Harvesting Indonesian Ice
Ice can exist on the equator, so long as it's at a high elevation. The Indonesian mountain ridge, which rises to 16,000 feet on the island of New Guinea, supports the presence of such an ice field. According to a study by researchers from Ohio State University, that tropical ice field can disappear within a few years. Their studies also offer clues of the El Nino weather phenomenon that dominates climate variability in the tropics.
The research team was also aided by the Freeport-McMoRan mining company, Indonesian government agencies, and Columbia University. The work involved drilling three ice cores, two of which went all the way to bedrock. The longest ice core was 32 meters long (105 feet). These cores are much smaller than those drilled in Greenland or Antarctic ice which can be as long as 1.5 miles! This is because the ice fields in Indonesia are much smaller and are rapidly shrinking. They cover an area of less than one square mile.
This is similar to other equatorial ice fields such as those in the Peruvian Andes and Mount Kilimanjaro of Africa. However, according to senior Ohio State glaciologist, Lonnie Thompson, even a small ice core can yield an extraordinary amount of information. For example, Thompson drilled out a 50 meter ice core from Mount Kilimanjaro which contained 11,700 years of climate history.
The main purpose of the scientific expedition was to better understand the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) which occurs in the tropical Pacific Ocean. El Nino climate pattern that cycles every five years on average. It is characterized by variations in ocean surface temperature. El Nino represents a warming of surface temperatures, and La Nino stands for a cooling of temperatures. This weather phenomenon can cause extreme weather in many regions of the world. Due to its complicated nature, it is still not fully comprehended.
The researchers believe that information from ice cores will offer new insight to better understand El Nino. Last year, Thompson's team drilled ice cores in the Peruvian Andes which yielded 500 years of climate history. This complements a previous ice core from that region which yielded a 19,000 year-record. The recent ice cores drilled in Indonesia are from the opposite side of the Pacific, almost exactly due west.
The Indonesian ice expedition was a harrowing adventure, and came close to complete disaster several times. First of all, the site is extremely remote. The weather was treacherous, with constant rain storms and exposure to lightning strikes. The ice core drills were missing from the equipment delivered to the site, only to be found later in a warehouse in Jakarta. Then near the end, native tribe members attempted (unsuccessfully) to steal the ice cores from the freezer facility. The local tribes' religion states that they are one with nature, and by extension, the ice. If the ice were to disappear, then part of their soul would be lost.
In the end, the researchers negotiated with the natives who allowed them to take the ice back to Ohio. They explained that the ice cores were important for studying climate patterns and global warming which threatened their mountain ice. Now, the cores are held safely at the University of Ohio and are being studied for clues. Hopefully, the results will be worthy of the expense and hardships involved in producing them!
For more news on the Ohio State University expedition: http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/puncakjaya.htm