Ten breaths. Ten steps. Ten breaths. Ten steps. In tortured fashion, I struggled to follow Ohio State glaciologist Lonnie Thompson up the steep, scree-strewn slopes of Naimona’nyi, a brooding massif that rises 25,242 ft. in the far corner of southwestern Tibet.

By this time, Thompson himself was no longer in sight, having vanished over a seemingly infinite series of ridges. With a twinge of envy, I remembered how he had set off with big, loping strides. “It’ll be a walk in the park,” he’d shouted.

Thompson was, I knew, joking. Six years earlier I’d gone with him on another expedition, to the 18,700 ft. Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru, and hauling my body up its smooth, glossy dome had tested the limits of my physical endurance.

And, yet, that ordeal had proved well worth it, for it was during dinner conversations with Thompson, in a kitchen built of boulders enclosed by a bright blue tarp, that pivotal chapters of the book I was then writing – El Niño: Unlocking the Secrets of the Master Weather-Maker – took shape.

Going with Thompson to Tibet, I was equally sure, would return a similar journalistic dividend, as, ultimately, it did when, in July 2007, Smithsonian Magazine published the article written by me, and photographed by my husband, “Chronicling the Ice.”

But for a very long time “Chronicling the Ice” seemed to be a story that would never be. The reason: to get to Lhasa, the launch pad for the expedition, we first had to obtain journalists’ visas, a feat that, for a very long time, seemed next to impossible.

Ultimately we succeeded in breaking through the bureaucratic obstacles the Chinese authorities in Tibet put in our way (though it took us more than two years, a test of my patience and that of my editors). And then the real series of tests began. By the time I returned from Tibet, I was lighter (by about 12 pounds), and I’d had to own up to the fact that I didn’t have sufficient strength to risk going all the way up to the 20,000 ft. drill camp.

As my photographer husband and I debated the pros and cons of trying to go higher, I recalled, with some amusement, Thompson’s take on the sporting side of mountaineering. “I don’t understand why anyone would want to climb a mountain just for fun!”

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Nash interviews Thompson in Saga, Tibet, while research vehicles gas up at only service station for hundreds of miles. ©Thomas Nash 2007

I became aware of Thompson around 10 years ago. I was just setting out to cover the 1997-98 El Niño for Time, and I’d become aware of the efforts by paleoclimatologists to reconstruct a lengthy portrait of this fascinating climate cycle from records encoded by the annual growth rings in trees, in corals, and – I was surprised to learn – in ice.

My timing has always seemed to me inspired. I first caught Thompson by telephone in between two major expeditions. He’d just returned from Sajama, a 21,464-ft. dormant volcano in Bolivia, and he was about to leave for Xixibangma, which towers 26,293-ft above the Tibetan Plateau. As he regaled me with stories from his adventures in the field, I remember saying something pedestrian like, “Wow, that sounds really interesting.”

It was then, I believe, that the idea I might tag along on one of Thompson’s future expeditions was born.

Over the next couple of years, I continued to talk to Thompson off and on. His work got a mention in the cover-length story about El Niño I wrote for Time in February of 1998. But a year later, in August of 1999, it merited a story all its own, and in March of 2001, seven months after I went to Quelccaya with Thompson, I wrote an article about him that appeared in Time‘s “America’s Best” issue.

After that, the floodgates opened. Not just Science and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences but also Rolling Stone and The Washington Post have all run lengthy articles. In addition, Thompson has been the subject of a well-researched biography, Thin Ice by Mark Bowen, and his work has been featured on TV news programs and in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

What is it, one might ask, that makes Thompson and his work so compelling?

There are many answers to this question, the first being that Thompson’s personal story has an almost irresistible David v. Goliath theme. A quarter century ago, he was the young upstart who went against prevailing wisdom and proved that ice cores from high mountains in the tropics contained climate records worth retrieving.

Then, too, there’s the heroic side to what he has done, crossing crevasses on rickety wooden ladders and riding horseback, for several days straight, through bitter snow and rain. And Thompson’s done all that even though his physical condition is far from perfect: around 15 years ago he was diagnosed with chronic asthma. He now carries an inhaler wherever he goes.

But, in the end, that’s just color (journalist-speak for interesting but inconsequential details) and not what really matters.

What matters is that the ice cores Thompson and his colleagues have carried down from great heights are unique in the world. What matters is that these cores have produced lengthy and provocative records of the climate swings that, on different continents, and in different ways, have unhinged human societies.

I think about these records often, particularly when I hear people say, as they sometimes do, that climate change is natural, that it’s happened before and therefore should not overly concern us.

But what really matters is the perspective Thompson offers on glaciers and ice fields as barometers of climate change in the here and now. It’s this perspective, I think, that gives his work contemporary resonance. That the resonance is accidental gives it even more power, for Thompson did not set out to document the problem of climate change as exacerbated by greenhouse gases but stumbled across it.

Years before Greenland’s and West Antarctica’s ice began to show disturbing signs of instability, the high elevation ice fields Thompson studies in the tropics and near tropics were starting to dwindle away. Early on, he compared them to the canaries that once warned coal miners of the build-up of toxic gases. And today, with the loss of ice accelerating on a global scale, the simile Thompson chose so long ago seems almost eerily prescient.

(Smithsonian‘s website has an interview with the Madeleine and Tom Nash about the July Smithsonian article.)

Also see A Leading Scientist’s Perspective The Scientist/Journalist Experience On Remote Mountain Research Expeditions By Lonnie Thompson


J. Madeleine Nash is the former senior science correspondent for Time Magazine.