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Last Indonesian Glacier Under Threat

July 2, 2010

American glaciologist Lonnie Thompson has spent decades on glaciers drilling ice cores and has never come across a situation that is now occurring on top of Puncak Jaya — a three-mile high glacier located in the Sudirman Range in the western central highlands of Papua province, Indonesia.

Thompson had hoped to chronicle the affect of global warming on the last remaining glacier in the Pacific. But what he found has worried him even more. As he set up camp he could hear the ice melting beneath him.

The glacier was pounded by rain every afternoon during the 13-day trip. The nights were spent listening to water gushing below him.

In the two weeks he spent on the glacier, ice had melted around their sheltered campsite a shocking 12 inches.

“These glaciers are dying,” Thompson, one of the world’s most accomplished glaciologists, told the Associated Press (AP). “Before I was thinking they had a few decades, but now I’d say we’re looking at years.”

Thompson has led more than 55 such expeditions to 16 countries around the globe, from China to Peru. But the Papuan glaciers, because they lie among the fringe of the world’s warmest ocean and could provide clues about regional weather patterns, were considered an unexplored “missing link.”

It is this region that generates El Nino disturbances and influences climate from India to the Amazon.

Glaciers around the world are retreating, with major losses already seen across Alaska, the Alps, the Andes and other ranges. But, because so little is known about the Puncak Jaya glacier and how it may affect weather patterns, it is very important to study it now.

Research permits are difficult to secure in Papua, mainly because Indonesia’s government is hugely sensitive to the region’s long-lasting insurgency. The country prohibits foreign journalists and humanitarian groups are restricted.

Along with the team was four tons of equipment, including winches, cables, monitoring equipment, camping gear and boxes to preserve ice core samples, which will eventually join more than 200,000 feet of tropical cores being kept in cold storage in Columbus, Ohio.

There, glaciologists study the ice layer by layer. They are able to count down through the years by measuring flecks of dust that fall seasonally and adhere to the ice. Oxygen isotopes, in small air bubbles trapped in the ice, vary with temperature helping researchers understand how ancient weather shifted.

“I just hope we weren’t too late,” Thompson told AP, adding that in addition to melting from the top, water likely seeped in to the base of the glacier, tampering with history and leaving them with limited records from a period of time.

Thompson of Ohio State University, who co-coordinated the expedition with Dwi Susanto of Columbia University, said they do think they will be able to salvage at least some climate history, though, since the ice cores did have “horizontal layers all the way through.”

The team expects to find records of past volcano eruptions, soot from wildfires, plant debris and possibly even some animals frozen in time.

Satellite images have shown the glacier in rapid retreat over a long period. The mountain has lost nearly 80 percent of its ice since 1936. Nearly two-thirds of that vanished since the last expedition to the mountain in the early 70s.

Thompson says temperatures could be rising twice as fast in the higher altitudes as at the earth’s surface. If this is true, then it could have dire implications on people who depend on glaciers for water during the dry season, such as in the Himalayas.

During the 1971 expedition to Puncak Jaya, Geoffrey Hope, a professor at Australian National University had a much different experience on the glacier.

“The roof of our tent fell in on many evenings due to the weight of the snow,” he recalled, “and all water coming from the glacier would freeze by 8 p.m. each night.”

Although, he noted that Papua has the wettest mountain region in the world, and the high precipitation levels that Thompson’s expedition encountered didn’t come as a great surprise.

Image Caption: This meltwater lake has formed on the surface of the glacier””a possible portent of quickening destruction. For one thing, liquid water tends to absorb more heat than does snow or ice, which reflect energy. Once a pond forms, it can become a hot spot that eats away everything around it–and indeed, you can see how this one has drilled down through layers of ice. Eventually it will hit the rock bed of the glacier. There the water may flow into and lubricate the bed causing the glacier to slide downhill faster. The water may then find its way to the glacier’s edge, forming a drain of running water that will help consume the ice from the bottom. (Paul Warren calls this picture “the ice jacuzzi.”). Credit: The Earth Institute, Columbia University

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