,000 years old, the firstis wei ji. Wei, the first character, means danger. I think when you have a crisis – any type of crisis – it means danger. But the second part—Ji—is kind of interesting because it means opportunity, because with every crisis, you’re given an opportunity to make things better. Here in Ohio we have the Cuyahoga River and the science was very clear that this river was polluted for 15 years before it caught on fire, but when it caught on fire, that was the crisis that brought about action. No longer could we talk about it; we had to do something, and they did. Now there’s wall-eye and pike in that river. So it wasn’t it couldn’t be cleaned up, it’s just that the political will to do it was not there. If you look at the history of soil conservation in this country in the 1920s, Hugh Bennett was in Washington, and there were Congressional hearings on farming practices here and further west, and how they were flawed. This went on through the ‘20s, and when did we actually take any action? It was 1931 and Hugh Bennett was in Washington. There was a huge dust storm that came out of Oklahoma; 12,000,000 tons of dust fell in Chicago. His friend called him, and said this storm is coming. He delayed the hearing so that right in the middle of his presentation to Congress, the dust storm from Oklahoma hit, and the policy changed 180 degrees at that moment. But it wasn’t until it was a crisis, and it was right at their front door that the action took place.

Sometimes when I look at our current stance on the climate change, I’m not sure that we’ve changed. It’s more of a human nature issue than perhaps politics. But I think the thing that makes this so different is that these other things were local, or they were national, but when we talk about climate change and a crisis due to that – I mean, we’re talking about CO2 which has a resonance time of over 100 years in the atmosphere. If we behave as we have in the past and we wait for the first crisis, and you have to wonder what the size of that crisis would have to be before people would see the wake-up call, then we have built in a 100 years, or over 100 years of crises, one after the other, because it’s different. It’s also different because it’s an international problem. We’re talking about China and India; they have to be part of the solution, and we know how hard it is to get everyone on the same page on anything that’s international. I think that the past would say that we can make big differences, but we don’t do it generally until we don’t have any choice. It becomes clear to everyone, from the person on the street to your national leaders and international leaders, that you no longer can ignore this issue, and then I think we’ll do some really constructive things.

Interviewer: Can you tell us a bit about your expeditions to Quelccaya?

LONNIE: It turned out to be an excellent thing that things didn’t work as well as we naively had hoped in the case of Quelccaya, because it meant that we had a number of years of observation that took place, that wouldn’t have taken place had we just gone in and drilled. But when we first proposed to drill the Quelccaya ice cap, it was the first attempt at doing this, and I was actually kind of new to ice core work anyway. The idea was to bring a drill from Antarctica, and to use a helicopter and fly this thing up to the summit, and drill the core, put the cores in the helicopter, and fly it out. In 1978 I met with the pilots and the crew for a helicopter in Lima about flying a Bell 212 twin-engine helicopter to drill this ice field in 1979; I also talked to the manufacturer of the helicopter down in Georgia. 19,000 feet was the upper range of this helicopter, but it could do the job. But by the time we actually went down to drill in 1979, there was another crew assigned to the helicopter, and this is where the people become so important, whether something happens or doesn’t happen.

Nonetheless we flew the helicopter for 13 hours from Lima down on the coast, up through the mountain valleys, up to a little town of Sicuani. There’s no airports there, and so we brought the fuel in on a box car on a train in drums, and we staged this operation out of a little hotel in Sicuani. We flew early in the morning, and late in the evening when you’d have the least convective activity in the mountains, and we’d be flying along at 19,000 feet, and this helicopter would just fall like a rock, and it’s clear air, and the pilot’s eyes were big, (I’m sure ours were too) and after two attempts, they said there’s no way. We can’t even get close to that ice cap. I was really upset because we’d done our homework. They said they could do it, but they couldn’t. The drill was too heavy; the generator, there’s no way. You couldn’t break it down. There’s no way you’d get it on a horse, where it’s a two-day journey from the end of the nearest road to the ice cap. You just couldn’t do it.

So that year we sampled a crevasse. We went down 24 meters down a crevasse and actually published a paper in Science about El Niño record in these layers in the ice, but we failed in our mission to drill the ice field, and that’s when we came up with the idea of using solar polar. The beauty of that is that they’re panels, and you can put six panels to a horse, and you can transport your power supply to the edge of the ice, carry it up on the summit, assemble the array, and power your drill. We actually took some panels down, and found out they’d produce 20-30 percent above manufacturer specs at that elevation because you’ve got over half the earth’s atmosphere below you. That’s when we wrote the proposal to NSF about using this solar-powered drill, and we developed a new, light-weight drill to recover those cores. AWe were working with Bruce Koci, an engineer from Wisconsin. This is when Willi Dansgaard sent in his review of t this proposal, saying it’s too high for human beings and the technology doesn’t exist. Well, you know, he could have been right, but it turned out that that solar power was just beautiful.

