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Gripping Tales, Scary Science

The adventures of a climate change pioneer.

In 2001, Lonnie Thompson predicted that the snows of Mount Kilimanjaro would be gone within 20 years and said “little can be done to save them.” A leading expert on global climate change, Thompson helped pioneer the study of the ancient layers of ice in tropical glaciers. By examining air bubbles trapped in the ice, Thompson and his team estimate the atmospheric and climatic conditions when the ice formed. He is believed to have spent more time above 18,000 feet than any human being – and for part of that time, Mark Bowen ‘80, PhD ‘85, was alongside him.

A physicist by education, climber by hobby, and author of Thin Ice: Unlocking the Secrets of Climate in the World’s Highest Mountains, Bowen met Thompson in 1997 on top of Nevado Sajama, Bolivia’s highest mountain. Thompson and his crew were drilling ice cores, which they planned to airlift from the mountain via hot-air balloon; Bowen had been sent by a magazine to write about the team after the original writer had abruptly (and perhaps wisely, Bowen notes) opted out.

Thin Ice recounts the engaging and until now untold story of Lonnie Thompson’s 30-year career. The book is peppered with vivid and often amusing (in hindsight) climbing stories that Thompson himself is reluctant to tell. Bowen describes the almost unbelievable conditions that the scientists endure – viciously high altitudes, shockingly low temperatures, and shoddy or faulty or plain bizarre transportation (decrepit cars, hot-air balloons, -Mongolian horses) – to retrieve samples of ice, which must get to Thompson’s lab before they melt.

But Bowen’s most compelling story is that of climate change itself. His deft explanations of the science behind such things as the ice ages, the greenhouse effect, monsoons in India, and irrigation methods in ancient Bolivia provide a thorough history of climate change and its impact on humanity and send a sobering message about the future. “Unfortunately, in a scary way, the science is incredibly interesting,” he said in an interview. “Being a climber, I’m particularly clued in to what goes on in the mountain world. But it’s only been in the last two or three years that we’ve crossed a threshold that has become obvious.” Those who will pay early and dearly for climate change are the hundreds of millions of people – particularly in western America and Asia – who depend on glacial runoff for water.

Climate change is an enormous issue, but in Thin Ice, Bowen kept a steady focus: “I stuck to science, I stuck to Lonnie, and I didn’t talk a whole lot about solutions.”

Recent Books
From the MIT community

Future Hype: The Myths of Technology Change
By Bob Seidensticker ‘80
Berrett-Koehler, 2006, $15.95

Baseball Hacks: Tips and Tools for Analyzing and Winning with Statistics
By Joseph Adler ‘97, SM ‘97
O’Reilly, 2006, $24.99

America Starts Here: Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler
Edited by Ian Berry and Bill Arning, curator of MIT’s List Visual Arts Center
MIT Press, 2006, $45.00

Coherence in Natural Language: Data Structures and Applications
By Florian Wolf and Edward -Gibson, professor of cognitive science
MIT Press, 2006, $36.00

Leakage in Nanometer CMOS Technologies
By Siva G. Narendra, PhD ‘02, and Anantha Chandrakasan, professor of electrical engineering
Springer, 2005, $99.00

Primacy and Its Discontents: American Power and International Stability
Edited by Michael E. Brown, Sean M. Lynn-Jones, Steven E. Miller, and Owen R. Cote Jr., associate director of MIT’s Security Studies Program
MIT Press, 2006, $27.00

Harold Pinter’s Politics: A Silence beyond Echo
By Charles Grimes ‘85
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005, $49.50

Please submit titles of books and papers published in 2005 and 2006 to be considered for this column.

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