Racing Time On Oceania's Highest Peak

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News from the Earth Institute
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Core of the Matter

Mon, 07/26/2010 - 11:29

A final note (for now) on the expedition to recover ice cores from the top of Puncak Jaya in Papua, Indonesia: the cores arrived safely on Thursday, July 22, at Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar Research Center, and are now in a special freezer. In coming months, the team hopes to extract and interpret climatic histories from them.

In summary, we successfully recovered three ice cores from two peak locations at the Northwall Firn glacier, from June 9 to 23, 2010. At the Puncak Sumantri peak, we drilled to bedrock, recovering two cores 30 meters long each. At the Puncak Soekarno peak, we recovered 26 meters of ice, but we had to stop before reaching the bedrock, due to time constraints.

Scouting Mission

Scouting Mission

In addition to the difficult terrain, the other challenge turned out to be the weather, which underwent extreme, unpredictable changes in short times. We saw cold at night (as low as minus 14 degrees C) go to bright sun in the morning (2 to 8 degrees C), then to foggy conditions and torrential rain. Unpredictable high winds and lightning were also big concerns; in fact, more than one of our tents toppled due to high winds. During our two weeks on the ice, we saw snow four times, covering 3-5 inches each time. However, due to daily rainfall and above-freezing temperatures, the snow melted away in less than a day. Due to the high rainfall and above-freezing temperatures during the day, these glaciers are in fast retreat.

I am happy that I was able to camp safely on the ice for over a week–a lifetime achievement for me, as I usually work at sea level.

Ice on Ice

Thu, 07/08/2010 - 16:12

I have reached Jakarta, and so have the ice cores, which are being kept frozen while awaiting air shipment to the United States. The rest of the team has already returned to their homes. Next for me: back to sea level, on two research cruises that will add oceanographic information to the data we gathered on Puncak Jaya. Below: a section of core, straight out of the glacier.

 Dwi Susanto

Credit: Dwi Susanto

Video: Flying Over Puncak Jaya

Tue, 06/29/2010 - 17:19
Click photo to watch the video

Click photo to watch the video

This spectacular video takes you above Puncak Jaya and vicinity via helicopter, and into the ice camp. Created by videographers David Christenson, Greg Chmura and Ario Samudro, it was forwarded  by Scott Hanna of the Freeport McMoRan mning company, which provided heavy logistical support for the ice-coring mission (including the helicopter itself).

Click here to view the video.

Finished, as the Glaciers Fall Apart

Mon, 06/28/2010 - 11:05

We have finished our mission at Puncak Jaya and removed the ice cores, along with all camps and people from the field. Currently, we are in the coastal city of Timika for a few days, drying out our field equipment and tents. These are the first glaciers we have ever drilled where it rains almost every day–and as a consequence, the glaciers are falling apart.

 David Christenson/Freeport McMoRan

Credit: David Christenson/Freeport McMoRan

I think we have been just in time to salvage a bit of the climate history before these glaciers disappear. After two weeks of camping on the ice, the tents we installed were on raised ice platforms about 30 centimeters above the surrounding surface. This speaks volumes as to just how rapidly these glaciers are shrinking.  If that two-week period is representative of the annual process, we are talking about meters of ice being removed from the surface of these ice fields each year.

Next challenge will be getting the ice cores and equipment through Indonesian customs. If the journey in is any indication, this could take weeks.  The cores are now being stored in a freezer in downtown Jakarta.

Decline and Fall of a Glacier

Mon, 06/21/2010 - 10:56

The glaciers around Puncak Jaya have long been in visible decline. From 1936 to 2006, they lost nearly 80 percent of their area–two-thirds of that since 1970, according to a new paper by glaciologist Michael Prentice of the Indiana Geological Survey, who has long been interested in the area. Satellite images show that from 2002 to 2006 alone, the remaining ice decreased from 2.326 square kilometers to 2.152–a 7.5 percent drop.  Now, with researchers there, other signs have become obvious. Take a look at the pictures below of the Northwall Firn Glacier, about 2.5 kilometers from the summit of Puncak Jaya, taken by Paul Q. Warren, a geologist with the Freeport McMoRan company who has been helping plan and execute the ice-coring project since October 2008.

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.”)

