Glacier ice samples act as records of climate change’s impact on Earth

The impacts of a warming world and changing climate are more evident every day. Many of the Earth's tropical glaciers are in jeopardy because of human activity's effect on the atmosphere. William Brangham reports on a couple in Columbus, Ohio, who have dedicated their scientific careers to preserving and studying these crucial, endangered parts of the planet's ecosystem.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As negotiators at the climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, continue their work, the impacts of a warming world are more evident every day.

    Many of the Earth's glaciers are in jeopardy because of what humans have already put into the atmosphere.

    William Brangham brings us this profile of a couple in Columbus, Ohio, who have dedicated their scientific careers to preserving and studying these crucial, endangered parts of our planet's ecosystem.

  • William Brangham:

    This is one of the rarest, most unusual collections in the world, row upon row of long silver tubes full of ice.

    Where we're about to go, I got to dress like I'm ready for the Arctic.

    To see them requires some suiting up. Lonnie Thompson and his wife, Ellen Mosley-Thompson, created this archive here at The Ohio State University's Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center.

  • Lonnie Thompson, Paleoclimatologist, The Ohio State University:

    : We have a collection of ice cores from glaciers from all over the world. We have been fortunate to drill in 16 different countries, in addition to Antarctica and Greenland.

    And we keep this archive frozen at minus-30 degrees Fahrenheit.

  • William Brangham:

    You heard that right, minus-30. It's what's needed to preserve these cores, which have been drilled down into the world's glaciers. They come out as these cylindrical, layered records of the past.

  • Lonnie Thompson:

    This is what an ice core looks like. When it comes out of the drill, we put it in the plastic bag, we label it, so we know exactly where we are.

    This core goes back 13, 500 years.

  • William Brangham:

    So this is going backwards in time?

  • Lonnie Thompson:

    It is.

  • William Brangham:

    The Thompsons have been collecting and studying these cores since the 1970s. Lonnie works on the high tropical glaciers around the equator, while Ellen focuses on the polar regions.

    Did you and Lonnie intentionally divide up the world where you get the top and bottom, and he gets the middle?

  • Ellen Mosley-Thompson, Paleoclimatologist, The Ohio State University:

    We had a daughter at home. And his field seasons working in the low latitudes are June, July and August. If I'm working in Antarctica, I'm working December, January, February.

  • William Brangham:

    So you can co-parent.

  • Ellen Mosley-Thompson:

    (INAUDIBLE)

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    It's a division of labor and love that's worked well in their 50-year partnership, one that began at college in West Virginia.

  • Lonnie Thompson:

    And this is when Ellen and I got married.

  • William Brangham:

    Oh, my gosh, look at you two.

  • Lonnie Thompson:

    And we're just kids.

  • William Brangham:

    How old were you?

  • Ellen Mosley-Thompson:

    We were married in June, and I turned 23 in may and you were still 22.

  • Lonnie Thompson:

    I was just a baby. I was just a baby.

  • Ellen Mosley-Thompson:

    Well, I robbed the cradle, right?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • William Brangham:

    I wasn't that much older myself when I first met these two. That's me over 20 years ago, a young producer and brand-new father, 19,000 feet up on Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania filming with the Thompsons' colleagues who were studying those glaciers and their connection to climate change.

    From Africa to Antarctica to South America, the Thompsons' expeditions have taken them to some of the most extreme, remote locations on the planet. And they both admit, at first, they didn't set out to study climate change.

  • Lonnie Thompson:

    We started in the 1970s. In the 1970s, people were concerned about the Earth getting colder and going into another Ice Age.

  • William Brangham:

    And you thought, oh, this is a growth opportunity.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Lonnie Thompson:

    Yes, right. We had little idea what we were getting into. But the purpose was to go into places where we had no records.

  • Ellen Mosley-Thompson:

    It is a wonderful recorder. And the unique thing about it is, it keeps what it captures. And it's the only place that we have these records of the gaseous composition of the atmosphere.

