Pioneering Glaciologist Sets Sights on Another Big One

ENSO--the El Nino-Southern Oscillation--plays a huge role in governing short-term climate fluctuations from Peru to India. Accordingly, how it is being affected by climate change is one of the really big issues in ocean-atmospheric science. Hoping to cast light on that issue, the pioneering glaciologist Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University and Dwi Susanto of Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Observatory are getting set to head for Indonesia's Puncak Jaya, the highest mountain between the Andes and the Himalayas and the world's highest island mountain, period. They will take ice cores, whose annual "rings" will tell them how much precipitation fell in any given year, while changes in the isotopic composition of the water record yearly changes in temperature.

The cores may also contain, says Columbia's Earth Institute, pollens, volcanic ash, wildfire soot, plant debris, insects, and other animals--including possibly human remains.

Thompson, the first scientist to ever take cores from tropical mountain glaciers, has in the last four decades explored many such glaciers all over the world, including on Africa's famed Mt. Kilimanjaro; he is a leading authority of the Himalayan glaciers, a subject of especially intense controversy of late. Generally tons of equipment have to be carried up mountains and back, a challenge that has stimulated technical and logistical innovations.  Susanto, says Columbia, "has focused on studying how ENSO affects the gigantic, highly changeable flow of Pacific waters through the torturous straits formed by Indonesia's 17,000 islands into the Indian Ocean, and how this in turn links to changing climate. Studies by Susanto and others. . .have shown that during the cold, or La Nina phase of ENSO, the so-called Indonesian throughflow may increase 10 times over."

On this expedition, Thompson and Susanto, having brought four tons of equipment to the top of Puncak Jaya, plan to drill six 100-millimeter cores to bedrock. The cores will be shipped to Thompson's ice laboratory at Ohio State for analysis. Progress with work can be followed on the expedition's blog.

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