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.”) (click to view enlargement)

At the first drill site, faults in the ice (black lines with arrows) are obvious. Here, the ice is cracking and moving, as the glacier shifts around. Such faults are common on alpine glaciers, but movement could  be hastened by the recent rapid melting. In analyzing these faults, Paul Warren has borrowed some terms from earthquake experts. According to him, most of the cracks are “thrust faults,” which means that older layers of ice have been thrust upward over younger ones. Others are so-called “normal faults,” where younger layers of ice have dropped below the older ones. Some faults were likely intersected by the coring (red line). It is important to know how the faults have moved, because their presence means that when studying the ice cores, one cannot simply assume that one is seeing the newest ice on the top and the oldest on the bottom. [click to view enlargement]

At the first drill site, faults in the ice (black lines with arrows) are obvious. Here, the ice is cracking and moving, as the glacier shifts around. Such faults are common on alpine glaciers, but movement could be hastened by the recent rapid melting. In analyzing these faults, Paul Warren has borrowed some terms from earthquake experts. According to him, most of the cracks are “thrust faults,” which means that older layers of ice have been thrust upward over younger ones. Others are so-called “normal faults,” where younger layers of ice have dropped below the older ones. Some faults were likely intersected by the coring (red line). It is important to know how the faults have moved, because their presence means that when studying the ice cores, one cannot simply assume that one is seeing the newest ice on the top and the oldest on the bottom. (click to view enlargement)

The Ice Cores

Fri, 06/18/2010 - 13:21

Maybe the most difficult thing about ice cores comes after the actual drilling: then you then have to get them out and transport them long distances, and make sure they don’t melt. Otherwise, all that work was for nothing. Here are some images showing how we handle them initially. (Courtesy David Christenson/Freeport McMoRan)

Once removed from the drill, sections of core are enclosed in plastic bags, labeled with the relevant data on location and depth, and slipped into tubes.

Once removed from the drill, sections of core are enclosed in plastic bags, labeled with the relevant data on location and depth, and slipped into tubes.

Cores are stored in freezer boxes onsite, then slung by helicopter down the mountain.

Cores are stored in freezer boxes onsite, then slung by helicopter down the mountain.

The helicopter passes base camp, well below the summit, on its way down

The helicopter passes base camp, well below the summit, on its way down

The first cores arrive in the town of Tembagapura, and are loaded into insulated boxes, lined inside with frozen cold packs.

The first cores arrive in the town of Tembagapura, and are loaded into insulated boxes, lined inside with frozen cold packs.

The boxes go into a big freezer Tembagapura

The boxes go into a big freezer Tembagapura

The boxes will remain in the freezer until we finish all the drilling. Then, they all go via freezer truck to another freezer in the lowlands until a flight is ready in the city of coastal Timika to fly them back to Jakarta. From there, if all goes well, the cores will be flown directly to Ohio State University for analysis and permanent storage.

The boxes will remain in the freezer until we finish all the drilling. Then, they all go via freezer truck to another freezer in the lowlands until a flight is ready in the city of coastal Timika to fly them back to Jakarta. From there, if all goes well, the cores will be flown directly to Ohio State University for analysis and permanent storage.

The helipad team in Tembagapura. This whole operation would never take place without the constant support of these, and many other dedicated people.

The helipad team in Tembagapura. This whole operation would never take place without the constant support of these, and many other dedicated people.

Images of Ice Drilling

Fri, 06/18/2010 - 13:20

Here are some photos of the ice drilling, and the site where we are working. All come courtesy of David Christenson, Greg Chmura and Ario Samudro, the video/photography team from Freeport McMoRan, which has been helping us with all phases of logistics.

 Team member geoscientist Keith Mountain of the University of Louisville.

The drill, powered by a generator, contains a hollow-bit tip. This is followed by sections of pipe that allow us to pull up cores of ice as the bit penetrates—much like drilling an oil well (but without the same problems). On left: Team member geoscientist Keith Mountain of the University of Louisville.

Working the drill site

Working the drill site

By midmorning nearly every day, fog socks in the drill--then, in midafternoon, fearsome lightning storms regularly move in. Thus, for safety, we evacuate the site every day at 2pm.

By midmorning nearly every day, fog socks in the drill--then, in midafternoon, fearsome lightning storms regularly move in. Thus, for safety, we evacuate the site every day at 2pm.

The site before weather moves in; note the crevasses

The site before weather moves in; note the crevasses

A further view

A further view

On the way back to our camp, the crevasses require careful steps

On the way back to our camp, the crevasses require careful steps

The video/photography team. On left from left, Greg Chmura and David Christenson; right, Ario Samudro and David Christenson.

