How did you happen to take part in scientific expeditions in extreme environments?
I vividly remember the first time that I saw a mountain over 6000 meters in elevation. I was invited to be a member of a mountaineering expedition in Perù, and when we first arrived, I was scanning the horizon for the mountains that we were going to climb. I was used to 4000 m mountains in Colorado, and so I immediately began looking at a certain altitude. I had to keep looking higher and higher, and when I eventually saw the summit I mumbled something along the lines of, “We are going to climb THAT?!”. The immensity of the mountains and glaciers give an impression of a very permanent presence.
Immediately after this climbing trip, I lived in Bolivia for over 2 years while working for an NGO. I soon realized that these huge Andean glaciers are far from permanent and are rapidly retreating. Visible glacier retreat has occurred within people’s lifetimes. One example is Chacaltaya, which used to be the world’s highest ski resort until the glacier completely disappeared in 2009. Glaciers store freshwater, and as they melt, this freshwater eventually makes its way to the ocean and is no longer usable for essential activities such as drinking and agriculture. I realized that I wanted to learn more about glaciers and climate in the past, and how current climate change can affect people’s lives. I began to study ice cores in graduate school and in my current job as a research scientist.
Which is your scientific interest for these places?
I research the effects of fires on changing climate. Natural and human-caused fires (such as cooking or heating fires) currently add greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that total up to 50% of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels such as oil and gas. Greenhouse gases are responsible for most of the recent atmospheric warming, and therefore fires may also affect climate. Ice cores, including cores from the Ortles project, record past fire activity, atmospheric chemistry, temperature and precipitation. We are able to bring all of this information together to better understand how climate naturally varied in the past and to investigate if humans have impacted the climate at a certain location.
Taking part in an expedition like the one of the Ortles project should be very demanding. How did you go through this experience?
We were very lucky in this expedition that there was a wonderful team of people who helped with many aspects of daily life such as cooking meals and ensuring the safety of the group. This support is quite a luxury in an expedition such as the Ortles project. Nothing helps keep the morale of a group up like coming in to a warm tent at the end of the day and knowing that there is a meal waiting for you.
We were also lucky to have been on the summit of Ortles during a period of very stable and relatively warm weather. Sometimes up to 80% of an expedition can be spent digging out of snow that threatens to bury tents or ensuring that tents do not fly away in high winds. We take advantage of good weather by working the longest possible hours that we can, and on this trip the uninterrupted stretch of 12 to 16-hour working days was perhaps the most tiring aspect.
Would you mind listing differences and equalities of the Ortles expedition compared with those that you have already done?
A new experience for me with the Ortles project is that the site is in a relatively populated location. I am fortunate in that I have been able to conduct ice core research in the field in Antarctica, Greenland, Tibet, and Perù before coming to Ortles. These locations are remote; in the case of Greenland we were only a group of five people on the middle of the ice sheet, and in the case of Tibet, it took nearly a month to transport and carry all of our materials to the summit. Ortles’ location allowed many passing mountaineers to visit our drill site on their way down from the summit. We constantly had an influx of new people who were curious about our work.
The available infrastructure allowed us to use helicopters to transport ourselves and all of our equipment from Franzenshöhe (the cozy hotel located at the base of the mountain which helped with many of our logistics) to the summit. After we had completed our weeks of work on the summit, we descended back from glacial conditions to a warm autumn day near Franzenshöhe in three minutes. It was a pleasant shock to suddenly be surrounded by green growing things after weeks of white.
Did you have particular satisfactions or regrets with this expedition?
We had two essentially magical days of drilling where everything exceeded expectations. Much of the Ortles glacier is water saturated which causes challenges for drilling as each time that you extract a meter of ice, you are also essentially pulling large volumes of water to the surface. The third ice core that drilled was strategically located close to a crevasse, with the net result that most of the unwanted water was drained away from the drill site. When we drilled the third ice core, the relatively dry conditions allowed us to drill and process over 70 meters of ice core in a day and a half. One of my jobs is to package and prepare the cores for a stable storage, and such a pace meant that I was running in order to keep up with the speed of the drill. We were able to get cm-size pieces of bedrock, which means that we were able to hold pieces of ground in our hand that had likely been covered by ice for thousands of years.