The following is excerpted from NG (Jan 2013, p. 62):
Lonnie Thompson has been climbing to mountaintop glaciers from Peru to China for the past 38 years, pulling crucial climate data from deep inside the ice. A glacier that’s hundreds of feet thick can contain thousands of years of information: layers of snow and dry-season dust. Some say Thompson has spent more above 18,000 feet than anyone alive–1,099 days, at last count. His data show the planet is warming at a historic rate. As a result the ice is melting–and his vital, dangerous work is taking on new urgency. Thompson heads next to Tibet, where he believes he’ll find the oldest ice on the planet, perhaps going back a million years.
Lots of people climb to above 18,000 feet. But you stay for weeks on end. When we drilled on the glacier Dasuopu in the Himalaya, we were up there for six weeks, at 23,500 feet. Climbers don’t do that.
You must run into challenges. Getting six tons of camping and drilling equipment up to 23,500 feet is one. Lightning is another. I mean, you’re up there with this drill that’s basically the world’s highest lightning rod. I’ve had lightning come down ten feet in front of me. And of course you have avalances. Huge storms. Wind. You can be pinned down for three or four days. or blown away. I feel fortunate to have made it to 64 years old.
You had a heart transplant last year. Would I have the heart problems I have, had I not climbed so many mountains? It’s unknowable. My dad died at 41 from a heart attack, and congestive heart failure is genetic. Maybe I’m living longer because I climb mountains.
Why do you keep working? When I go back to Quelccaya in Peru, where I’ve been 26 times, it’s like visiting a patient dying of cancer. You know there’s no hope; you can only watch it shrink away. So my work has become a salvage operation–to capture history before it disappears forever.
You’ve said data alone won’t change human behavior. It’s human nature to deal only with what’s on our plate today. When people lose their houses or crops to fire, droughts, tornadoes–when they lose everything they’ve worked for–they’ll say, Whoa! What’s going on here? And that’s already starting to happen. At some point the discussion will change very rapidly. It’ll seem like it happened overnight.