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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.

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The extracted ice cores are laid flat in three customized freezers, to be airlifted out later by helicopters provided by Freeport McMoRan, the US-based company that operates the nearby Grasberg mine and is assisting the team. The expedition is also supported by Indonesia’s Meteorological, Climatological and Geophysical Agency. The expedition was delayed for a week when several pieces of equipment were left behind at customs in Jakarta, including essential drill bits.

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The final challenge for Mr. Thompson, who led a similar expedition last year to the Peruvian Andes, will be to ship them back from equatorial Indonesia to Ohio State where they will be stored at -30 degrees C. His other samples include ice from peaks in China, Peru, and Kenya’s Mount Kilimanjaro, another tropical glacier.

Puncak Jaya is blanketed daily in fog and rain, as well as lightning storms that pose a risk to the drillers. Thompson says he wanted to stay as long as it takes to get the best samples, probably a few more days. The cores extracted Friday contain compacted animal and plant matter and other substances that record atmospheric changes, as well as the isotopes of the frozen water, all essential to reconstructing the complex climatic patterns of the western Pacific.

“This is the first time [drilling Puncak Jaya], and I guess it will be the last time,” he says, referring to the shrinking ice cover.