Ellen Mosley-Thompson and Lonnie Thompson have dedicated their lives to demonstrating, through the drilling of great glaciers, that the speed of current human-induced climate change is unprecedented. And, for this very reason, the pair of American paleoclimatologists was awarded this Wednesday with the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge award in the climate change category. The jury has recognized the Thompsons’ contribution to “past and present knowledge and understanding of climate change through their persistent dedication to core ice research on high mountain glaciers, which are rapidly disappearing in the tropics and mid-latitudes ”.
The cores are cylindrical ice samples from whose drilling and extraction samples are obtained that glaciologists have been collecting for decades to build an extensive library of the climate of the past. His analysis of the air trapped in the depths of the planet’s ice, both in polar regions and in high mountain glaciers, documents, according to the jury, “tropical climate variability and its impacts on ecosystems and societies.” This record, which allows going back to 800,000 years ago – samples obtained in Antarctica in 3,200 meter perforations – and, in high mountain glaciers, up to 20,000 years ago, confirms that the current atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are unprecedented. .
“Glaciers are the Earth’s early warning system,” Lonnie Thompson assured EL PAÍS. “The retreat of the smallest and warmest mountain glaciers are the first indicators of a warming planet. Yet now, even the huge Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are warming and melting at the margins. Glaciers are simply water frozen on land, and when they melt, the water enters the world’s oceans, contributing significantly to the current acceleration of sea level rise ”.
José Manuel Gutiérrez, director of the Institute of Physics of Cantabria and member of the jury, explains that the long time series obtained by the Thompsons, “including tropical and mid-latitude areas in which there were not such long records,” show that ” the current change is unprecedented and characterized by its speed ”. In addition, he clarifies that “it does not have a natural cause but is due to the action of human beings. The most evident proof of this change is that, in fact, the glaciers in which they have worked in the last four decades are disappearing and, therefore, if it were not for their work, we would not have had that information ”.
Pioneers in high mountain icy masses
Professors at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center (BPRC), Ohio State University (USA), the Thompsons are pioneers in the investigation of the frozen masses in high mountains, whose access requires complex expeditions. According to the oceanographer Carlos Duarte, secretary of the jury, these are “enormously valuable”, because they are the only detailed climatic record that allows us to relate the variations in climate with the rise and fall of ancient civilizations such as the Inca, among others. In addition, along with air bubbles, pollen and other impurities have been trapped in the ice that inform the evolution of ecosystems such as the Amazon rainforest and the duration of El Niño and La Niña ocean currents, phenomena of great weight in the climate system.
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Ellen Mosley-Thompson and Lonnie G. Thompson, both 73, met in 1969 at a Christmas party at the Geology department of Marshall University, Virginia, where they were both studying – she was the second female student physics at that university. They got married after finishing school. The organization of their careers, she especially concentrated in the poles and he in high mountain glaciers, also had to do with family conciliation: the absences of both could last for months, but they did not overlap, so that one could take care of of the daughter of both.
In the past four decades, she has led nine expeditions to Antarctica and six to Greenland. He has led fifty expeditions to high mountain glaciers in the Himalayas, Kilimanjaro and the Andes. One of the most recent took place in 2019, at Huascarán, one of the highest peaks in the Peruvian Andes; Despite the extreme high mountain conditions, with perpetual snow and lack of oxygen, they extracted a 471 meter ice core.
“We have had big surprises since we started our research program. In fact, if you think about it, if you drill ice cores from places where no one else has drilled, you will almost certainly find something new and exciting, “says Lonnie Thompson, who states that when they began their expeditions,” climate change was not a concern. ”.
Today, he assures that “probably the most significant finding after having recovered ice cores from 16 countries in addition to Antarctica and Greenland is the speed with which ice is being lost around the world and the role it is playing in the increase global sea level. The Thompson expeditions have verified, for example, a dramatic retreat of up to 93% in glaciers in New Guinea, in a period of 39 years (1980-2018), 71% in Kilimanjaro (1987-2018), and 46% in the Peruvian Quelccaya glacier (1976-2020).
The retreat in glaciers around the world has been certified by the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in August 2021. According to satellite images, they would have lost more mass between 2010 and 2019 than in the decades since that there are records. It is estimated that, depending on greenhouse gas emissions, the loss of mass from glaciers in the 21st century would range between 18% and 36%. The greatest losses have been recorded in the Andes, Central Europe, Alaska and Iceland.
This problem has consequences on local populations, according to the Thompson’s research, as it would imply a shortage of water, with the consequent impact on the supply of food, drinking water and hydroelectric energy. Additionally, Lonnie Thompson is concerned “how this is going to impact sea level rise on a global scale.” “Today, not only are the glaciers in the mountains retreating, but the ice in Greenland and Antarctica. The glaciers are telling us that the temperatures are increasing and the sea level will continue to rise ”. Inevitably, this “is going to displace a lot of people.” However, Thompson wonders: “If we do not manage immigration well today in our world today, how will we deal with the displacement of millions of people?”
Political inaction in the face of the great challenge of our time
For the award-winning scientist, what the ice cores have revealed about the impact of changes in the climate of the past, contains important lessons: “Today climate change is global. All regions of the planet are going to suffer its impact ”. Thompson believes that there is still an alarming distance between the severity of climate change that science warns about, and political inaction on an international scale in the face of this great challenge of our time: “We need leaders who work for the interests of the people, but, sadly, there are many economic interests that are embedded in political systems around the world. That is why it is important to convey the message that climate change will impact us all, our economies, in a very negative way ”.
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