News from the Columbia Climate School

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Moving Up a Melting Mountain

Four days ago, we flew into the lowland Papuan city of Timika, then moved up to Tembagapura, a town managed by the Freeport-McMoRan company, whose gold/copper mine near our glaciers is lending us logistical support. Tembagapura, at 1,900 meters (6,000 feet), was our first step in acclimatizing to high elevation. Now we have moved up near the mine itself–3,600 meters—and continue to adjust to the thin air. Soon, we will go to base camp, at 4,400 meters; then to our drill camp, at 4,800 meters, or 16,000 feet.

Since arriving, I have been able to fly over the Puncak Jaya icefields twice by helicopter, and I am amazed at the ice loss since last year, when I first visited. From personal experience and all the photos I have seen since the 1930s, I have never seen these ice fields in such a state of ablation—that is, shrinking. Yesterday, part of our team made a trip to four drill sites we have selected, and took the pictures you see here. My best estimate is that the ice is now only 30 meters thick and probably shrinking from the top down. But while the glacier is ablating at the very highest reaches, we are encouraged by the layers that you can see in the photos, which show that the ice’s stratigraphy is preserved. We are also encouraged by the fact that insect parts were found on the glacier, as well as whole insect bodies; this bodes well for potential carbon-14 dating of the ice cores. We will know more when we actually start working.

As for logistics, our equipment is on its way from Jakarta via Timika, then up here via truck; it seems this could take another 5 or 6 days. If the weather cooperates, it will then go to the site by helicopter. To preserve our cores, we purchased three freezers in Jakarta; wooden frames are now being constructed so the helicopter can transport these by sling. The cores will be stored in the freezers at the drill site until they can be slung back down to freezers at Tembagapura, where all the cores will be stored  until the project is completed. The cores will then likely be freezer-trucked to the Timika airport, loaded on an Airfast plane to Jakarta and kept in a freezer there until they clear customs for their final destination: our core storage facility in Columbus, Ohio.

That is where we are now, in this city the clouds, where fog and rain rolls in by 10am and does not let up until after midnight. However, we are receiving great support from Freeport and expect to get the real work underway shortly.

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Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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