Indonesia's Puncak Jaya, earth's highest island peak and the tallest mountain between the Andes and the Himalayas, holds the last glaciers in the tropical Pacific. Ancient ice from such high, frozen peaks lets scientists examine past climates and understand mechanism of possible future climate changes--but with alpine glaciers melting, retrieving samples is a race against time, as well as against the dangers of extreme altitude. This month, an expedition co-organized by glaciologist Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University and oceanographer Dwi Susanto of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scales Puncak Jaya to drill out ice cores that may go back hundreds, or thousands, of years. Follow Susanto’s reports from the field here
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.