  • Lonnie Thompson:

    And we can actually relate the records from Kilimanjaro or Huascaran or Quelccaya to the rise and fall of cultures. And climate has played a big role.

  • William Brangham:

    The Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru is one Lonnie has returned to over and over again.

    And it, like so many tropical glaciers on Earth, are disappearing right before our eyes. In some cases, this archive at The Ohio State University may be one of the last records of those glaciers left on Earth.

    Here's just one example. Twenty years ago, when I was on Kilimanjaro, I stood next to this glacier, the Furtwangler Glacier, where all these samples came from. Now, because of climate change, that glacier is gone. This is all that is left.

  • Lonnie Thompson:

    I have often thought that, if we had a glacier in Ohio that people would see every day and watch how it is behaving, we would have very few climate deniers.

  • William Brangham:

    Their latest drilling expedition was in 2019 to Huascaran in Peru, before the pandemic brought travel to a screeching halt. Some of the cores from that trip are now coming out of cold storage and being studied by French postdoctoral student Emilie Beaudon.

    She was in Peru when these cores were collected, and now she's taking samples to study what was captured inside that ice.

    Does it ever strike you when you're holding something like that to think, this is 6,000, 7,000 or older years ago, the atmosphere on Earth back then?

  • Emilie Beudon, The Ohio State University:

    Every single time I process a piece of ice, I connect with that thought. And it's mesmerizing. I really have to make sure I look at it.

    There are many things to see in ice. You could see, oh, it's just a piece of solid water. It makes you think also about your next research question.

  • William Brangham:

    Beaudon and her colleagues then melt down the samples and examine what was frozen inside centuries ago, dust, minerals, volcanic ash, even samples of our ancient atmospheres trapped inside tiny bubbles.

    The Thompsons' trips to collect these cores come with their own challenges, moving heavy drilling gear up and down a mountain at high altitude, keeping those cores frozen solid all the way back to Columbus, Ohio, even playing something of a cultural ambassador when under the threat of being shot with arrows.

  • Lonnie Thompson:

    Papua, Indonesia, New Guinea, what used to be New Guinea, and it's the only ice field between the Himalayas and the Andes.

    The Amungme tribe, you know, they attacked us while we were drilling, 150 of them. But we…

  • William Brangham:

    Literally attacked you?.

  • Lonnie Thompson:

    Yes.

  • Ellen Mosley-Thompson:

    Attempted to.

  • Lonnie Thompson:

    Attempted. We were drilling up to the clouds. I mean, this is the rainiest place on Earth.

  • William Brangham:

    Why were they so upset you were there?

  • Lonnie Thompson:

    In their religion, the arms and legs of their gods are the mountains and the valleys. The head of their god is the glacier. And, in their words, we were drilling into the skull of their god to steal their memories.

    And I told them, that is exactly what we're doing. And I said that the day will come very soon when the only memories of your god will be in the freezer at Ohio State University.

  • William Brangham:

    Its true. As soon as two years from now, that very glacier will likely be gone. Satellite images show its rapid shrinkage over the last 30 years.

    For the Thompsons, the ultimate challenge is getting the world to recognize the very real impact humans are having on the planet.

  • Lonnie Thompson:

    Climate change is no longer in the future. It's here now.

    But I take hope in the fact that we do change, and we can change, and we can change on a dime. You can look at our history. I mean, we have gone through energy transformations. I mean, we didn't leave the Stone Age because we ran out of stones. We found a better way to do it.

  • Ellen Mosley-Thompson:

    You know, on the back end, BP and Exxon are working on renewable energies, but they're not going to give up on the big fat cow that they have got right now.

    And so it's going to take time. And it's going to take the political will. And people will have to change, because Mother Nature isn't going to change.

  • William Brangham:

    The Thompsons hope to keep their work going for years to come. Their next drilling operation is already planned. And to keep climbing those high peaks, Lonnie got a heart transplant.

    Now it's the freezer's turn. They say they need a bigger and newer one to preserve all those ice cores and the many discoveries still frozen inside them.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham in Columbus, Ohio.

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