Instead of one core, we drilled two, and so we were able to get one analyzed in Denmark for isotopes, and one analyzed at the University of Washington lab for isotopes. We did the dust and the chemistry or the liquid conductivity here, and then we brought it all together, but even as lacking as those measurements were, we couldn’t have chosen a better ice field on earth to do this, because the record was so straightforward. Sometimes I look back on it and I say had I chosen Kilimanjaro as a first place to drill, we would have been out of business, because I I didn’t have the experience and the knowledge that was necessary to know what we needed to measure in order to constrain the time scales. But Quelccaya was annually-layered. You could see it, and you could see it in the dust measurements, so it made a better choice.

Interviewer: Have you gotten all the returns that you had hoped for from studying tropical glaciers?

LONNIE: If you look at the Quelccaya, the driver there initially was: could you get a climate record out of tropical glacier? It hadn’t been done, and if you did, what would it look like? And as we pursued that, and pursued a way to get that record, we became more interested in things like El Niño, which has a huge impact in places like Peru. The economy plummets 30 percent during an El Niño year, and so it was clear that it had a social and an economic impact, and could we get a history of those events in the past? The answer to that was yes, once we got the core, that showed that archive was annual, 1,500 years of record from a place where we knew nothing. It was on that basis that we were able to argue that maybe we should look at some other places; maybe there are places where you could get longer records, but I’ve always erred on the conservative side of what was possible, and if you look at our grant proposal for Huascarán, I was hoping to get 4,000 years of records. I didn’t expect to get 19,000. I didn’t expect to get ice deposits during the last Ice Age in the tropics. No one did. That’s the beauty of science. you you can propose, but you don’t really know until you actually drill what you’re going to get. And the records have just continued to deliver. I’ve always argued that if you’re looking at the economics of science return for the dollars spent, we’re a bargain, because we drill in places where no one has ever drilled. The cost of drilling a tropical glacier is peanuts compared to drilling through Greenland or Antarctica. And so, yes, the return has just been tremendous. But when you think about it, if you go to a place where no one has gone, no one’s drilled, there are no records, then you’re going to find some really good science, and that’s the way it’s played out, time and time again. I’m getting ready, personally, for my fiftieth expedition to the southwest Himalayas, and I’m excited, because no one’s ever drilled out there.

Interviewer: I’m sure that many other people have asked you, what is your motivation for going up into the mountains?

LONNIE: I can tell you my first experience on the mountains was coming back from my first field program to Antarctica – Byrd Station, there was a mountain climber in our group, and he convinced me to climb Malte-Brun with him in New Zealand on our way back. Oh sure, I’m young, and let’s do it. You’re up at 3:00 in the morning, and you’re going up this mountain, and you climb all day, and there are two of us, and we’re belaying each other, and right on the top, I slip, and I go over this cliff, and I’m swinging on this rope, and my only purpose in going up there was to get to the top. I said, to him, God, if I ever get off of this rope, I’ll never climb a mountain for the fun of it. But I’ve climbed a lot of mountains since, and I’ve been told that I hold the world’s record for the amount of time a human being has spent above 18,000 feet, which is three and a half years of my life. But I’ve always had a purpose for going up there. And unlike mountaineers, I’m always looking for the simplest, the safest way we can get our crew up there and all of our equipment, because we have to move six tons of equipment to these mountain tops, but unlike a mountaineer, we set up camp, and we live there for six weeks or two months, and we bring 10 tons – 4 tons of frozen ice – back down, and so there’s a mission, there’s a purpose n doing that. I didn’t set out to spend all that time up there; it just was required by the job to get the job done.

Interviewer: How does it feel when you’re up there?

LONNIE: Oh, it’s spectacular! It can really be spectacular. Our drill sites are usually right on the border between China and a country to the south, whether it’s Nepal or India, and usually in the monsoons, you look out there’s this bank of clouds – and they come up, and they come over the top, and bring the snows up to your drill site at 7,200 meters. But there are days when that cloud disappears, and you can see down these valleys, and you can see the glaciers, and you can see this huge panorama out there of what the world looks like. And then at night – on a clear night –you look up, and you can see galaxies. because most of the atmosphere is below you. If you were at 7,200 meters, you’re at the 300 millibar level in the earth’s atmosphere, and it’s clear, and you can see your place in this big system, how small you are as an individual, or even how small the earth is. One of the most telling pictures that exists is when Galileo was leaving our solar system, and looking back, and here are all these planets, and there’s this one little blue one. And that’s where life as we know it exists. In the scale of things we can see this is a very unusual planet. For that reason I think it behooves us all to try and protect it and see that it can maintain life as we know it, because there are some really beautiful places out there, and I’d hate to see them lost because of the carelessness or greed of human beings.

Interviewer: Is there anything that you’d like to add that we didn’t ask you?