The video/photography team. On left from left, Greg Chmura and David Christenson; right, Ario Samudro and David Christenson.

Team member Vladimir Mikhalenko of the Russian Academy of Sciences, a veteran of many such expeditions, logs his notes for the day.

Team member Vladimir Mikhalenko of the Russian Academy of Sciences, a veteran of many such expeditions, logs his notes for the day.

The Landscape We Are Up Against

Thu, 06/17/2010 - 11:12

We have drilled a second core through the ice to bedrock, and are done at our first site. Unfortunately, the helicopter that we need to move the heavy pieces to our second planned spot is down for regular maintenance until next Monday, June 21. That means the team must wait it out at the relatively sheltered “saddle camp” until then.

Here are two spectacular pictures, taken from the helicopter, of the landscape we are up against.

Lower left is our camp; those tiny orange dots are the tents. Our first drilling site, now done, is top center. (click to view enlargment). Four-photo mosaic panorama by Paul Warren, PT Freeport Indonesia.

Lower left is our camp; those tiny orange dots are the tents. Our first drilling site, now done, is top center. (click to view enlargment). Four-photo mosaic panorama by Paul Warren, PT Freeport Indonesia.

This shows our camp and first drill site (left) in context with the second planned drill site (right). Now you see why we can’t just hike over there with the equipment. (click to view enlargement). 13-image mosaic panorama by Paul Warren, PT Freeport Indonesia.

This shows our camp and first drill site (left) in context with the second planned drill site (right). Now you see why we can’t just hike over there with the equipment. (click to view enlargement). 13-image mosaic panorama by Paul Warren, PT Freeport Indonesia.

Drilling the Glacier to Bedrock

Mon, 06/14/2010 - 15:52

Yesterday we completed our first ice core at the Northwall Firn Glacier, down to bedrock, penetrating 30 meters through the glacier, until we hit bottom. The ice seems to contain visible layers all the way down–a sign that yearly accumulations have been preserved, instead of melding into each other. This means we should be able to extract a good climate record from this ice. There also appears to be some organic matter near the bottom, which could be carbon-14 dated to establish age.

The first 23 meters of core were immediately slung out by helicopter, stored in a special box, and delivered to a freezer in Tembagapura, the nearest town down the mountain.

Today, the team completed another 18 meters of coring in a second location near to the first core. (We drill two cores near each other so that we have duplicates with which to verify our data.)   We hope to fly more ice out tomorrow, pending good weather.

Photos here courtesy of David Christenson/Freeport McMoRan.

The ice drill is in the tall tent to right; you can see the pipes we use, just outside.

The ice drill is in the tall tent to right; you can see the pipes we use, just outside.

Fueling the drilling generator

Fueling the drilling generator

Our camp between the two domes of the Northwall Firn Glacier

Our camp between the two domes of the Northwall Firn Glacier

Diesel powers the generators—but the cook fuels the camp

Diesel powers the generators—but the cook fuels the camp

Finally on Ice

Fri, 06/11/2010 - 11:08
Camping on the Northwall Firn Glacier.

Camping on the Northwall Firn Glacier.

With the blessing of two wonderful days of clear weather, all our equipment was moved into place this morning. The ice coring can now begin. We anticipate finishing the drill assembly today and drilling by mid-morning tomorrow at three sites on the Northwall Firn glacier: the two “domes” and the saddle, where the team will look for ice-filled crevasses with sonar while the first dome is being drilled.

All that will remain after this is the simple matter of getting the ice from this glacier back to our freezer facility in Ohio without melting. (And this is not a simple matter!)

Photos here are courtesy of Scott Hanna and David Christenson of Freeport McMoRan.

A view from the glacier.

A view from the glacier.

The warm morning sun beats down on these retreating glaciers.

The warm morning sun beats down on these retreating glaciers.

Freezers hoisted on to the glacier, powered by generator, will keep our ice cores frozen until they can be transported to a large freezer in Tembagapura.  We will use a large plastic container, normally used in mining operations, to hold the cores.

Freezers hoisted on to the glacier, powered by generator, will keep our ice cores frozen until they can be transported to a large freezer in Tembagapura. We will use a large plastic container, normally used in mining operations, to hold the cores.

Setting up camp.

Setting up camp.