GUY RAZ, Host:
Earlier this summer, a group of scientists spent two weeks in Indonesia atop the only glacier between the Himalayas and the Andes. They were taking samples of ice cores to find out the effects of climate change on that glacier.
Lonnie Thompson, a professor of earth sciences at Ohio State, led the team and what he witnessed there shocked him. While they were there, the glacier was literally melting under their tents. It receded about 12 inches.
The group is now back in the U.S. They're studying the ice cores for clues about past weather patterns and the future of how climate change may affect that part of Asia.
Lonnie Thompson joins me from the campus of Ohio State now.
Welcome to the program.
LONNIE THOMPSON: Thank you, Guy.
RAZ: So I gather you never expected to witness, I guess so dramatically, the melting of the glacier. Can you describe what it was like up there?
THOMPSON: We've conducted 57 expeditions around the world. And this is the first one where we actually experienced rain on the glacier every day. And rain is probably the most effective way that you can move energy from the atmosphere to the ice surface and consequently cause the ice to melt.
So it's the first place where you could actually see, over a very short period of time, the surface actually lowering around you. My tent, when it was taken down, was actually - there was a plateau of ice that it was setting on because the tent protected the ice underneath from the rain.
RAZ: And I've seen some photos of your campsite, which our listeners can actually see at our website, npr.org. Tell me a bit about this glacier. It's the only one between the Himalayas and the Andes. It's a tropical glacier in Indonesia. How important is this glacier for researchers?
THOMPSON: Well, it's located about 4 degrees south of the equator. It's the only glacier that is on the western side of the Pacific warm pool, the warmest waters on Earth.
And so, for looking at the history of things like El NiÃ±o, it's a wonderful location. Unfortunately, that glacier is going to disappear in the next few years.
RAZ: Are you getting a sense, based on your samples, of when this glacier will disappear entirely?
THOMPSON: If you look at that 12 inches or 30 centimeters that was lost over that two-week period, if that is anything that's representative of the annual ice lost on these glaciers, you're looking at losing over 7 meters of ice in a year. So you could lose those glaciers in as little as five years.
RAZ: What about the environmental impact of the glacier's lost?
THOMPSON: There's very small. If you look at the total ice coverage on the mountain today, it's about 1.7 square kilometers of ice. Since the turn of the century, the glaciers on Papua have lost about 91 percent of their area.
Part of our mission was to salvage, collect the record before it disappears so we have a history from that part of the world. And we also store part of those cores in our cold rooms here in Ohio State, because we know that 20 years from now, there'll be new technologies, better understanding of the climate system. But there's not going to be ice to drill.
RAZ: This is what you study. I mean, I guess you kind of expected it. But did it, in any way, alarm you?
THOMPSON: Well, I think it does. And as much as that often, when we look at what's happening to ice on the planet, we look at the area of ice and we use satellites because these areas are so difficult to get into.
The problem with the satellite or aerial photography is you don't see the vertical thinning that's taking place. And consequently, there will come a year in the future that there'll appear to be a glacier based on the area of ice, but it will disappear the next year because of the thinning from the top down. And to me, that's very sobering.
RAZ: That's Lonnie Thompson. He's a professor of earth sciences at Ohio State. Earlier this summer, he led a team of researchers to the top of one of the last tropical glaciers in the world to study the effects of climate change. He joined me from member station WOSU in Columbus.
Lonnie Thompson, thank you so much
THOMPSON: Thank you, Guy.