Race to the Top: The Last Glaciers of Indonesia


By Ashley Thompson
Fall 2010


Lonnie Thompson has extracted ice on the verge of meltdown worldwide. He's collected samples from the Dasuopu Glacier in Tibet, witnessed shocking rates of ice melt atop Mount Kilimanjaro, and ventured high into the Peruvian Andes to the ice cap of Quelccava. Thompson performs research that few scientists, if any, before him have dared to attempt, and he does so with the knowledge that these rapidly receding glaciers provide regional history of climate, as well as a glimpse into the climatic future. But there was one mountain, one place, whose lure he could not quell for some 35 years.

Indonesia's Puncak Jaya, jutting 4884 meters – over three miles – above the Pacific Ocean, on the island the country shares with Papua New Guinea. Atop the mountain rest the only remaining glaciers in Oceania. And they're melting at a rate faster than Thompson had predicted. Before his trip last summer, he worried he may have been forced to wait too long, and worried that pounding rain and increasing temperatures might muddle an accurate climate record dating back thousands of years.


Photo 2: Glaciers atop Puncak Jaya, about to be sampled.

Indonesia is a country of some 17,000 islands, 2,000 of which sit directly in the path of rapidly rising seas. Inundation could become of paramount concern by as soon as 2030. In the year 2009, concerns about climate change finally won out over political unrest after several denied requests. Thompson and his team were granted research permits to drill into the ice field, which sits within a protected national park. They arrived this May.

He took a series of preliminary test flights over the region last year. The ice field appeared healthy. It wasn’t going anywhere just yet. He breathed a sigh of relief that the decades of waiting hadn't marred the possibility of obtaining a climate history in this region of the world that has been rather understudied until now. Successfully obtained ice cores from these glaciers would provide reconstructed histories of El-Nino-Southern Oscillation and the Austrial-Asian Monsoon from the western side of the Pacific Warm Pool. Records can be compared to those obtained on the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean to better understand climatic processes such as El-Nino.

Thompson and his team, co-led by Lamont-Doherty’s Dwi Sustanto, benefited from the assistance of Freeeport, a U.S. mining company operating on the mountain. Logistical difficulties included airlifting some six tons of radar and drilling equipment – once it showed up. Thompson shipped 109 containers to New Guinea, of which only 100 were initially located. In the nine missing containers were the drills themselves, which led to a criss-crossing adventure with Freeport’s Scott Hanna throughout Indonesia, island-hopping until they were at last uncovered in Abuda Airlines’ warehouse, in a dark corner. “It was like Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Thompson recalls.

Once the proper equipment was in place back at the camp site, the process of extracting near-bedrock ice cores began. Thompson came in with a goal of obtaining four ice cores. The team ended up with three, measuring 32, 30, and 26 meters in length. Two were drilled to bedrock. The team also collected rainfall from around the island for isotopic measurements, and they placed a 30-meter stake on the bedrock in order to measure annual ablation rates. During their two weeks of camping on the ice, 30 centimeters of ice melted. At an annual rate, that is 7 meters of ice loss per year. For an ice field that’s just one-square-mile wide and 32 meters deep, this means the end is near. “Our mission was a salvage mission,” Thompson said.

From a scientific standpoint, these numbers are both frightening and staggering. Tropical glaciers act as a sort of canary in the coalmine for the future of the planet. But a different sort of fear and dismay exists for local communities whose ties to the ice go deeper than bedrock.

Toward the beginning of their 13-day stay on the ice, some 100 Amunges, one of four indigenous groups who claim the ice field, confronted Thompson and his team. “They would line up and yell at us at the top of their lungs. The locals certainly don’t recognize such things as Indonesian permits.” The scientists were in their territory, and they wanted to know what they planned on doing. With the help of a translator, Thompson learned that their main fear was that they were working for Freeport to establish a mining field. Once those concerns were put at ease, a second cultural clash became clear. In the Amunges’ religion, Puncak Jaya is a sacred mountain and represents the body of their god. The retreating glacier is the skull of this god. “For them, the loss of glacier means losing part of their soul. We explained we were trying to understand why it was disappearing,” Thompson said. Nearly five hours later, relations were somewhat restored, and the drilling continued.


Photo 3: A helicopter carrying ice core samples passes base camp, well below the summit, on its way down

The whole scenario reminded him of a scene out of Avatar. Science and culture often don’t understand each other, especially across borders. It reminded Thompson and others of the real mission at hand. The projected displacement and dwindling water supply in the world’s thirstiest regions, as well as the cultural and spiritual ties to the endangered glaciers, are all at risk of being disrupted or lost as a result of climate change. Thompson is particularly adept at removing himself from a strictly scientific mindset and works to engage locals on science education and involvement in research wherever he goes. He is currently working with Indonesian graduate student Donaldi Permana to study the ice cores. Permana is a second-year masters student in geology at OSU, and one of two students who “got this golden opportunity” to work alongside Thompson and other faculty at Byrd Polar Research Center as part of an exchange between OSU and the Indonesian Meteorological, Climatalogical, and Geophysical Agency. Besides the academic bolster such international exchanges provide, Permana sees benefits in engaging locals for other reasons.

“It is important to involve local people in the scientific process,” Permana said. “People will have a better understanding of climate change science if the data come from their own regional area, so that they can see the changes by their own eyes.”

Permana and other researchers will use key layers to date the horizontal layers, such as thermonuclear bomb layers and ash from volcanic eruptions that are documented in history, as Indonesia lies along the Ring of Fire. In preliminary tests, reproducibility seems clear, meaning the rainfall seems to have spared many layers from merging and melting. A complete measurement of at least one of the cores is expected to wrap up by Christmas.

“We’re very pleased with what we have seen so far in these records, Thompson said. “For a time I was thinking, ‘We’re too late,’ but we’ve now done an isotopic overview of two of the cores, and the reproducibility was amazing.”

Thompson will return to Indonesia to present the results in 2011, as well as hold a workshop for local scientists and the public. After that, it’s on to another remote peak in an effort to understand the past and future of local climate before such priceless records trickle away.

All photos courtesy of Scott Hanna and David Christenson of Freeport McMoRan.