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Scientists on hunt for climate-change clues explore rare tropical glacier

A team of scientists is climbing Indonesia's tropical glacier, Puncak Jaya, to dig out ice cores and study them for past patterns of climate change. They will also study samples from China, Peru, and Kenya.

By Correspondent / June 14, 2010

Bangkok, Thailand

Indonesia’s towering Puncak Jaya mountain straddles one of the world’s richest and most inaccessible gold and copper mines. But the scientists currently prospecting on the 16,000-ft peak are digging for a different kind of treasure: fragile ice cores that can yield clues to the climatic past and give pointers on the future.

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Jutting up from the island of New Guinea, which is split between the Indonesian province of Papua and the independent nation of Papua New Guinea, the mountain’s slopes hold some of the only tropical glaciers in the world. Scientists study ice cores as a proxy for climatic data stretching back thousands of years. The data can be used for climate modeling to understand how natural cycles work and to predict the impact on manmade warming on temperature and precipitation.

In pictures: Disappearing glaciers

For Lonnie Thompson, an alpine glaciologist at Ohio State University and a leading authority in the field, climbing Puncak Jaya completes a longtime ambition. Speaking Friday by phone from the expedition’s campsite 120 meters below the peak, he said it was a race against time as a warming planet was already taking its toll on the ice.

“It’s melting and retreating very quickly. We want to capture its history while it’s still possible,” he says.

The six-person expedition team includes Indonesian oceanographer Dwi Susanto of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO), who studies the Pacific Ocean and the El Nino system that brings either drought or rainfall to Indonesia. The ice-core data can complement other proxies of oceanic temperature oscillations such as seabed samples and tree rings.

Thompson says the team, which arrived last month in Indonesia and scaled the peak earlier this week, had drilled down 16 meters on the first day. Over the weekend they hoped to dig as deep as 40 meters, using extendable drill bits only 100 mm thick, and to wrap up their expedition by the end of the month. (Follow the team’s expedition on its blog.)