Thin Ice Unlocking the Secrets of Climate in the World's Highest Mountains

Mark Bowen

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

496 Pages



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While mainstream science has focused on polar ice to find clues about climate change, Lonnie Thompson has been risking his career and life on the highest and most remote ice caps along the equator. In the process he has changed the science of climatology.  The idea guiding Thompson's research is deceptively simple: climate is about energy flow, and because the sun's heat enters the atmosphere at the lower latitudes of the tropics, it follows that the equator's mountain glaciers are the ideal place from which to map the course of climate change. Layers of snow that have been laid down year by year can be read like tree rings, providing detailed information about climate history reaching back 750,000 years. The trick is to come up with a safe and reliable method for retrieving and preserving ice cores while living and working for weeks, sometimes months, in what mountaineers call the "death zone," the environment above eighteen thousand feet. Thompson has done just that, and to gather significant data he has spent more time in the death zone than any man who has ever lived. As explorer and expedition leader, Lonnie Thompson occupies that narrow perch on adventure's summit alongside Ernest Shackleton.  Scientist and expert climber Mark Bowen joined Thompson's crew on several expeditions, including an eye-opening ascent in East Africa that revealed why the snows of Kilimanjaro will be gone in fifteen years. Bowen also includes an account of the dangerous Huascarán ascent where Thompson's discovery of an unknown type of glacial ice revealed how pieces of the global climate puzzle fit together. Bowen also ventures deep inside retreating glaciers from China and the Tibetan Plateau across South America's Andes and to Africa.


Praise for Thin Ice

"Bowen practices the kind of smell-the-sweat journalism familiar from the pages of Outside magazine and Men's Journal: If you don't risk your life, it's not worth writing about . . . His muscular approach gives punch and urgency to warnings about global warming."—The Washington Post Book World
"Thin Ice should correct the notion that climatologists are just number-crunching geeks . . . Bowen tells Krakaueresque tales of Thompson's trials, alternating with a meticulous history of the science. An occasionally hair-raising picture of an overlooked and surprisingly risky quest that will appeal to science buffs and armchair adventurers alike."—Mother Jones
"Amusing and entertaining . . . Thin Ice is at the same time a scientific biography, a fine introduction to the sciences of climate change and a vivid description of a geophysicist's work under most extreme conditions."—Nature
"Capturing the fanatical enduring love of a scientist for his work, wars and pettiness amongst terrestrial 'big-thinkers,' and heroic failures and success in the most forbidding and spectacular places on our planet, Thin Ice is more revealing than The Double Helix."—James E. Hansen, Director, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
"Superheroes, unconquerable courage, and towering intellect at deadly altitudes; it would be a great bigger-than-life novel—if it wasn't all true. A thrilling scientific adventure, Thin Ice just happens to be about an issue that stands poised to change the course of human history."—Carl Safina, author of Eye of the Albatross and Song for the Blue Ocean
"This is high adventure of every sort—up in the mountains, but also in the corridors of top-flight science. If you read it you will understand much of what you need to know about the century's most important story."—Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature
"Bowen is a science writer and climber. Lonnie Thompson is a climatologist from Ohio State University who spends much of his time studying remote ice caps along the equator to map the course of climate change. Bowen first joined Thompson on the summit of Nevado Sajama, the highest mountain in Bolivia. Sajama—21,500 feet high—is in what climbers call the 'death zone,' the environment above 18,000 feet. Bowen also joined Thompson for three weeks on Tanzania's Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. The 19,344-foot Kibo is the highest of three volcanoes there. Bowen describes the pain brought on climbing at that height, the equipment, the warm clothes and boots required to survive months in harsh conditions, and the equipment needed to perform research involved in ice core climatology. Bowen offers a detailed background of the science of climatology and Thompson's part in this scientific pursuit to comprehend the global climate system. Readers will be intrigued by the author's exceptional narrative and—at the same time—will be able to stay safe and warm."—Booklist
"This book will appeal to mountaineering and climatology buffs, but should be read by everyone concerned about the future of our planet."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



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Thin Ice
PART ITHE SAJAMA EXPEDITION1THE MOUNTAIN GODThe Aymara are descended from the Tiwanaku, a mysterious pre-Incan people who once ruled an empire encompassing most of present-day Chile, Peru, and Bolivia from a city on the shores of Lake Titicaca, an inland sea on the high Altiplano. Like their ancestors, many of today's Aymara revere the snow-covered mountains as gods, for they produce the rare trickles of water that make life possible in this inhospitable land. The Aymara believe water is to the land as blood is to the body--the sacred essence of life and fecundity--and that mountain
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