LONNIE: I think we’ve covered pretty much the gamut, but I would say that the thing that I try not to do with young people – you know, in a classroom — you don’t want them to be too discouraged. I think that we’ve got some big problems coming, but I do believe that humans are interesting creatures; they’re interesting in the knowledge that they can build and gain and learn, but I think they’re more interesting in their spirit – human nature. One of the things that I’ve learned in these expeditions, and why I am optimistic about the future is that our field teams are international; they’re Chinese; they’re Russian; they’re South American; and Americans. We go into a very remote part of the world, and we have a mission. When you go to 7,200 meters, it’s pretty cold up there. There’s not much air. You’re at the end of the food chain; the food’s coming through six camps, and even though they know that you need it on top, most of the best food doesn’t get to the top. And yet, under these very harsh conditions, we are able to come together, and accomplish a mission. I think that if you can do it in one of these environments to get an ice core to look at the climate, we can do it on a global basis, internationally, to save a planet, a way of life. I know it’s possible, and it’s just how do we get all on the same page to make it happen? There are all kind of cases for this. I look back at World War II. You look at the debates going on in Congress about whether we should enter, and Hitler is taking this country and that country, and he’ll stop after this – but there’s no action. There’s no action because we can’t do it. We lost 160,000 men during World War I. We can’t do anything. Then, Pearl Harbor, December 7. It changed. Suddenly, what was impossible, we couldn’t do anything, was no longer an option and we did.

Interviewer: One last thing: Why do you teach a class?

LONNIE: If you look at your own life, when you look back and you say why are you where you are now, usually, you can go back, and you can name a teacher that made that difference. I teach an undergraduate class in environmental geology, and we cover everything. I always think it’s a success if I have two or three students that want to change their field. I’m not sure it’s a wise thing for them to change their field, but that they were excited about the class, and what they learned. I also believe that if we had done a better job teaching our politicians, they wouldn’t have the opinions that they have. In a way, when you think about a university, and all the universities in the country, these people go through those universities, and they should learn –I believe every student should learn — the basics of the environment in which they live, and the need to protect it, and make sure that they’re at least informed when they have to vote on an issue, like sequestering carbons, that they have an informed opinion. And so education is about that.

But I also think that most of us don’t know exactly what we want to do with our life, and so I figure if I can motivate a few and they go on an make a difference out there, then that’s – that’s what a professor does. And so it’s kind of taking the information that we learn in the field, and – and I think sharing the excitement of science with undergraduates is very important. It’s probably even more important to share it with high school students, because I often feel that they’ve decided whether they’re going to go into science or medicine or business before they actually come to the university, and therefore, there – there’s already a selection process going on in which classes they’re going to take. So I look at all these – you know, outreach programs that these NASA and NOAA have, and – but I look back and I say, you know, when – when were there a lot of young people interested in going in science? It was during the time of Sputnik – you know, it was almost a national interest in science, and – and a lot of those people, you know, initially they’re young people; they want to go into rockets and – you know, space, but most of them never got there. They went into other types of science – biology, physics, whatever. But – but the motivation and the drive came from doing. I mean, it’s demonstration; you know, it doesn’t come from a textbook in my opinion. It comes from showing them the real world, and you know.

It’s a father of glaciology – Louis Agassiz, 150 years ago — he said,”Study nature and not books,” because where you learn what’s really going on out there, and science is the pursuit of what is the truth, and the – and often you see in politics, people for whatever reason or businesses, they choose not to look at the truth, but in the end it always wins. I mean, it always wins. They may delay it; they may keep the change from coming for – for some time, but in the end, you know, the facts always win out. I mean, I look at cigarette smoking. You know, the first Surgeon General report in 1965 about lung cancer and smoking; and then what happens? You have 28 years where the companies hire experts to deny a linkage, and that was going on even up to 1995 – companies hiring these people to say it didn’t exist, and in 1998 they settle with the Medicare programs of all 50 states for $251 billion for something they denied ever existed. And so, eventually it catches up.

And so, some people say, well, don’t you get discouraged when I’m going — talking to Congress, and public — and oil companies, fossil fuel companies? And I say no, not really. I think that all we can do is show what’s going on out in the real world, and give the best interpretation of that, and ultimately, I believe the change will come, and it will appear that it happened overnight, but there’s been a long period of building a base and to me, I’m part of building that base. And – and I’m hoping the change comes soon, because it’s clear to me, at least, that the change in the real world out there is – is accelerating. And I think the – what we need, and I think educational institutions need to be – and to have in place the – the structure that allows us to deal with these problems, because I’m convinced that adaptation is going to be – has to be part of the solution for the future, and we need to be positioning ourselves, and young people – students – so that they are able to help with that process, and – so, I think the – to me it’s – education is – it’s as much about inspiring young people. They’ll do the work, but they have to be inspired; they have to – and that motivation comes from within, you know? I think you hope you can light a spark, and make it happen, but it comes from within.

Series Directory

The Habitable Planet: A Systems Approach to Environmental Science 


Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in association with the Harvard University Center for the Environment. 2007.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-883-1