Some folks read tea leaves or study the stars, others turn to predictions written in ancient texts. Scientist Lonnie Thompson, however, knows that many secrets to our climate future are in the ice. And not just any ice, but some of the oldest, most remote and most dangerous ice in the world—much of it sitting at elevations exceeding 3.5 miles above sea level.
Paleoclimatology is the scientific evaluation of climate conditions during past geologic ages. It’s been Thompson’s area of study since 1974, when he fell in love with frozen climate histories on a research assignment in Antarctica. While there, Thompson learned that extracted ice cores contain evidence of flora and fauna, atmospheric chemicals including greenhouse gases, desert dust, volcanic ash, even viruses and bacteria—all of which can help scientists recreate an idea of the meteorological conditions and patterns in the region and, from these, possibly predict its future.
“I was absolutely convinced there was history in these tropical mountaintop glaciers that no one was looking at,” Thompson, an REI Co-op Member, told Uncommon Path in 2020. “We just had to develop the technology to work at these high-elevation, remote places and then keep the ice frozen until we got back to the freezers.”
Skeptical colleagues told him it was impossible—the heights were too high, the technology wasn’t robust enough, the ice would melt too quickly to be studied—but the naysaying only added flint to his fire. It took Thompson eight years to figure it out, but he’s since led 65 expeditions investigating core drilled from tropical and subtropical ice fields in more than 16 countries using lightweight and sometimes solar-powered drilling equipment. These ice cores offer insight into how the environment adapts to natural phenomena like rising temperatures, drought, soil acidification, earthquakes and more.
Throughout his five-decade career, Thompson has sought to better understand global climate change by drilling deep into ice on peaks like Mount Kilimanjaro (19,340 feet) and Peru’s Mount Huascarán (22,204 feet). These heights are challenging for even experienced mountaineers, and when Thompson began working as a paleoclimatologist, he hadn’t considered scaling a mountain. Now, it’s likely that he’s spent more time at or above 18,000 feet than any other person, living or dead.
As he’s aged, health has been an increasing concern for Thompson, who is now 75 years old. On a 2009 expedition at 20,000 feet in Peru, he awoke to swelling in his lower extremities that was severe enough to force him to seek medical attention. Upon his return home, he learned he needed a heart transplant; the operation was successful in 2012, and if it slowed him down at all, it’s hard to tell. In 2015, Thompson and his team drilled ice cores at 22,000 feet in Tibet, and he set a world record for the highest elevation gained by a cardiac transplant recipient.
No one knows the race against time—and rising temperatures—like Thompson, who has seen the ice caps melting firsthand. In the new documentary film Canary, co-produced by REI Co-op Studios, we follow Thompson into harsh terrain and face hard, but not hopeless, facts about climate change.
Danny O’Malley – Director, writer
Alex Rivest, PhD – Director
Devin Whetstone – Cinematographer
Paul Doucette – Music
Jeff Russo – Music
Lee Lustig – Editor
J. Santos – Editor
Featuring Lonnie Thompson, PhD