Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Past, Present, and Future of Glacier Archives from the World's Highest Mountains 1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Past, Present, and Future of Glacier Archives from the World's Highest Mountains 1

Article excerpt

Introduction

The ice core paleoclimate research program at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center (BPCRC), formerly the Institute of Polar Studies, of The Ohio State University (OSU) began in 1974 as an outgrowth of the U.S. polar ice core drilling initiative. The first tropical ice cap drilled to bedrock was Quelccaya in the Andes of southern Peru. This ice core yielded a 1,500-year record of regional climatic and environmental variations and provided the first evidence of the occurrence of the Little Ice Age in the Southern Hemisphere Tropics. The innovative lightweight, solar-powered drilling system developed specifically to drill Quelccaya was instrumental in showing the way for continued drill development, which led to subsequent drilling projects on high-altitude glaciers in the central Andes, the Tibetan Plateau, the Alps, southeastern Alaska, tropical East Africa, and the mountains of Papua, Indonesia. Most of the resulting ice core records extend back many millennia, and several extend back into or through the last glacial cycle. The oldest of these records (>100 ky) is from the Guliya ice cap on the far western Tibetan Plateau, which was drilled in 1992 and again in 2015 with the anticipation of extending its time scale further. Examination of ice core-derived climate records from opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean resulted in the discovery of large-scale teleconnections between the Andes and the Himalaya through processes involving the tropical Pacific atmosphere and sea surface temperatures. However, these high-altitude tropical glaciers and ice caps are under threat from the warming that has progressed over the last several decades. Their loss will not only destroy the climate histories they contain, but will threaten the livelihood and even the lives of populations that rely on glacial-fed streams for agriculture, power generation, and municipal water supplies.

History of the Ice Core Drilling Program at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center

The U.S. ice core drilling program began in the polar regions shortly after the 1957-1958 International Geophysical Year (IGY), although joint European drilling programs had been ongoing in Antarctica. During and after the IGY, the United States, United Kingdom, Scandinavian nations, and former Soviet Union conducted numerous drilling projects in Greenland, Antarctica, and the Russian Arctic, which benefited from logistical support from American, European, and Soviet governmental organizations. In 1966, the first deep core to bedrock was completed at Camp Century, Greenland, and two years later an ice core was drilled to bedrock at Byrd Station, Antarctica. During this time, polar glaciology and climatology were rapidly developing disciplines and all the pioneers in these fields were in their prime. As a graduate student at OSU, I analyzed the mineral dust concentrations and morphologies from the Camp Century and Byrd cores and based a major part of my Ph.D. dissertation on the results. We all anticipated the data that would come from the new field of ice core paleoclimatology, and the excitement that came with the revelation of the records was infectious.

Despite this rapid development of ice core research, until the mid-1970s no one had considered drilling tropical mountain glaciers. Only in retrospect do we see the importance of a nexus of events that occurred in 1973. As a graduate student working with my advisor Colin Bull and early mentors like John Mercer, I was a member of a small group at the Institute of Polar Studies (IPS)2 at OSU who considered the possibility of connecting ice core records from Antarctica and Greenland with those from the lower latitudes. John Mercer had obtained aerial photos of glaciers during his previous position at the American Geographical Society, and among these were images of the Quelccaya ice cap in the southern Peruvian Andes. In 1974 the U.S. National Science Foundation provided a limited amount of funding3 for a reconnaissance of Quelccaya. …

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